The following article posted April 14 on the site Beyond the Mansion: News, History, and More from the Blount Mansion Association. It is reposted here with permission.
During the Civil War, Knoxville, TN was the host to a southern celebrity. Confederate spy Isabella “Belle” Boyd had relatives living here at Blount Mansion. Her aunt, Susan Boyd, the widow of the former mayor of Knoxville and local judge Samuel Boyd, was living in the house with her son Samuel and her daughter Sue. Sue and Belle were about the same age.
Belle had left Virginia on the advice of Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. She asked in a letter to him if it would be safe for her to return to her Virginia home to see her family. He advised against it and she left to come to Tennessee to stay with relatives in the Knoxville area, “in town and in the country” as she put it.
When she arrived in the city of Knoxville proper, her celebrity status had preceded her and she was sought out by a large crowd. Belle describes how she went to visit General J; most probably Joseph Johnston commander of the Army of Tennessee, whose headquarters was here in Knoxville at the time. It was during this visit that a large crowd and a Florida regimental band gathered to ask her to speak. Strangely, she was quite shy and asked General Johnston to speak for her. He did so, yet it did not satisfy the crowd. She describes very specifically stepping out of a window onto a balcony and addressing the crowd. After doing so they serenaded her with several songs, and then the crowd dispersed.
The next morning she describes the events being featured in the paper and how pleased she was to be referred to as the “Virginia Heroine” rather than as a “rebel spy”. It is then she says “I now became a guest of my relative Judge Samuel Boyd”, meaning she arrived at the Blount house on Hill Avenue.
Belle did live here for a number of months with the Boyds. Sue Boyd was around the same age as Belle and they became quite close while she was here. Writing in 1932, Sue Boyd fondly recalled the time she spent with Belle riding horses, going to parties and balls, and entertaining young officers and gentleman.
In the spring of 1863 Belle left Knoxville to continue her tour of the South with the intention of eventually returning to Virginia to be with her family there. So, even though she was not in Knoxville long, she made a big impression on the local people and left a mystery behind as well.
Local legend has always held that Belle gave her speech from the Blount Mansion. But there are some issues with that legend. Belle is very specific that she stepped out of a window onto a balcony to address the crowd. The problem is there has never been a balcony at Blount Mansion. There have been porches on both the front (Hill St) and back of the house at times but never anything that could be considered a balcony. Also there are no windows that would open in a way to allow you to step out onto a porch or a balcony. So what is going on with this story?
There are a few key details to consider. Joseph Johnston had his headquarters at Lamar House on Gay St. (This is the Bijou Theatre today.) If Belle was just arriving in Knoxville it is entirely possible, given the fact she was acquainted with Johnston, that she went to see him there, or was staying there as a guest. The front of Lamar House, facing Gay St, has a balcony one can walk out onto from large windows. As this photograph (below right) from after the war shows it was quite possible to stand and address a crowd from that balcony.
Also, if Belle was already staying with her Aunt and cousins at the Blount Mansion, why would she describe the night’s events and the morning’s paper and then describe arriving at the house?
It is hard to say whether or not we will be able to say 100% for certain that she was or was not here when she gave her speech, but given the available evidence it seems more likely that she was just up the street at Lamar House when she spoke briefly to the people of Knoxville.
Either way, Belle Boyd was a guest here at the Governor’s House during the winter and spring of 1862 and 1863. She is one more of the people who make Blount Mansion a fascinating historic site, and her story adds to the colorful drama which has played out inside of its walls since 1792.