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Loreta’s Civil War: A mild flirtation with this fair flower

June 4, 2016

KS17

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart will share edited excerpts from the extraordinary memoir of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who chronicled her adventures throughout the Civil War — either as herself, as a Confederate spy, or in disguise as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. She fought and led men in terrible battles, fell in love, bore and lost children, and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, ultimately fulfilling her childhood dream of a rich and adventurous life.

You can read the entire 1876 memoir online here. Learn more about Velazquez (and the incredible documentary film Maria Agui Carter made about her) here.

Part 8: Velazquez completes her disguise, doesn’t hesitate from flirting with farm girls, and rounds up men to form her Confederate battalion.

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I immediately proceeded to change my garments, and ere a great many minutes had elapsed, I was transformed into a man, so far as it was possible for clothing to transform me. When I was ready, I called my friend and asked his opinion of the figure I cut. He admitted that I was not a bad-looking specimen of a man, considering I had only been about five minutes, and thought that in time I should be able to do credit to the name I bore and the clothes I wore.

The only regret I had in making up my disguise was the necessity for parting with my long and luxuriant hair. This gave me a real pang but there was no help for it, and I submitted with as good a grace as I could muster, while my friend played the part of tonsorial artist with a pair of shears. He trimmed my hair tolerably close and said that it would answer until I could visit a barber’s shop with him and be initiated into some of the mysteries of such a peculiarly masculine place of resort. … [H]e made me promenade the room, practicing a masculine gait until I had acquired it tolerably well, and gave me a great number of very minute instructions about the proper manner of conducting myself so that my sex would not be suspected. He particularly enjoined me to watch his actions closely at the barber’s, in the drinking saloons, the billiard rooms, and the other places he intended conducting me to, for the purpose of informing me with regard to some masculine habits and ways of acting, talking, and thinking. …

Strolling down the street, we soon came to the hotel and entered the barroom, where my companion met a number of friends, to whom he introduced me as a young officer on his way to the seat of war. I was received with much cordiality, and the whole party speedily engaged in an animated conversation about the coming conflict. … The men all took whiskey straight but I did not venture on anything stronger than cider. Soon my companion managed to give me a quiet hint, and I treated the party to drinks and cigars. We then adjourned to the billiard-room, and my friend, taking off his coat, went at a game in good earnest with another member of the party. I had never seen the game of billiards played before, and I soon became intensely interested … pretending to smoke my cigar, the balls rolling over the table. As the weather was warm, I very soon, after entering the billiard-room, availed myself of what seemed to be the custom of the place, to take off my heavily padded coat, which began to be unbearable, and found myself much more at my ease sitting in my shirt sleeves. …

The next day I completed my outfit by purchasing a pair of field glasses, a pair of blankets, a rubber overcoat, and a rubber blanket. On returning to my room I made out a form of attorney in my friend’s name and authorized him to attend to all my business matters for me. I also prepared a lot of recruiting papers on the model of some genuine ones I succeeded in getting hold of, and some muster rolls, and procured a manual of tactics, and before the day was over was pretty nearly ready to commence active operations.

My friend, thinking that my disguise could be somewhat improved and a more manly air given to my countenance, obtained a false mustache and a solution with which to stain my face in order to make it look tanned. I rubbed on the solution until my skin was about the right tint, and then my friend carefully fastened the mustache on my upper lip with glue. This was a very great improvement, and I scarcely knew myself when I looked in the glass, and laughed at the thought of what my husband would say when he saw me in this disguise. …

Everything was now in proper trim for me to commence operations in earnest; so, packing my trunk, rolling up my blankets in army style, as I had often seen soldiers do, preparing my papers, and getting ready a change of underwear, and other matters for immediate use in a small satchel, I was ready to start on my campaign with as stout a heart as ever beat in the breast of a soldier.

The plan of action I had fixed upon, after mature reflection, was to raise and equip a battalion at my own expense, taking care to select good material for it, and then to appear at the head of my little army before my husband, and to offer him the command. I pictured to myself again and again the look of astonishment he would put on when he recognized his wife as the leader of a gallant band who were pledged to fight to the death for the cause of Southern independence, and flattered myself with the idea that, so far from being inclined to censure me for my obstinate persistence in carrying out my idea of becoming a soldier, he would be disposed to praise without reservation, and so far from being ashamed of my action, would be proud of it. Whatever view of the matter he might take, however, he would be compelled to yield to my wishes, whether he desired to do so or not, and I would consequently be free to follow the bent of my inclinations without fear of further opposition on his part. My desire was to serve with him, if possible; but if this could not be done, I intended to play my part in the war in my own way, without his assistance. I, however, did not contemplate any further difficulty in obtaining his consent, and even his assistance, in the execution of my plans, and so started out on the war path with a light heart and with brilliant anticipations for the future.

I crossed over to Hopefield, on the Arkansas side of the river, and took the five o’clock train, not knowing exactly where I proposed to bring up. For a time I busied myself with the study of my Manual of Tactics, with the intention of becoming sufficiently posted on certain points to get my recruits into something like military training immediately. Having been the wife of an army officer for a number of years, and having seen some hard service on the frontier, I was, in a measure, pretty well qualified for the work I had now undertaken, especially as I had paid a good deal of attention to the details of military organizations, and had seen soldiers drilled hundreds of times. I had not been in the train very long, before, finding the conductor at leisure, I entered into conversation with him with a view of obtaining information that might be useful in the furtherance of my designs.

Explaining to this individual, who appeared to take the liveliest interest in my affairs, that I was on a recruiting expedition, I asked him if he could not suggest a good neighborhood for me to commence operations in. He said that Hurlburt Station was as likely a place as I could find to pick up a company of strong, hearty fellows who would do some good fighting, and advised me to try my luck there. Hurlburt, he told me, was not much of a place — a saw-mill, a country store, in which the post office was located, a schoolhouse, which was also used as a church, being pretty much all there was of it. …

The train sped through the swamps, and it was not a great while before we reached Hurlburt Station, where, in accordance with the conductor’s suggestion, I alighted. With my satchel in my hand, I made for the nearest house, and inquired of a negro, who was chopping wood, whether his master was at home. The darkey stared at me a bit, evidently attracted by something in my appearance, and then, grinning until he showed all his ivories, said that the old boss was away, but that the young boss was about somewhere. I accordingly told him to call the young boss; and soon up came a well-built, good-looking young fellow, whom I fixed upon immediately as a suitable recruit. …

I told him that I had the army regulations with me and would take pleasure in explaining them to him in the morning. I then asked him to give me some water so that I could clean myself up a bit before supper, as I was pretty well covered with dust and cinders after my ride. He accordingly got me a basin of water and then left me to go off and hunt the old man, full of eagerness to tell him of the arrival of the recruiting officer, and of his own desire to go soldiering.

The sudden intrusion of a gallant young officer, in a gay uniform, plentifully decorated with buttons and lace … made an even greater impression on the female than upon the male part of the family. My arrival had clearly created an intense excitement, and I understood very well that I was the subject of the whispered conversation that I heard going on outside. From the manner in which the old woman and her son had addressed me, I knew that they had no suspicions of my being other than what I seemed, but I judged that it would be necessary to be pretty careful how I carried myself before the former, for she was clearly a sharp one and would be quick to take note of any peculiarly feminine traits of manner I might display. I therefore determined to play the man right manfully, whether I thought myself observed or not; and this I found to be a very good rule to go by throughout the entire period during which I wore my disguise. …

The eldest of the two daughters was about sixteen and was attired in a bright, flaring yellow calico; the youngest was about twelve years of age and was somewhat less unbecomingly dressed in pink. Both of the girls had put on the best they had to do honor to the occasion, and the eldest, especially, so soon as her first bashfulness wore off, seemed very much disposed to attract the particular attention of the visitor by various little feminine artifices, which I understood very well, and which amused me immensely.

On entering the room, the old woman said, awkwardly waving her hands towards her daughters, “These is my gals, sir.”

I bowed in the politest manner, and said, with what I intended to be a particularly fascinating smile, “Good evening, ladies,” laying a particular emphasis on the word “ladies,” which had the desired effect, for both of the girls blushed deeper than ever, and the eldest simpered as if she heartily enjoyed it. … I started a talk with the old woman by remarking that it had been an exceedingly pleasant day. … After a few commonplaces of this kind about the weather and other matters of no particular moment, I thought I might as well proceed to business at once, for I expected that I would have some opposition from the old woman in my effort to enlist [her son]. So I said, “Madam, I am trying to enlist your son for a soldier in my company; don’t you think you can spare him?” She burst out crying, and exclaimed, “Oh, sir, I can’t let my boy go for a soldier and get killed.” The youngest girl, seeing her mother in tears, began to blubber a little also; but the eldest not only did not cry, but she looked at me in such a peculiar way that I was convinced she wished I would take her instead of [her brother].

The idea of having a mild little flirtation with this fair flower of the Arkansas forest rather grew upon me as I noticed the impression I was making upon her susceptible imagination. I had some curiosity to know how lovemaking went from the masculine standpoint and thought that the present would be a good opportunity to gain some valuable experience in that line; for it occurred to me that if I was to figure successful in the role of a dashing young Confederate officer, it would be necessary for me to learn how to make myself immensely agreeable to the ladies. I knew how to make myself agreeable to the men, or thought I did, and I could, if I chose, be agreeable to women in a feminine sort of fashion; but I had never studied the masculine carriage towards my sex critically with a view of imitating it, and it was important, therefore, that I should begin at once to do so, in order that when compelled to associate with women, as I assuredly would be to a greater or less extent, I might not belie my outward appearances by my conduct. I flatter myself that during the time I passed for a man I was tolerably successful with the women, and I had not a few curious and most amusing adventures, which gave me an insight into some of the peculiarities of feminine human nature which had not impressed themselves on my mind before, perhaps because I was a woman.

My flirtation with Miss Sadie Giles was not a very savage one, and I hope that it did not inflict more damage on her heart than it did on mine. It was immensely amusing to me while it lasted, and I presume, if not exactly amusing, it might at least be deemed entertaining to her. At any rate, I succeeded not only in having a little sly fun at her expense, but I picked up an idea or two that I subsequently found useful. Noticing that Miss Sadie was developing a marked partiality for me, but was much too bashful to give me any encouragement, except some shy glances out of the corners of her eyes, I commenced to ogle her, and, whenever I had an opportunity, to pay her some delicate attentions, for the purpose of making her think I was just a bit fascinated with her. It soon became very evident that the heart which beat under that yellow calico dress was in a great state of excitement, and Miss Sadie, while not encouraging me by any direct advances, made it very plainly understood that my little attentions were appreciated.

Supper was now announced, and we all sat down to a tolerably plentiful repast, the principal features of which were bacon, cabbage, and fried chickens — the latter having been prepared in my honor. Miss Sadie managed to place herself by my side, by a dexterous little maneuver which escaped the attention of the family but which I understood perfectly. I, for my part, strove to play the gallant by helping her bountifully to the bacon, cabbage, and chicken, and by endeavoring to induce her to join in the conversation. She undoubtedly appreciated my attentions at their full value, but was not sufficiently self-possessed to do much talking; indeed, during the supper I could scarcely get anything out of her except a timid “yes” or “no.”

[Her father], on the contrary, was very talkative, and plied me with all kinds of questions about myself, my errand, the war, and the prospect of a speedy accomplishment of Southern independence. I told him that my name was Buford, that I was a lieutenant in the army, and that I had been sent down to Arkansas for the purpose of recruiting a company for service in Virginia. He said that I would have no difficulty in getting all the recruits I wanted, as the young fellows in those parts were every one eager to have a dash at the Yankees, and promised to aid me in every way possible. …

Before the supper was over I had a terrible fright. … While drinking a glass of buttermilk, which I greatly enjoyed, for it was the best thing on the table, and was most refreshing, my mustache got full of the fluid, and when I attempted to wipe this ornament, which my Memphis friend had so carefully glued upon my upper lip, and which added so much to the manliness of my countenance, I fancied that it was loose and was about to fall off. Here was a terrible situation, and I cannot undertake to describe what I felt. To say that I was frightened scarcely gives an idea of the cold chills that ran down my back. The ridicule of my entertainers, and especially of Miss Sadie, was the least thing that I feared, and I would rather brave any number of perils at the cannon’s mouth than to repeat the emotions of that dreadful moment. Such a situation as this is ludicrous enough, but it was not a bit funny for me at that time, and I was on pins and needles until I could get away and take means to secure the mustache firmly on again. I managed, however, to keep a straight countenance and to join in the conversation with a tolerable degree of equanimity, keeping my hand up to my mouth all the time though, and doing my best to hold the mustache on. My fright, after all, was causeless, for on examination I found that the hair was too firmly glued to my lip to be easily removed; indeed, I subsequently discovered that it was practically impossible to move it without the aid of alcohol.

After supper, the old man and Frank went off to finish up their work before going to bed, and the women folks busied themselves in clearing the dishes. … I glanced over my shoulder, and seeing that Miss Sadie had finished her work and was apparently anxious to be better acquainted with me, I politely arose and offered her my raw-hide chair. This she blushingly declined but took a wooden stool, upon which she seated herself quite close to me. I could think of nothing so likely to loosen her tongue and make her properly sociable as a reference to religious matters; so I asked her if there were any churches in the neighborhood. She said that there was no regular church, but that on Sundays a preacher held forth in the schoolhouse. … The old man, I presume, was rather tired, and so, taking advantage of this change of subject in our conversation, he went to bed, and soon was snoring lustily. Finally, Miss Sadie got back to what was the subject uppermost in her thoughts and began questioning me about my own affairs, by asking if I had any brothers.

“Yes,” I replied, “One, older than myself, who is more fortunate, for he is married,” giving a look at her out of the corner of my eye, which I intended her to understand as an intimation that, although not married, I had no objections to being so if I could find a girl to suit me.

“You ought to be married, too,” said Miss Sadie, with a simper, and apparently appreciating this kind of conversation much better than the war talk the old man and I had been indulging in.

“How can I get married when none of the girls will have me?” I retorted. … The old woman thinking, I suppose, to flatter me, said, “A handsome young fellow like you, with, I dare say, a pretty fair education, needn’t be afraid of the gals not having you.”

At this point of the conversation the old man awoke, and sang out, “Don’t you women talk that man to death. Why don’t you git out and let him go to bed?” and then, pointing to a bed in the corner, he told me to turn in there when I felt like it. …

Here I was at the end of my first day’s experience in playing the part of a soldier, with every reason to believe that I had thus far played it most successfully, and that I had really made quite a brilliant start. … the susceptible heart of Miss Sadie was apparently touched in a way that it could never have been had the faintest suspicion of my not being a man crossed her mind. The old woman, too, who, in a matter of this kind, would be quite certain to be a more critical observer than the rest of the family, had no hesitation in believing me to be a gallant young soldier; so that, taking all things into consideration, I had reason to congratulate myself upon a brilliant opening to my campaign. …

[The next day, when] breakfast was over … I crossed over to the schoolhouse, where I found half a dozen rather rough fellows waiting to see me, all of whom expressed themselves as extremely anxious to enlist. One very hard-looking specimen, who could not even write his name, wanted very badly to be captain; indeed, they all were quite ambitious to be officers, and I had some difficulty in explaining to them, that in the army, in time of war, where actual fighting was being done, it was a very different thing holding the position of an officer, from what it was in the militia. I, however, encouraged them to believe that they all might be lieutenants, captains, and even generals, some day, if they fought bravely, and succeeded in creating such an enthusiasm among them over the prospect of a brush with the Yankees, to be followed by rapid promotion, that the whole party were soon ready to enlist on any terms I chose to suggest.

After talking the matter over with these men for some time, and explaining the situation in the best style I was able, I wrote out some bills calling for volunteers, one of which I posted on the school-house door. … During the day I read the army regulations at least a dozen times, and tried to make the men understand what they meant. This was not a very easy matter, but I succeeded in enrolling thirty-six, whom I ordered to report for roll call the next morning. This they did not much fancy; but on my stating that they were under oath and bound to obey, they yielded without making any trouble about it, but apparently with no great admiration for military discipline.

My quota was easily filled in four days, and I then proceeded to get my battalion organization complete and to make preparations for departure. Two of the most intelligent of the men I appointed subordinate officers, one sergeant and the other corporal, and gave them instructions about drilling the battalion and maintaining discipline in my absence. Everything now being in proper trim, I sent a messenger ahead to the friend in Memphis who had so efficiently aided my plans with instructions for him to engage transportation, and then getting my troops into marching order, off we started. …

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