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Loreta’s Civil War: Winning the fame I coveted

June 7, 2016

KS18

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 9: Velazquez surprises her husband with her presence, her disguise, and her soldiers. The joy created by their reunion, however, does not last long.

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I determined to march my men to the river, in order to break them in; but before we got to the landing, a good many of them were decidedly of the opinion that soldiering was much harder work than they had calculated upon. None of them showed any disposition to back out, however, and the majority, despite the fatigue of the march, were quite elated at the prospect before them of being able to see something of the world. I do not think any of them appreciated the real importance of what they were doing, and looked upon the whole affair much in the light of an excursion, which would be rather jolly than otherwise. Indeed, to tell the truth, I rather regarded the thing in that light myself, notwithstanding that I had seen enough of military life for me to understand something of its serious character.

At the landing I met my Memphis friend with my baggage and equipment and a tent, and with blankets and camp utensils for the use of the men. He also handed me a letter from my husband. This I eagerly read, and much to my disappointment, learned from it that he had gone to Pensacola. I determined, however, to push on and meet him there, for I was bent on carrying out my original idea of surprising him, and of offering him the command of my battalion. I accordingly embarked my men — two hundred and thirty-six in all — upon the steamer Ohio Belle, and issued to them blankets and other articles necessary for their comfort.

My plan now was to go down to New Orleans, where I should be able to procure such stores and equipment as were immediately needed and where I could perfect my disguise; for, not only did my padded coat not fit me as it ought, but it was almost unbearably warm, and I was anxious to substitute something more comfortable for the padding at the earliest possible moment. … On arriving at New Orleans, I landed my men a short distance above the city, and then, with as little delay as possible, purchased my quartermaster and commissary stores, and perfected my private outfit. … No finer body of men ever went out of New Orleans than the Arkansas Grays, as my battalion was called. As we passed through Mobile we were heartily cheered, the men waving their hats, and the women their handkerchiefs, and everybody commenting in the most laudatory terms upon our martial appearance, I cannot pretend to tell how proud I was, when I noted how much attention we were attracting; and if the shadow of a doubt as to the propriety of the course I was pursuing remained in any mind, it assuredly vanished as the cheers of the citizens of Mobile greeted my ears. I felt that, in spite of my being a woman, I was intended for a military leader, and I resolved, more firmly than ever, to let nothing stand in the way of my winning the fame I coveted.

At Pensacola we were received by my husband, who came to meet us in response to a telegraphic dispatch I had sent him, signed by my nom de guerre. He had not the slightest idea who I was, and would not have recognized me had I not revealed myself. So soon as I was able, however, after landing my men from the train, I took him aside where I could speak to him privately and disclosed my identity. He was intensely astonished and greatly grieved to see me come marching into Pensacola at the head of a body of men in such a guise, and said, that although I had done nobly, he would not for the world have had me attempt such a thing. I told him, however, that there was no use of discussing the matter, for was determined to be a soldier, and then placed in his hands the muster-rolls of my company to show him how well I could do what I undertook. He was proud of the ability I had displayed in carrying out my plans, and seeing the uselessness of further argument, took command of the men, and commenced putting them in training … while I was ordered back to New Orleans to purchase more stores and equipment.

I had scarcely arrived at my destination when I received a dispatch announcing the death of my husband and requesting my immediate return. Terribly shocked, and nearly wild with grief, I started for Pensacola again, and found, upon my arrival there, that, while drilling his men, my husband undertook to explain the use of the carbine to one of the sergeants, and the weapon exploded in his hands, killing him almost instantly.

I was now alone in the world, and more than ever disposed to take an active part in the war, if only for the purpose of revenging my husband’s death. Smothering my grief as much as possible, I turned over the command of my battalion to Lt. Thomas de Caulp, for the double reason that the men were only enlisted for three months and were to be stationed in Pensacola … and that I had resolved to go to the front in the character of an independent, with a view of leading a life of more stirring adventures than I probably should be able to do if permanently attached to a particular command.

During the brief time I had been in Pensacola I had formed the acquaintance of a number of officers who were going to the front, and, as they intended to leave for Richmond shortly, I concluded that it would be better to go in their company, especially as several of them were first-rate fellows, and one or two particular friends of my late husband. I also became acquainted with a good many ladies, one of whom, a dashing young widow, paid my masculine charms the compliment of falling desperately in love with them. This lady did not require any encouragement from me; but finding that, while polite to her, I was rather shy and reserved, and apparently insensible to her attractions, she made a dead set at me, and took pains to let me know, in terms that could not be misunderstood, the sentiments she felt for me.

I was really in no mood for nonsense of this kind, and, to tell the truth, I was not particularly pleased with the decidedly unfeminine advances that were made towards me. The necessity of playing the character I had assumed, however, in a successful manner, pressed upon me, and I felt that diversion of some kind was requisite to divert my mind from the sad and gloomy thoughts caused by my bereavement. I accordingly determined to meet my fair one half way, and paid her numerous attentions, such as taking her to the theater, and to drive upon the beach. I, however, resolutely refused to accept any of the numerous very broad hints she threw out, to the effect that a little more lovemaking would be more than agreeable, at which she seemed considerably surprised. Finding, at length, that I either could not or would not understand what she was driving at, she bluntly reproached me for not being more tender in my demonstrations towards her.

I put on the innocent air of a green schoolboy, perfectly non-plussed with the advances of a pretty woman, and assured her that I had never courted a lady in my life, and really did not know how to begin. The eagerness with which the widow undertook to instruct me was decidedly comical, and I learned more about some of the fine points of feminine human nature from her in a week than I had picked up for myself in twenty years. The courting was pretty much all on her side, and I really had not imagined before that it was possible for a lady to take such an important matter so entirely out of the gentleman’s hands. For the fun of the thing I pretended to soften to her, and by the time I was ready to start for Virginia, we were the best possible friends, and although I was careful to make no definite promises, the widow parted from me with the understanding that when the war was over we were to be something more than friends to each other. If I were a man, it would be absurd for me to tell all this, but being a woman, this and other of my love adventures have a comical interest for me, as I doubt not they will have for the reader. If they do not show some of the members of my own sex in the best possible light, it is their fault and not mine.

On the 16th of June I started for Virginia, in company with quite a jovial party of fellows. … They had a good deal of whiskey with them, and I was constantly importuned to drink, my declining to do so not having the best possible effect on some of them. The conversation became more and more profane and ribald, as the whiskey produced its natural effect; and being almost the only sober person in the party, I was not only intensely disgusted, but the warnings I had received from my husband came into my mind, and had a most depressing influence upon me. Much of the talk was mere meaningless blackguardism, and my ears were saluted for the first time with nastiness in the shape of language, such as it would have been impossible for me to have imagined the tongues of human beings to utter. It was an intense relief to me when, about four o’clock, the train arrived at Montgomery, [Alabama].

At the Exchange Hotel I met Mr. Leroy P. Walker, the secretary of war, with whom I had a very pleasant conversation about the prospects of the contest with the North, the political situation, and other matters of interest. The next day I bought a smart and mannerly negro boy, named Bob, of about eighteen years of age. I procured him a proper suit of clothes and a military cap, and then gave him charge of my baggage, with instructions to keep a sharp eye on my effects, to behave himself properly, and to come to me when he wanted spending money. Bob proved an excellent servant, taking care of my clothing in good style, and when we were in camp, attending to my two horses in a very satisfactory manner.

From Montgomery I went to Columbia, South Carolina, where I remained over for several days. During my stay in this place I formed the acquaintance of a very pleasant family, one of the young ladies of which. Miss Lou, seemed to be quite taken with me. I was invited to the house, and passed a number of agreeable hours there, and on parting, Miss Lou gave me her address, requesting me to write to her, and pinned a small C.S. flag on my coat.

On the train bound north, there was another quite jovial party, but, very much to my gratification, not so much addicted to whiskey-drinking, blasphemy, and obscenity, as that with which I had started out. A good deal of the conversation was about wives and sweethearts, and pictures of the loved ones at home were freely handed about. I was rallied rather severely because I could not show a photograph of my sweetheart, and some of the men intimated that I must be a poor kind of a man not to be able to find a girl to exchange photographs with me. I took the sharp things they thought fit to say of me in good part, and replied that I did not doubt of my ability to get a sweetheart soon enough when I wanted one.

Before the journey was ended, I had an opportunity to prove myself as good a lady’s man as the best of them, for at Lynchburg, where we were compelled to remain over all night, on taking the train for Richmond, an elderly gentleman stepped up, and after inquiring my destination, asked if 1 could take charge of some ladies. I replied that I would do so with pleasure; but was rather taken aback when I found myself placed in the position of escort to five women and two children. I could not imagine what induced the old gentleman to pick out a little fellow like me, when so many much larger, older, and more experienced officers were present, some of whom were greatly my superiors in rank. I was dreadfully embarrassed, but resolved to play the gallant to the best of my ability, although my heart was in my throat, and I could scarcely find voice to announce myself as Lieutenant Buford, when he inquired my name for the purpose of introducing me.

I was about to inquire whether the ladies had their tickets and checks, when the old gentleman presented them, very much to my satisfaction. Excusing myself for a few moments, I went to attend to checking my own baggage. …

We were soon under way, and had a pleasant enough ride, or at least it would have been pleasant enough had I not been tormented with the fear that they would penetrate my disguise, and discover that I was not what I pretended to be. No suspicions were excited, however, and we finally arrived at Richmond without anything having happened to mar the enjoyment of the journey. On alighting from the cars, I procured carriages to convey the several members of the party to their destination ; two of the ladies, however, accompanied me to the Ballard House, where I obtained rooms for them. The youngest of my newly-found female friends — a very pretty girl, who seemed to have taken quite a fancy to me — had the room adjoining mine, and I had scarcely established myself in my new quarters, when a waiter knocked at the door and handed me a card from her, asking me to escort her to supper. I laughed to myself at this, and fancying that I had succeeded in making another conquest, determined to get myself up in the best style I could, and to do credit to the uniform I wore by showing her that her appreciation was not misapplied. I dressed myself in my best apparel, and, after a visit to the barber’s, I was ready to play the gallant in the best possible manner.

It was all well enough while I was pacing the corridors of the hotel with mademoiselle on my arm, but I confess that my heart failed me when we entered the dining-room, and I fancied that everybody was looking at us. When the big steward, advancing towards us with his politest bow, said, “Lieutenant, step this way with your lady,” and then turning to one of the waiters, told him to attend to this gentleman and lady, it seemed to me as if every eye in the room was fixed on me. I was a rather conspicuous object, it is true, for my uniform, made of the best cloth, and trimmed with buttons and gold lace, was well calculated to attract attention, while the lady on my arm being rather taller than myself, made me even more an object for the curious to gaze at than if I had been alone. …

The young lady was nothing daunted by my silence and chattered away at a great rate on all imaginable subjects and finally succeeded in putting me somewhat at my ease. … My lady at length finished her supper, much to my relief, and I hurried her out of the room as fast as I could, and repaired to the drawing room, where I excused myself on the plea that I had urgent business to attend to, as I intended leaving the city on the first train. She seemed extremely reluctant to part company with me and would not let me go until I promised to see her again before I left the city. In bidding her good night, she extended her hand; and when I took it, she gave mine a squeeze, that indicated as plain as words that a trifle more forwardness on my part would not be disagreeable. I was a little bit disgusted with her very evident desire to capture me, and was very glad to get her off my hands, my determination on parting being not to see her again if I could avoid doing so.

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