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Loreta’s Civil War: The plucky little devil

June 9, 2016

KS19

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 10: Velazquez experiences combat for the first time, and she realizes that it is nothing compared to what is to come.

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On going to my room, I found a note from my lady friend, requesting me to visit her in her chamber. This considerably astonished me, and assuredly did not increase my good opinion of her. I was almost tempted, however, to comply, just for the sake of hearing what she had to say to me, but wisely concluded that, situated as I was, it would be more prudent to avoid any further acquaintance with such a forward specimen of my sex.

I slept late the next morning, having forgotten to give directions for being called, and found, much to my satisfaction, on inquiring of the clerk, that my lady had left before I was out of bed. After breakfast, I ordered Bob to have everything ready for our departure by the six o’clock train. While strolling about the street, I was accosted by an officer, who asked me to show my papers. I told him that I had none, but that I was an independent, and had recruited, and put in the field, at my own expense, a battalion of two hundred and thirty-six men. This seemed to highly delight him, for he shook me warmly by the hand, asked me to step over to his office, where he could furnish me with transportation, and otherwise showed a desire to be of service to me. I thanked him, but declined the offer, on the plea that I proposed to pay my own way.

During the day I bought two horses and shipped them, and provided myself with a number of articles necessary for the campaign upon which I was about entering. Returning to the hotel, I paid my bill, had a lunch put up, and my baggage got ready, while Bob blacked my boots and brushed my coat. As ill luck would have it, however, I missed the six o’clock train, and was consequently compelled to remain another night in Richmond. … I was now about to enter upon the realization of all my dreams, to see some real warfare, to engage in real battles, to do some real fighting, and, as I fondly hoped, to have some opportunities of distinguishing myself in a signal manner. I was never in better health and spirit than on that bright summer morning, when I left Richmond for the purpose of joining the forces of the Confederacy in the face of the enemy ; and the nearer we approached our destination, the more elated did I become at the prospect before me of being able to prove myself as good a fighter as any of the gallant men who had taken up arms in behalf of the cause of Southern independence. I had only one fear, and that was, that I should be stopped on account of not having the proper papers; but my motto was, “Nothing venture, nothing have,” and I was bent on facing the thing through, and trusting to luck to bring me out all right. Fortunately I had no trouble of any kind, and arrived safely at Clifton — a supply-station about a dozen miles from the headquarters of the army in the field.

At Clifton I bought a couple of fine horses, and on the 15th of July set out for headquarters, with a view of being assigned to a command where I should have a chance to see some fighting. I sought an interview with a prominent general, but he was in rather a crusty humor; and as he did not seem inclined to talk with me, I concluded not to bother him, but to take my chances as matters might shape themselves for the accomplishment of my designs. His adjutant was more polite and desired to employ me as a courier; but this did not suit my notions, and I consequently declined. I told him that I was an independent, paying my own expenses, and that the only thing I wanted was an opportunity to take a hand in the coming fight. I suppose he thought that I was entirely too independent for him, for he said no more, but turned away, and went about other affairs.

Gen. [P.G.T.] Beauregard was in command of the entire army; but I felt a hesitation in approaching him, especially after the rebuff I had just received. Thinking that the shortest way to get what I wanted was to obtain a regular commission, I offered an officer, with whom I became acquainted, five hundred dollars for his. He would not sell, however; and I then went over to Brig. Gen. Bonham, who was holding Mitchell’s Ford, and introduced myself to him. Gen. Bonham looked at me sharply and asked what company I belonged to.

“To none,” I replied. “I belong wherever there is work to do.”

“Well,” said Bonham, “you are the right sort to have around when a fight is going on. If you stay here a little while, I reckon you will be able to find plenty of work.”

I took this as a hint that I might make myself at home, and, bowing myself out of the general’s presence, went to look after my boy Bob. The darkey was just beginning to have some appreciation of what fighting was really like and was badly scared. I told him that if he ran off and left me, I would kill him if I ever caught him again; which threat had its desired effect, for he stuck to me through thick and thin.

At half past twelve o’clock, on the 18th, the enemy made a sharp attack, but did not do any great damage. … As they broke and ran, I fired a last shot at them with a dead man’s musket, which I picked up. During the greater part of this fight, the men belonging to the two armies who engaged in it were often not more than a few feet from each other, and it seemed more like a series of duels than anything such as I had imagined a battle would be. …

This skirmish was but the prelude to the great battles of Manassas or Bull’s Run, which was fought on the 21st of July, 1861. It served, however, to initiate me, and to make me impatient to see an engagement of real importance, in which I should have an opportunity to make a first-rate display of my fighting qualities. I was the more anxious for a big fight soon, as I had been placed temporarily in command of a company, the senior officer of which had been killed, and I was afraid that if a fight was long delayed I should be superseded, and should be compelled to lose my best chance of distinguishing myself. I had no occasion, however, to be afraid of a fight not coming off, for we had ample information of all the movements of the enemy, and knew that he was about to advance upon us in full force, so that the conflict was likely to begin at almost any moment. I was able, therefore, to take part m the first great battle of the war, under the best possible auspices, and to thus accomplish what had been one of the great objects of my ambition from my earliest childhood. There may have been men who did harder fighting at Bull Run than myself, but no one went through the fight with a stouter heart, or with a greater determination to behave valiantly, and, if possible, to give the enemy a sound thrashing, if only for the sake of affording him an idea of the magnitude of the job he had undertaken in attempting to coerce the Southern people.

On the 18th I assisted, with the rest, to bury the dead, my boy, Bob, rendering us efficient service in the performance of this duty. When night came I was tired out, and, lying down on the bare ground, slept soundly until four o’clock the next morning. When I awoke, I was weary and sore in all my limbs through the unusual exertions I had been compelled to make, and the exposure to the hot sun in the day time, and the damp air and cold ground at night. I was not sick, however; and as I had no doubt that I should soon get used to this kind of rough life, I never thought of giving up, especially as a great battle was impending, upon taking part in which my heart was bent.

At daybreak, on the 19th, I was in my boots, and ready to march. Passing through Ashby’s Gap, we reached the little town of Piedmont, on the Manassas Gap Railroad, where we halted. On the 20th, Gen. [Joseph E.] Johnston arrived at Manassas about noon, and was followed by two Georgia regiments and [Thomas] Jackson’s brigade of gallant Virginians. Then came Bernard E. Bee, with the 4th Alabama Regiment and the 2n Regiment, and three companies of the 11th Regiment of Mississippians. On account of some delay, or detention on the railroad, it was now found necessary to hold a council of war, and to make some changes in the plans already arranged. …

On the morning of the day of the battle I was awake at dawn, and ready to play my part in the great drama which was about to begin; and although some of the men around me had been disposed to laugh at the efforts of the little dandified independent to get a chance to display his valor, not one of them was more eager for the fight than myself, or was more bent upon doing deeds of heroism. If I had allowed myself to be irritated by snubs from officers, who behaved as if they thought the results of the war depended upon them alone, I should have gone back to Richmond in disgust several days before the battle came off, and should have resumed the garb of my sex, with a determination never to figure as a man again. I was not to be bluffed by anybody, however; and having come thus far to see and to take a hand in a great battle, I had no thought of turning back for any cause, or under any circumstances, no matter what might be said or thought of me.

I labored under some disadvantages in not having a regular commission, and not being attached to a regular command. This exposed me to slights that would otherwise not have been put upon me, and prevented officers, who would, under some circumstances, have gladly taken advantage of my readiness to attend faithfully to any task assigned me, to avail themselves of my services. On the other hand, my being an independent, enabled me, to a great extent, to choose my own position in the battle, and I probably, therefore, had a better opportunity of distinguishing myself than I should have had otherwise. I was especially bent upon showing some of them, who were disposed to smile at me on account of my petite figure and jaunty air, that I was as good a man as any one of them, and was able to face the enemy as valiantly. This I did show them before the day was over, and I was highly elated at the commendations which some of the best soldiers bestowed upon the “plucky little devil,” as they called me.

By the time it was fairly daylight, the preparations for meeting the enemy were well advanced, and the sun rose in all his majesty upon a host of men drawn up in battle array — the brave among them anxious for the fray to begin, the cowards — and there were plenty of them in both armies — trembling in their boots, and eager for a pretext to sneak away, and hide themselves from the coming danger. The morning was a beautiful one, although it gave promise of a sweltering day; and the scene presented to my eyes, as I surveyed the field, was one of marvelous beauty and grandeur. I cannot pretend to express in words what I felt, as I found myself one among thousands of combatants who were about to engage in a deadly and desperate struggle. … Fear was a word I did not know the meaning of; and as I noted the ashy faces, and the trembling limbs of some of the men about me, I almost wished that I could feel a little fear, if only for the sake of sympathizing with the poor devils. I do not say this for brag, for I despise braggarts as much as I do cowards; but, in a narrative like this, the reader has a right to know what my feelings, as well as my impressions, were, upon so important an occasion as my appearance as a combatant upon the battlefield, where the Confederate troops first gave the enemy a taste of their genuine quality, and achieved their first great victory.

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