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Loreta’s Civil War: Swaggered about in fine style

June 11, 2016

KS20

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 11: Velazquez participates in the Civil War’s first major battle, the Battle of Bull Run. In retrospect, she admits that the Confederate victory was an empty one.

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As the hot July sun mounted upwards through the almost-cloudless sky, and the mists of the morning disappeared before His ardent beams, the approach of the enemy could be distinctly traced by the clouds of dust raised by the tramping of thousands of feet, and, once in a great while, the gleam of the bayonets was discerned among the heavy clumps of timber that covered the undulating plain which the commanders of the armies of the South and the North had selected for their first trial of strategy and of strength. The desultory firing with which the battle opened soon was followed by rapid volleys, and ere the morning was far advanced, the sharp rattling of the musketry, the roar of the artillery, and the yelling of the soldiers, developed into an incessant tumult; while along the entire line, for miles, arose clouds of yellow dust and blue smoke, as the desperateness of the conflict increased, and the men on either side became excited with the work they had in hand.

It soon became apparent that the position in which fortune had placed me was to be the chief point of the Federal attack, and that my immediate comrades would be compelled to bear the brunt of the battle. … The Federal artillery, which sent its shell showering over us, and bursting in our ranks, creating terrible slaughter, was commanded by an acquaintance of mine, Ricketts. I did the best I could to give him as good as he sent, for the sake of old times when we were friends, and when neither of us imagined that we would some day be opposed to each other on the battlefield. The Confederates, although greatly outnumbered, succeeded for a long time in maintaining their ground, in spite of the odds against them, and again and again pierced through the enemy’s lines. Our men suffered terribly … Bee was compelled to give the order for us to fall back, the enemy having been heavily reinforced by the commands of Sherman and Keyes.

The Federals, doubtless, thought that the victory was theirs when they saw us in retreat. It was a terrible moment, and my heart failed me when I heard Bee’s order. I was wrought up to such a pitch of excitement while the fight was going on that I had no comprehension whatever of the value of the movements being made by the different commanders. I only saw the enemy before me and was inspired by an eager desire to conquer him. I forgot that I was but a single figure in a great military scheme; and as, while we stood face to face with the foe, every man on the other side became for the moment my personal enemy, whom I was furious to overcome, so, when by the general’s command, we were compelled to fail back, I was overcome with rage and indignation, and felt all the shame and mortification of a personal defeat.

I soon, however, saw the object Bee had in view in his momentary retreat, when he rallied his men in the rear of a house, and gave them a breathing spell. … This movement on the part of Bee afforded me an opportunity to cool off a little, and to observe the ebb and flow of the tide of battle more critically. I ere long was able to understand the general plan upon which the action was being conducted, and to view the combatants as masses to be wielded in a certain way for the accomplishment of definite objects, and not as a mere howling mob, bent only on a momentary success. From this point, therefore, the battle became more interesting than ever, and while nonetheless exciting, simply as a personal adventure — for my spirit rose and sank as victory or defeat seemed likely to rest upon our banners — I was more under the dominion of my reason, and less of my passions, than I had been when the fight commenced.

Bee rallied his men, with a voice of thunder, saying, “My boys, at them again! Victory or death! See how Jackson stands there like a stone wall!” This last expression seemed to please the men mightily, for they took it up immediately; and with a cheer for “Stonewall” Jackson, they made another dash at the enemy.

At noon the battle was at its fiercest, and the scene was grand beyond description. The simile that came into my mind was the great Desert of Sahara, with a broiling sun overhead, and immense whirlwinds of sand rolling along over the plain between heaven and earth. The red dust from the parched and sun-dried roads arose in clouds in every direction, while the smoke from the artillery and musketry slowly floated aloft in huge, fantastic columns, marking the places where the battle was being fought with most bitterness. The dry and motionless air was choking, to the nostrils, from the dust and smoke which filled it, while the pitiless July sun poured its hottest rays upon the parched and weary combatants. It was a sight never to be forgotten — one of those magnificent spectacles that cannot be imagined, and that no description, no matter how eloquent, can do justice to. I would not have missed it for the wealth of the world and was more than repaid for all that I had undergone, and all the risks to my person and my womanly reputation that I incurred, in being not only a spectator, but an actor, in such a sublime, living drama.

At the moment when Bee rallied his men for another grapple with the enemy, I would have given anything could I but have had the strength to make a clean sweep of our opponents, and, by a single blow, end the great struggle. Looking towards the hill which, in the morning, had been occupied by three of our bravest and best generals — Beauregard, Johnston, and Bonham — and their staffs, I saw it covered with men fighting with desperation; all along the valley were dense clouds of dust and smoke, while the yells of the excited soldiery, and the roar of the guns, were almost deafening. … The fiercer the conflict grew the more my courage rose. The example of my commanders, the desire to avenge my slaughtered comrades, the salvation of the cause which I had espoused, all inspired me to do my utmost; and no man on the field that day fought with more energy or determination than the woman who figured as Lt. Harry T. Buford. …

The expression constantly heard, that one Southerner could whip five Yankees, was not mere bounce, but it really represented what nearly everybody thought; and very few had any doubt as to the speedy end of the conflict that had been begun, or that it would end in the recognition of Southern independence. It took time to convince our people that they had no holiday task to perform; but the difficulty of effectively forcing the Federal lines, in spite of victories won by Confederate arms in the field, combined with the privations caused by the constantly increasing efficiency of the blockade, at length compelled all classes of people at the South to realize the fact that they had a tough job on their hands, and that if they expected to obtain their independence it would be necessary for them to work, and to work hard for it.

In many respects, the [Confederate] victory at Bull Run was anything but a benefit to the South. The panic which overtook the Federal soldiers, so far from communicating itself to the people of the North, only inspired them with a determination to wipe out the disgrace, and they hurried men to the front with such rapidity and in such numbers, that they soon had a force in the field which compelled the Confederates to act upon the defensive, and to think about the means of resisting invasion instead of attempting to assume the aggressive. On the other hand, not only the men who fought at Bull Run, but the whole South, were greatly elated at having won the first great battle; and, overestimating the importance of their victory, they were more than ever impressed with the idea that whipping the Yankees was a remarkable easy thing to do.

The victory at Bull Run, while it elated the whole Southern people, and very greatly excited their hopes and expectations, was most demoralizing to Richmond, to which city the capital of the Confederacy had been removed a short time before the battle came off. Crowds of soldiers, officers, and privates thronged the streets, when they ought to have been on duty in the field; while innumerable adventurers, male and female, were attracted to the seat of government in the hope of making something out of the war, careless of what happened so long as they were able to fill their pockets. Money was plenty, entirely too plenty, and the drinking-saloons, gambling-houses, and worse resorts, reaped a rich harvest. For a time all went merrily; but after a while, as month after month wore away, and no substantial fruits of our brilliant victory were reaped, and the prospect of a severe contest became every day more decided, those who, like myself, had their hearts in the cause, began to be impatient and disgusted at the inactivity that prevailed, and were disposed to do a good deal of growling. I confess that I enjoyed the excitement of life in Richmond at this period hugely for a time, but I soon had enough of it, and was glad to get away.

After the battle of Bull Run I did as much tall talking as anybody, and swaggered about in fine style, sporting my uniform for the admiration of the ladies, and making myself agreeable to them in a manner that excited the envy of the men, and raised me immensely in my own esteem; for I began to pride myself as much upon being a successful lady’s man as upon being a valiant soldier. …

Not being successful in getting the kind of appointment I desired at Richmond, I concluded to try my luck elsewhere. I went to Danville, and remained a couple of days, and on my return to Richmond obtained a pass and transportation for the West. When I got as far as Lynchburg, however, I changed my mind, owing to meeting some of the boys from Leesburg, who persuaded me to go there with them, as there was every prospect of another fight coming off soon. This suited me exactly, and to Leesburg I accordingly went, with a full determination to take a hand in a battle if one did come off. The fight did occur, although not so soon as I expected or wished, and I played my part in it as successfully as I had done at Bull Run, In the mean time, however, I splurged around Leesburg in fine style, and enjoyed myself immensely, being quite as successful as I had been in other places in winning the regards of the members of my own sex, not one of whom appeared to have the slightest suspicion that I was other than I pretended to be.

One young lady in particular, Miss E., showed a marked regard for me; and as she was a very charming girl, our acquaintance would probably have developed into a decided attachment, had I not been sailing under false colors. I was sorry that I could not reciprocate, in a proper manner, the very evident partiality she displayed towards me; and I more than half regretted that I permitted matters to go as far as I did, when I found what an impression I was making on her susceptible heart. It was necessary for me to sustain the character I had assumed, of a dashing young officer; and, situated as I was, it was important that I should make myself as agreeable as possible to the members of my own sex. Apart from this, however, much of the male society into which I was thrown was so very disagreeable to me, that I was glad to escape from it by seeking that of lady friends. It afforded me some amusement, too, to carry on a bit of a flirtation with a nice girl; and was very much tempted to entertain myself in this manner, without reflecting very deeply as to the consequences. I am very willing to admit that I ought not to have acted as I did in this, and some other similar cases; and if anything should occur to induce me to assume male attire again, I should carefully avoid making love to young ladies, unless I had occasion to do so for the immediate furtherance of my plans. My error in allowing myself to indulge in flirtations with my own sex, arose from thoughtlessness, and from a desire to play my part to the best advantage; and I am sure my readers will forgive me, as I hope the young ladies, whom I induced to indulge false expectations, will, when the publication of this narrative makes known to the world the whole truth about the identity of Lt. Harry T. Buford, C.S.A.

I met Miss E., by accident, in a store, and she was introduced to me by a young dry goods clerk, with whom I had struck up an acquaintance. After a little conversation on indifferent subjects, she gave me a very pressing invitation to call on her. I said that I would do myself the honor, and accordingly put in an appearance, dressed in my best, at her residence. She received me with many smiles and with great cordiality, and introduced me to her father and mother. As I noticed that the old people were rather inclined to be a little cool, and evidently did not regard me with overmuch favor, I cut short my visit, and, politely bowing myself out, determined, in my own mind, never to enter the house again. Had I been a man, the conduct of the parents would probably have spurred me to court the favor of the daughter with more pertinacity than ever. I have noticed that parental opposition to a young man generally has this sort of stimulating effect upon him; but, being a woman, I did not look at the thing exactly from a masculine point of view, and, as the French say, Lejeuri’en valait jxis la chandelle. I was sufficiently piqued, however, to accept any advances the young lady might make with some degree of favor, and to revenge myself upon the old people, by making myself intensely agreeable to the daughter, in spite of them. When Miss E., therefore, showed a very marked disposition to continue our acquaintance. …She then informed me that, if I wished, I could see her at her cousin’s, and as she seemed to be exceedingly anxious to have me call upon her again, I consented to do so. As we walked up the street together she pointed out her cousin’s house, and I made an appointment to meet her there the next day, at five o’clock. …

I was punctual in keeping my appointment with Miss E. … she was even more cordial in her manner towards me than on the previous occasions when we had met. She asked me innumerable questions about myself, where I was from, who were my parents, and seemed to be particularly anxious to find out all about me. I made up a story that I thought was suited to the occasion and the auditor; and, among other things, told her that I was the son of a millionaire, that I had joined the army for the fun of the thing, and that I was paying my own expenses. This seemed to make a great impression, on her; and, with a very significant smile, she said she wished that the war would soon end, and that I would settle permanently in Leesburg.

This was a rather broad hint, and I could scarcely refrain from laughing at it; but restraining myself, and keeping my countenance straight, I asked, “Why do you take such a fancy to me, Miss E., when there are so many elegant, accomplished, and wealthy young men in Leesburg, with whom you have been acquainted for along time? You know nothing whatever of me.”

“It won’t be hard for us to become better acquainted,” she replied.

‘”Well,” said I, “I don’t want to deceive you; but the fact is, I am as good as married already,” and producing a young lady’s photograph, which I had in my pocket, added, “I expect to be married to this lady as soon as the war is over.”

She turned pale at this, and the tears sprang to her eyes, while I could not but feel regret at having permitted the matter to go thus far. For a time neither of us spoke; and at length, to put an end to a scene that was becoming embarrassing to both of us, I arose, and, extending my hand, said that I must bid her good evening. She looked at me in a pitiable sort of way, and said, “Will I never see you again?” I answered that she might, if I was not killed, but a battle was expected shortly, and it was my intention to take part in it. I then said adieu, and precipitately left her, not feeling altogether comfortable about the affair; but judging, as a woman, that the young lady would, before a great while, find herself heart-whole, and be none the worse for having permitted herself to become unduly interested in Lt. Harry T. Buford.

So ended my Leesburg flirtation; and a desire to avoid meeting Miss E. again, at least until she had had time to recover her equanimity, as well as my eager wish to see some more fighting, induced me to leave the town as soon as possible.

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