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Loreta’s Civil War: The insatiate desire

June 16, 2016
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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 13: Velazquez pauses her adventure as a Confederate soldier, for the moment, and heads for Washington, D.C., for a new challenge.

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We may regret that the dreams of our youth do not come true, just as we once loved to hope that they would, almost without endeavor on our part; but who shall say that our own life romances, woven out of the tissues of events from day to day, with much labor, doubt, and pain, are not fairer and brighter than any imagination could create? It is good to do one’s duty quietly amid the rush of great events, even when the path of duty lies in hidden places, where the gaze of the crowd penetrates not, where applause cannot follow; and one’s own satisfaction at duty well and nobly performed, is, after all, the best recompense that can be had.

To be a second Joan of Arc was a mere girlish fancy, which my very first experiences as a soldier dissipated forever; and it did not take me long to discover that I needed no model, but that, to win success in the career I had chosen, I must be simply myself, and not a copy, even in the remotest particular, of anybody else; and that the secret of success consisted in watching the current of events, and in taking advantage of circumstances as they arose. … The experiences of actual warfare, however, soon had the effect of convincing me that a woman like myself, who had a talent for assuming disguises, and who, like me, was possessed of courage, resolution, and energy, backed up by a ready wit, a plausible address, and attractive manners, had it in her power to perform many services of the most vital importance, which it would be impossible for a man to even attempt.

The difficulty which our commander experienced in gaining accurate and thoroughly reliable information with regard to the movements of the enemy, the rumors that prevailed of the enormous preparations being made by the Federal government to crush the South, an insatiable desire to see and to hear for myself what was going on within the enemy’s lines, all stimulated me to make an attempt, the hazardous character of which I well knew; but, trusting to my woman’s wit to see me safely through, I resolved that the attempt should be made.

My plans were tolerably well matured when the Battle of Ball’s Bluff took place, and I should probably have put them in execution before I did, had it not been for the insatiate desire I had to take part in another fight. After that battle, I more than ever felt the necessity for some constant, active employment, for I chafed under the ennui of the camp, and felt irresistibly impelled to be moving about and doing something. I accordingly was not long in resolving that the time had now arrived for me to attempt something more than I had yet done, and for me to effect a coup that might either make or mar my fortunes, but that, whatever its result might be, would give me the excitement I craved, and demonstrate my abilities, and my disposition to serve the Confederacy in such a signal manner that it would be impossible for those in authority any longer to ignore me.

A woman labors under some disadvantages in an attempt to fight her own way in the world, and at the same time, from the mere fact that she is a woman, she can often do things that a man cannot. I have no hesitation in saying that I wish I had been created a man instead of a woman. This … is the matter with nearly all the women who go about complaining of the wrongs of our sex. But, being a woman, I was bent on making the best of it; and having for some time now figured successfully in the garments of the other sex, I resolved upon resuming those of my own for a season, for the accomplishment of a purpose I had in my mind. This purpose I felt sure I could accomplish as a woman; and although I had a tolerably good appreciation of the perils I should run, I had confidence in my abilities to see myself through, and the perils attending my enterprise were incentives, rather than otherwise, for me to attempt it.

Having obtained a letter of introduction to Gen. Leonidas Polk, and my transportation papers — for it was my intention, after making the trip I had immediately in view, to visit the part of the country in which his army was operating, as it was more familiar to me, and I thought that I could perform more efficient service there than in Virginia — I turned in my camp equipage to the quartermaster, and bidding farewell to my friends, started off in search of new adventures. …

Going to an old negro woman who had washed for me, and who had shown considerable fondness for me, I told her that I intended visiting the Yankees for the purpose of seeing them about coming and freeing the colored folk, and asked her to let me have a suit of woman’s clothes, so that I could get through the lines without being stopped. I made up quite a long yarn about what I proposed to do, and the poor old soul, believing all I told her without a moment’s hesitation, consented to aid me in every way she could, her ardor being materially quickened by a twenty dollar Confederate note which I handed her.

She was not long in having me attired in the best she had — a calico dress, a woolen shawl, a sun-bonnet, and a pair of shoes much too large for me — and hiding away my uniform where it would be safe during my absence, she started me off with a full expectation that I would be back in a couple of weeks, with the whole Yankee army at my back, for the purpose of liberating all the slaves. The old woman put such implicit faith in me that I really felt sorry at deceiving her, but quieted my conscience with the thought that lying was as necessary as fighting in warfare, and that the prospects were that I would be compelled to do much more fibbing than this before the errand upon which I was about starting would be achieved.

Managing to make my way to the river without attracting any particular attention, I found an old negro who had a boat, and making up a story that I fancied would answer the purpose, I struck a bargain with him to take me across to the Maryland shore for twenty-five dollars. He was eager to get the money, probably never having handled so much before in his life at any one time, but warned me that it would be a risky piece of business, for the weather was very cold, the river broad and deep, and the current strong, and there was considerable danger of my being fired at by the pickets on either bank. I told him that I was not afraid to take all the risks, and that I thought I could stand the cold. I accordingly concealed myself in his cabin until the time for commencing the crossing arrived, neither of us deeming it prudent to start before midnight. …

At length we reached the Maryland side of the river, to my infinite satisfaction, for I was numb with the cold, and stiff in all my limbs, from the cramped position in which I had been obliged to sit in the boat, and was heartily glad of an opportunity to tread dry land once more. Dismissing the boatman, and enjoining him not to say anything, I made my way to a farm-house which I espied a short distance from the place of landing, and about four o’clock in the morning, finding no better place to rest my weary limbs, I crept into a wheat-stack, and slept there until daylight. …

[Once I] penetrated the lines of the enemy, there was, I knew, little to fear. As a Confederate soldier, I was figuring in a disguise which was likely, at any time, to get me into trouble of some sort, and not the least danger I saw was that of being arrested as a spy. When I first undertook to be a soldier, this was an idea that never occurred to me; but a very short experience in actual campaigning taught me that I would have to be careful to prevent the fact that I was disguised from being found out, if for no other reason than that my loyalty to the Southern cause might not be suspected. I relied, however, upon the good fighting I had done, and the other services I had rendered, which were proofs of the genuineness of my devotion, as well as the influence of my friends to get me out of any scrape into which I might fall through the discovery that I was not a man.

Here, in the enemy’s country, however, I passed for exactly what I was, with nobody nearer than Memphis who knew me, both as a man and as a woman, and I consequently felt perfectly secure in moving about pretty much as I chose, having a plausible story on the end of my tongue to tell anybody who might question me. I concluded that, as it was most likely I would meet in Washington people who knew me as a woman … that it would be safer, and in all respects better for me to attempt no disguise, but to figure as myself, and as nobody else. …

Between my starting-point on the Maryland side and Washington, I saw a good many soldiers, from which I judged that the approaches to the Federal capital were strongly guarded, and that very efficient means were being taken to prevent anything like a surprise on the part of the Confederates. This was the most important information I succeeded in obtaining; and except that I was enabled to form some estimates of the force that was guarding the Maryland side of the Potomac it was of no special value, as it was well understood among the Confederates that the enemy were well prepared to resist an attack upon Washington, and were concentrating a large army in and about the city. …

On arriving in Washington, I went to Brown’s Hotel, and having learned that an officer of the regular Federal army, with whom I was well acquainted, and who had been a warm personal friend of my late husband, was in the city, I sent him a note, asking him to call on me. He came to see me very promptly on receiving my message, and greeting me with a good deal of cordiality, expressed a desire to aid me in any manner that lay in his power. I told him that I was just from New York, and making up a plausible story to account for my being in Washington, began to question him about the progress of the war. He evidently had not the slightest idea that I was in Washington for any other purpose than what he would have considered a perfectly legitimate one, and consequently spoke without any reserve concerning a number of matters about which he would certainly have kept silent had he suspected that I had just come from the other side of the Potomac, and that my object was to pick up items of information that would be useful to the Confederacy.

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