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Loreta’s Civil War: The chill winds of winter

June 18, 2016

KS29

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 15: Velazquez is back in disguise and uniform. She is assigned to the detective corps but then receives an unexpected and unwelcome assignment.

******

Like hundreds of others, I had gone to Virginia with the opening of summer, inspired by high hopes and great expectations. These hopes and expectations were far from being realized, although I had succeeded in gratifying some of the most ardent desires that had animated me in setting out, for I had gone through with a number of perilous adventures, such as would have certainly satisfied the ambition of most women. Notwithstanding, however, that the Confederates had won the first great victory, it became apparent, at an early day, that a single battle was not going to finish the war, and that if the South was to achieve its independence, it must go through a long and bloody conflict. My visit to Washington more than confirmed the opinion I had formed, that the Federals were in command of enormous resources in comparison with ours, and that they were settling down to a deadly determination to bring all their resources to bear for the purpose of fighting the thing out to the bitter end.

When I took the back track, therefore, nearly six months from the time of starting out, and when the chill winds of winter were beginning to make their severity felt by the poor soldiers, I was prepared for a long and desperate war, which would be a very different thing from the holiday affair which my Arkansas recruits, in common with many others, had expected. I was as resolute as ever in my determination to see the thing out, however, and I experienced even a certain amount of pleasure in the certainty that a prolonged struggle would afford me abundant opportunities for exciting and perilous adventures. There was not a man in the Confederacy who was more willing to fight to the last than I was, or who was willing to venture into greater peril for the sake of the cause; and, perhaps, if all the men had been as eager to find the last ditch as myself, before giving up, the war might have had a different termination.

This is something, however, about which it is scarcely worthwhile to speculate now. It is enough to say, that I left Virginia in a different mood from that in which I had entered it. Experience had opened my eyes to a good many things I did not clearly understand before, but although in some particulars I was disappointed, I was certainly not discouraged; and my head was as full of ideas, and of much better arranged, and more practical plans, than it was when I resolved to become a soldier. I now knew tolerably well what I could do, and the particular kind of work I could do best, and I was as enthusiastic as ever, although, perhaps, in a more sober fashion, to give the cause the benefit of my best exertions.

A few days of hard travel and I was back at my starting point, Memphis, having made the circuit of the entire Confederacy east of the Mississippi. I was wiser by a good deal of valuable practical knowledge than I was when I set out on my Arkansas recruiting expedition, and I had passed through scenes that made it seem years, instead of a few short months, since I had made my first important attempt at practicing essentially characteristic masculine manners. … If I returned to Memphis a disappointed woman in certain particulars, I also returned a hopeful one, for I knew better now how to go about the work 1 had in hand; and as it was evident that some of the hardest fighting of the war was to be done in this region, I confidently expected to have abundant opportunity to distinguish myself, both as a soldier and as a scout, and had scarcely a doubt of being employed in such services as I was best qualified to perform.

Behold me, then, back in Memphis, ready to commence a second campaign, inspired by a different kind of enthusiasm from that which moved me when I shocked my husband and the friend whom 1 persuaded to assist me in my enterprise, by my determination to be a soldier, but even more firmly resolved to do my full share of the fighting, and to give the Confederate cause the benefit of all my energy, wit, and courage.

The friend of whom I have spoken I still found in Memphis. He was now captain in the Confederate service, and on my meeting with him he seemed both rejoiced and surprised to see me again. … Wishing each other good luck, we parted again, and I took the first boat for Columbus, where I expected to find Gen. Leonidas Polk. On landing at Columbus, I gave my equipage and the two horses I had bought at Memphis, in charge of Bob, with directions to keep a sharp eye on them, and went to Barnes’ Hotel, to see if I could come across anybody I knew, and to make the inquiries necessary for my next movement.

Columbus was one of the liveliest places I had ever visited, or at least it seemed so that evening. There was an immense amount of bustle and confusion, and everything seemed to indicate that the campaign in this region was being pushed with considerable energy. … Soon after supper I got my tent up, and the next morning I went in search of the general for the purpose of presenting my letter. Gen. Polk, who had been a bishop before the war broke out, received me cordially enough, although he seemed to be too busy to do much talking, and after reading my letter, dismissed me with the rather indefinite observation that he would see what he could do for me. …

While waiting for the general to assign me to duty I visited the different camps, made a number of acquaintances, and picked up what information I could about the military situation in the West. Everybody was expecting hard fighting, and a desperate struggle with the Federals for the possession of the Mississippi, as it seemed to be well understood that the enemy were making great preparations for some heavy work on this river. It was thought, however, that the defenses were sufficiently strong to resist any attacks, and the idea that an attempt would ere a great while be made against New Orleans by way of the Gulf of Mexico, was scarcely entertained seriously by any one. I thought differently but then I had special reasons for my own opinions, which I did not consider it necessary to communicate to all of my new-made friends, deeming it prudent to keep quiet about my visit to Washington, although ready enough to tell all I knew concerning the military situation in Virginia in exchange for what I learned from them about the condition of things in the West.

The third day after my arrival at Columbus, Gen. Polk sent for me, and told me that he had assigned me to the detective corps. I was considerably elated at this, as I supposed that he intended to employ me in running through the lines as a spy. … There was an element of positive peril in scout duty that had a wonderful fascination for me, and that I felt would give me a keen enjoyment, such as lounging around a camp, with only the disagreeable routine of campaigning, broken by an occasional battle, could never afford.

I was not particularly well pleased, therefore, when I found that I was to run on the cars as military conductor. This, however, was active duty of a specific kind, and I thought that perhaps it might lead to something better, or might even offer me opportunities for distinguishing myself that 1 did not suspect. I took it, therefore, without complaining, resolved to do my best while on duty, and to resign the position, and go elsewhere for employment, so soon as I found the service getting too uncongenial. I accordingly went, under orders from Gen. Polk, to Camp Beauregard, where I was directed to relieve Captain Jannett, on the Nashville road. …

It was while acting in the capacity of military conductor on this road that some of the most amusing incidents of my career occurred. … My duty was to run on the trains and examine passes, furloughs, and leaves of absence; and as I could place anyone under arrest who was not traveling with the right kind of papers, or who was unprovided with papers of any kind, I was a personage of considerable importance, not only to the officers and soldiers who were going back and forth, but to the ladies, who courted me with remarkable assiduity, with a view of inducing me to grant them favors. The women folk tormented me a good deal more than the men did, for the average masculine had a wholesome dread of the rigors of military discipline, and was consequently manageable, while my own sex relied on accomplishing, by means of their fascinations, what was impossible to the men. They would make all kinds of excuses, and tell all kinds of improbable stories, to induce me to pass them. …. Occasionally some of my would-be charmers, finding it impossible to make any impression on me, would abuse me roundly for refusing to grant their request. This, of course, did not have any other effect than to afford me much amusement; but it enabled me to understand why my predecessor seemed so well pleased at being relieved. …

Gen. Polk, bent upon knowing how I was making out as military conductor, and whether I was entirely trustworthy … stepped aboard the train with a ten days’ leave of absence in his pocket. He probably thought that I was as good as detected in neglecting my duty, but he found out his mistake before he got through. …

On entering the car, I sang out, as usual, “Show your passes, gentlemen.”

The general turned his head, and commenced looking out of the window rather intently, as travelers not provided with passes were very much in the habit of doing. When I reached him, in going through the car, I gently tapped his shoulder, and said, “Have you a pass?”

“No,” said he. “Won’t you let me go through without one?”

“No sir,” I replied, “I cannot pass anyone. My orders are very strict, especially with regard to officers and soldiers.”

“Well,” said he, “don’t you think you could go back on your orders for once? Did you never favor a friend in this line?”

“Sir,” I answered, rather severely, “I know no friends in connection with my duty, or general orders.”

“Well, what are you going to do in my case; for I haven’t got any pass,” said the general.

I replied, “I will send you back to headquarters, under guard.”

‘”But,” said he, “do you know, sir, that I am Gen. Polk?” putting on all the magnificent style he could command as he spoke.

I was considerably nettled, both by his conduct in endeavoring to persuade me to pass him in violation of orders and by his manner, and so said, rather sharply, “I don’t care, sir, who you are; you can’t travel on this line without a pass, even if you are Jeff Davis himself.”

I was, by this time, rather angry, and determined to have no further controversy with him; so I called a soldier to take charge of him, while I finished going through the train.

The conductor, who had seen the whole performance, and who was afraid that I was getting myself into serious trouble, strongly advised me to release the general, and to pass him through as he desired. I told him, however, that I understood my duty perfectly, and that I intended to perform it to the letter, in this as in every other instance; and that if General Polk didn’t know better than to undertake to travel with- out his papers, he would have to bear the consequences.

When we were nearing the station. Gen. Polk beckoned to me, and said, “I have a leave of absence.”

I held out my hand, and he produced it from his pocket, laughing as he did so at what he evidently considered a good joke on the military conductor. I looked at it, and returned it, simply saying, “That is all right, sir.” The general held out his hand to me with a very cordial smile, and was evidently desirous of doing away with any ill feeling that the incident might have occasioned on my side. I was very badly vexed, however, that he should have attempted to play such a trick upon me, and to have doubted my honor; and I did not receive his greeting with any great amount of cordiality, being resolved, in my own mind, to be even with him some day. …

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