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Loreta’s Civil War: Had Grant fallen before my pistol

July 2, 2016

KS63

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 20: Velazquez experiences the Battle of Shiloh, and she restrains herself from personally killing U.S. Grant.

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During the afternoon, I succeeded in gaining a good deal of very important information from several prisoners, and particularly from a sergeant belonging to the 27th Illinois Regiment. … From this prisoner I learned how desperate were the straits of the enemy and how anxiously they were awaiting the arrival of Buell with reinforcements, and I was, consequently, in despair, for I saw our brilliant victory already slipping from us, when Gen. [P.G.T.] Beauregard, who had succeeded to the command after the death of [Gen. Albert Sidney] Johnston, issued the order … for us to halt in our advance and to sleep on our arms all night instead of pursuing the routed enemy. …

When I heard Beauregard’s order, I felt that a fatal mistake was being committed … I could not resist the temptation of making an effort to find out for myself exactly what the situation within the enemy’s lines really was, and was willing to run all the risks of being caught and shot as a spy, rather than to endure the suspense of a long night of uncertainty. My station was with the advanced picket line, I having persuaded the captain to post me in a manner most favorable for carrying out my designs. I did not dare to tell him all I proposed to do. … I also refrained from telling my full design to my immediate companion of the picket station and made up a story about my intentions, which I thought would keep him quiet, and also promised to give him a drink of good whiskey when I got back if he would mind his own business. …

The command of [Union Maj. Gen. Lew] Wallace was stationed at this end of the Federal line, and I had a good deal of trouble to get past his pickets, being compelled to pause very frequently, and to keep close to the ground, watching favorable opportunities for advancing from one point to another. I finally, however, did manage to get past them, and gained a tolerably good point of observation near the river, where I could see quite plainly what was going on at the Landing.

It was just as I had anticipated. The Federals were crowding about the Landing in utter disorder and were without any means of crossing the river. They were completely in a trap, and so evidently keenly appreciated the fact, that the capture of the entire army ought to have been an easy matter. One more grand charge along the entire line, in the same brilliant fashion that we had opened the battle, and every officer and man on this side of the river would either have been slain or taken prisoner, while we would have gained possession of the Landing, and have prevented any of the expected reinforcements from crossing.

At this moment, I felt that if I could only command our army for two good hours I would be willing to die the moment the victory was won, while it maddened me to think that our commander should have permitted such an opportunity for inflicting a perfectly crushing defeat on the enemy to pass by unimproved. Beauregard, certainly, could not have understood the situation, or he would inevitably have pursued his advantage. …

While I was watching and chafing under the blunder that I was sure had been committed, a steamboat with reinforcements arrived at the Landing. These fresh troops were immediately formed and dispatched to the front. Another detachment came before I withdrew, overwhelmed with grief and disgust at the idea of our victory coming to nothing simply because there was not the requisite energy at headquarters to strike the final blow that was needed. …

There was, evidently, somebody on the Federal side who was bent on retrieving the disaster; for the hurried movements of the new troops, and the constant firing which the two gunboats — Tyler and Lexington — kept up, indicated an aggressiveness that augured unfavorably for our tired and badly cut-up army when the fight should reopen in the morning. The two gunboats had moved up to the mouth of Lick Creek and about dark commenced throwing shells into our lines in a manner … that demoralized our men more than any kind of attack they had been compelled to stand up under. I had been under musketry and artillery fire a number of times and did not find the sharp hiss of the bullets or the scream of the shells particularly pleasant. There was something horrible, however, about the huge missiles hurled by the gunboats. … These shells could easily be seen in the air for some seconds, and each individual that beheld them had an uncomfortable feeling that they were aiming directly at him, with a strong probability of striking. Sometimes they burst in the air, scattering in every direction; oftener they burst just as they struck, and the pieces inflicted ugly wounds if they happened to hit anybody, and occasionally they would bury themselves in the ground, and then explode, tearing holes large enough to bury a cart and horse in.

There was something almost comical in the way the soldiers, who had fought, without flinching, for hours in the face of a terrific artillery and musketry fire, attempted to dodge these shells. The hideous screams uttered by them just before striking [seemed] to drive all the courage out of the hearts of those against whom they were directed. Facing this kind of attack, without being able in any way to reply to it, was much more trying than the toughest fighting; and the rapidity with which the gunners on board the boats kept up their fire about dusk undoubtedly had a great effect in checking the Confederate’s advance and in saving the badly-beaten Federal army from utter rout. … A heavy rain storm in the middle of the night had much more to do with making the situation an unpleasant one than the firing from the gunboats, as it drenched every one to the skin and seriously disturbed the slumbers of the wearied soldiers.

While surveying from my post of observation in the bushes the movements of the routed Federal troops at the Landing, a small boat, with two officers in it, passed up the river. As it drew near the place where I was concealed, I recognized one of the officers as [Union Maj. Gen. U.S.] Grant, and the other one I knew by his uniform to be a general. Grant I had seen at Fort Donelson and I had met with pictures of him in some of the illustrated papers, so that I had no trouble in knowing him in spite of the darkness. The boat passed so close to me that I could occasionally catch a word or two of the conversation that was passing between the Federal commander and his associate, although, owing to the splashing of the oars, and the other noises, I could not detect what they were talking about.

My heart began to beat violently when I saw Grant, and my hand instinctively grasped my revolver. Both he, and the officer with him, were completely at my mercy, for they were within easy pistol shot, and my first impulse was to kill them, and run the risk of all possible consequences to myself. I did even go so far as to take a good aim, and in a second more, had I been a little firmer-nerved, the great Federal general, and the future president of the United States, would have finished his career. It was too much like murder, however, and I could not bring myself to do the deed. … Any soldier, however, will appreciate my feelings, for those who are bravest when standing face to face with the enemy will hesitate to take deliberate aim at a single man from an ambush. I therefore permitted Grant to escape, although I knew it was better for my cause to slay him than would be the loss of many hundreds less important soldiers.

Indeed, had Grant fallen before my pistol, the great battle of Shiloh might have had a far different termination, for his loss would have so completed the demoralization of the Federals that another rally would, in all probability, have been an impossibility. To have shot him, as I at first intended to do, would almost certainly have insured my own destruction, for large numbers of the Federals were so near me that I could plainly hear them talking and escape would have been almost out of the question. I would, however, have been willing to have made a sacrifice of myself, had I not been influenced in the course I did by other considerations than those of prudence. At any rate, I permitted my opportunity to slip by unimproved, and ere a great many moments the boat and its occupants were out of my reach, and I saw the two generals go on board one of the gunboats.

After I got back to my camp I could not help thinking that I had committed an error; but on reflecting over the matter in cooler moments, I was not sorry that I had resisted the temptation to pull the trigger when I had my finger on it. If I had fired, what would have been the consequences, so far as the results of the war were concerned? The Federals would have lost their ablest general, almost at the beginning of his career. Would they have found another man who would have commanded their armies with the brilliant success that Grant did? These are momentous questions, when we think of the events that have occurred since the battle of Shiloh. Much more than the life of a single man was probably dependent upon whether I concluded to fire or not, as I pointed my pistol at the men in the boat that April night.

After the boat had passed by, I was strongly tempted to go to the Federal camp and announce myself as a deserter. …. This, however, I thought rather too risky a proceeding, under all the circumstances and therefore concluded to get back to my post again. I succeeded in doing this, although not without considerable difficulty. … Capt. De Caulp was seriously perplexed at my report, but he said that attempting to instruct the general of an army was a risky business, and the probabilities were, that should I go to headquarters with my story, I would get into serious trouble. He further suggested that, perhaps, the general was as well informed with regard to the movements of the enemy as myself, if not better, and was making his arrangements accordingly, all of which did not relieve my mind of its premonitions of impending disaster. …

Wrapping myself in my blanket, therefore, I threw myself upon the ground and tried to sleep but I was so agitated and apprehensive for the morrow that slumber was an impossibility. Again and again as I tossed about, unable to close my eyes, I more than half repented of my resolution not to report the result of my spying expedition at headquarters. … Several times I fell into an uneasy doze, but the sound and refreshing slumbers that I so sorely needed would not visit my weary eyelids, and daybreak found me as wide awake as ever. …

The second day of the battle, therefore, opened favorably for the Federals, and we lost the advantage we might have gained by assuming the offensive, and hurling our forces on the enemy, with that elan for which our Southern soldiers were famous, and which had served them so well on many important occasions. The opportunity thus lost was never regained ; for although the fortunes of the fight seemed to waver, it was easily to be see that victory was no longer with the Confederates, and that the grievous mistake of the night before, in not promptly following up our success, and finishing our work then and there, would have all the terrible consequences I had feared. …

All my worst anticipations had come true, and the Federal army, which was almost annihilated the night before, had not only saved itself and recovered its lost ground but it had inflicted upon the Confederates a most disastrous defeat. This was the only name for it, for we were worse beaten than the Federals were at Bull Run, and the fact that we were not pursued on our retreat only proved that the Federal commanders, like our own at Bull Run, were either incapable of appreciating the importance of vigorous action under such circumstances, or were unable to follow up their advantages.

When I saw clearly that the day was lost, I determined to leave the field, and half resolved that if I succeeded in getting well away from our beaten army, I would give the whole thing up, and never strike another blow for the Confederacy as a soldier. I was scarcely able to contain myself for rage, not at the defeat, but at the inexcusable blunder that caused it. …. The Fort Donelson disaster, which I had hoped would be retrieved, had now been followed by another even more terrible, and the success of the Confederate cause was more remote, and more uncertain, than ever. It made me gnash my teeth with impotent fury to think of these things, and to have all my high hopes so suddenly dashed to the ground, just when the prospects for their realization seemed so bright.

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