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Loreta’s Civil War: I told him who I really was

July 5, 2016

KS62

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 21: In the aftermath of the Confederate defeat at Shiloh, Velazquez is wounded, and she decides the surgeon treating her should know that he is treating a woman disguised as a man.

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About five o’clock I found my boy near the hospital. He had my horse and another fine animal that he had picked up. In reply to my query, Bob said that he had found him in the woods without a rider. He was branded “U.S” and had an officer’s saddle on, and as he seemed, from outside appearances, to be superior to my own steed, I concluded to take possession of him. Mounting him, I tried him over a fence and a large log, which he cleared like an antelope, so deeming him a prize worth securing, I turned over my own horse to Bob and started him off on the road to Corinth. The boy, however, mistook the road, and went plump into the Federal camp at Purdy, thus depriving me of his valuable services.

As for me, I remained in the woods all night, the roads being perfectly blocked up with the retreating army, trying to shield myself as best I could from the furious storm of rain and hail that came on, as if to add to the miseries which the wretched soldiers of the Confederacy were compelled to endure on their weary march back to Corinth. Although I had escaped from the two days’ fighting unhurt, I was so utterly worn out and wretched that I really did not care a great deal what became of me, and was almost as willing to be taken prisoner by the Federals as to return to Corinth, with a view of again undertaking to exert myself in what was now beginning to appear the hopeless cause of Southern independence. I managed, however, after the worst of the storm was over to find a tolerably dry place, where, completely used up by the fatigues I had undergone, I fell into a sound sleep.

Rested but scarcely refreshed by a brief slumber on the damp ground, and with thoughts of the most gloomy description filling my mind, I mounted my horse at daybreak and started to ride back to Corinth. … I was so despondent over the way things seemed to be going that I had little heart to continue in the contest any longer. At the same time I was loath to give the thing up and could not help reflecting that the true spirit of heroism required me to bear adversity with fortitude and to seek to advance the interests of my cause, no matter how unpropitious the times might seem. …

On arriving at camp I found a mail awaiting me. Among my letters were some from my friends in the army of Virginia, and one from my little Memphis lady, which read as follows:

“Memphis, Tennessee, April 2. 1862.

“My Dear Harry: Yours was handed to me the next morning by our trusty and faithful old servant David, and I hastily opened it, knowing it to be from you by the handwriting. My dear, I am afraid that this will appear unintelligible, being wet with tears from beginning to end. When your letter was handed to me we were at breakfast, and grandpa was reading the “Appeal,” wherein it was stated that all officers and soldiers away from their commands should report for duty. I was afraid that you would have to go, but some hope remained until your fatal letter convinced me that my suspicions were too well founded. Alas, how vain are human expectations! In the morning we dream of happiness and before evening are really miserable. I was promising to myself that one month more would have joined our hands, and now we are to be separated — yes, perhaps for years, if not forever, for how do I know but that the next tidings may bring intelligence of your being killed in battle, and then, farewell to everything in this world, my prospects of a happy future will vanish, and although unmarried, I will ever remain the widow Buford until death.

And is it possible my dear Harry can doubt for one moment of my sincerity; or do you think that these affections can ever be placed on another, which were first fixed upon your dear self, from a convincing sense of your accomplishments and merit? No, dear Harry, my fidelity to you shall remain as unspotted as this paper was before it was blotted with ink and bedewed with tears. I know not how others love, but my engagements are for eternity. You desire me to remind you of your duty. My dear, I know not of any faults, nor am I disposed to look for any. I doubt not that the religious education you have received in your youth will enable you to resist the strongest temptations, and make that everlasting honor to the army, Lieutenant Buford, although not afraid to fight, yet afraid to sin. However terrifying it may be to meet death in the field, yet it is far more awful to appear before a just God, whom we have offended by our iniquities. There are no persons in the world accused more of irreligion than the military, while from the very nature of their employment none are more obliged to practice every Christian duty. They see thousands of their fellow-beings hurried into eternity without a moment’s warning, nor do they know but that the next day they may themselves meet the same fate. My dear Harry, never be ashamed of religion; a consciousness of your own integrity will inspire you with courage in the day of battle, and if you should at last die in defense of the right in your country’s cause, the Divine favor will be your comfort through eternity. In the meantime my prayers shall be constantly for your safety and your preservation in the day of battle, and my earnest hopes will be fixed upon your happy return. …

‘Farewell, dear Harry, and may the wisdom of God direct you, and His all-wise providence be your guard. This is the sincere prayer of one who prefers you before all the world. Grandpa and Auntie wish to be remembered to you kindly. I wrote to Brother that you would hand him a letter.

Your loving intended till death,

I give this as a favorable specimen of the love letters I was in the habit of receiving during my military career, and I have the less hesitation in doing so as it is one that no woman need be ashamed of having written. I could not help laughing a little as I read it, and yet I felt really sorry for the writer, and reproached myself for having permitted my flirtation with her to go to the length it did. The case was a particularly sad one, for the reason that the man who loved her devotedly, and who would doubtless in time have succeeded in curing her of her misplaced affections for the fictitious Lt. Buford, was among the slain at Shiloh. There was no braver soldier belonging to the Confederate army engaged in that bloody battle than Phil Hastings, and his death was doubly a source of regret to me, as by it I lost a warmhearted and sincere friend, and also an opportunity to undo the wrong I had unwittingly done him through capturing the affections of the girl he loved, by endeavoring to make matters right between him and her.

At the time of the receipt of this letter, however, I had something of more pressing importance to think of than explanations with Miss M. My boy had not put in an appearance, and suspecting that he must have lost himself, I started out to search for him; but, although I made diligent inquiry, I could not obtain any intelligence of him. This vexed me extremely, for Bob had become an invaluable servant, being very handy and entirely trustworthy, and I felt that he would be indispensable to me in the movement I now had more than half determined to make, with a view of trying to win the favors of Fortune in a somewhat new field of action.

To make matters worse, when about five miles from Corinth my horse broke from me, and stampeding out of sight, left me to get back the best way I could. I was now in a pretty fix, with scarcely any money about me, and with miles of terribly rough and muddy roads to traverse before I could regain my quarters. There was nothing, however, to do but to bear up under my misfortunes as bravely as possible, and so plunging through the mud, I tried to make my way back to Corinth with what rapidity I could. … Obtaining a horse from the quartermaster, I started back to the battlefield in company with Capt. G. Merrick Miller, who desired to bury the dead of his company.

The road was lined with stragglers, many of them suffering from severe wounds, who were slowly making their way back to their respective camps, and as we reached the scene of the late action the most ghastly sight met our eyes. The ground was thickly strewn with dead men and horses, arms and accoutrements were scattered about in every direction, wagons were stuck in the mud and abandoned, and other abundant evidences of the sanguinary nature of the conflict were perceptible to our eyes. I could face the deadliest fire without flinching, but I could not bear to look at these things, and so, after having made a number of vain inquiries for Bob, I rode back to camp, and said good-by to my Louisiana friends, leaving them under the impression that I intended to take the train.

This I probably might have done had I not fallen in with some cavalry who were about starting out on scouting duty, and been tempted to accompany them. This was the kind of work that I had a particular liking for, and as I had no definite plan for the immediate future arranged, and was desirous of finding Bob before leaving Corinth or its neighborhood, I concluded to try whether a little cavalry service would not be productive of some adventure worth participating in. An adventure of importance in its influence on my future career, sure enough, it did bring me, although it was not exactly what I anticipated or desired.

It was about dark when we set out, and we spent the night hovering about in the neighborhood of the enemy, but without anything noteworthy occurring. The next day we had a little brush with a party of Federals, and after the exchange of a few shots were compelled to retreat. After this, we came across some dead men belonging to the 10th Tennessee Regiment in the woods. Carefully removing the bodies to a field nearby, we put them in a potato bin, and with a hoe, which was the only implement we could find suited to our purpose, we covered them as well as we were able with earth.

While engaged in this melancholy duty, the enemy were occasionally firing shells in different directions, apparently feeling for us. We paid no special attention to them, as the Federals seemed to be firing at random, and, so far as we could judge, did not notice our party. Soon, however, [a shell] burst in our midst, killing a young fellow instantly, and wounding me severely in the arm and shoulder. I was thrown to the ground, and stunned with the suddenness of the thing. One of the soldiers picked me up, and stood me on my feet, saying, “Are you hurt?”

“No, not bad,” I replied, in a vague sort of way, but my whole system was terribly shocked, and I felt deathly sick. Before a great many moments, however, I perfectly recovered my consciousness, and by a resolute effort of will, endeavored to bear up bravely. I found, however, that I was unable to use my right arm, and soon the wound began to pain me terribly.

The soldier who had picked me up, seeing that I was too badly hurt to help myself, lifted me on my horse, and started back to camp with me. It was a long ride, of nearly fifteen miles, and I thought that it would never come to an end. Every moment the pain increased in intensity, and if my horse jolted or stumbled a little, I experienced the most excruciating agony. My fortitude began to give way before the terrible physical suffering I was compelled to endure; all my manliness oozed out long before I reached camp, and my woman’s nature asserted itself with irresistible force. … I longed to be where there would be no necessity for continuing my disguise and where I could obtain shelter, rest, and attention as a woman. My pride, however, and a fear of consequences, prevented me from revealing my sex, and I determined to preserve my secret as long as it was possible to do so, hoping soon to reach some place where I could be myself again with impunity.

By the time we reached camp my hand and arm were so much swollen, that my conductor found it necessary to rip the sleeve of my coat in order to get at the wound for the purpose of bathing it in cold water. The application of the water was a slight relief, but the hurt was too serious a one for such treatment to be of permanent service, so an ambulance was procured, and I was taken to the railroad and put on the train bound south, The cars stopped at Corinth for two hours, and, feeling the necessity for some medical attendance as soon as possible, I sent for a young surgeon whom I knew intimately, and telling him that I was wounded severely, asked him to try and do something to relieve my suffering.

He immediately examined my arm, and, as I perceived by the puzzled expression that passed over his face, he was beginning to suspect something, and guessing that further concealment would be useless, I told him who I really was. I never saw a more astonished man in my life. The idea of a woman engaging in such an adventure and receiving such an ugly hurt appeared to shock him extremely, and he declared that he would not take the responsibility of performing an operation, but would send for Dr. S. This frightened me, for I had witnessed some specimens of that surgeon’s method of dealing with wounded soldiers, and I insisted that he was too barbarous, and that he should not touch me. He then proposed to send for Dr. H., but I objected to this also, and finally, at my urgent solicitation, he consented to make a careful examination himself and try what he could do.

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