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Loreta’s Civil War: Deeply, darkly, beautifully blue

July 9, 2016

KS56

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 23: Velazquez returns to Havana, Cuba, with secret messages for Confederate naval forces, before resuming her espionage in New Orleans.

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I had a stroke of good luck in the very beginning. An English lady, with whom I had become slightly acquainted, was on the point of returning to her own country, having come to the conclusion that Old England was a quieter, and on the whole more agreeable place of residence, just at that time, than America. … trouble. As matters stood, however, she was anxious to get away as soon as possible, the capture of the city by the Federals, with its attendant horrors, combined with a prospect that the Confederates would before long probably make a desperate attempt to regain it, not having the most soothing effect upon her nerves. Hearing that she was about to leave, I went to her, and expressed a desire to purchase her passport and other foreign papers, confident that, armed with such documents as these, I would be able to make a fair start against the Federal authorities, and gain some immediate ad- vantages that would probably be otherwise out of the question. The lady readily consented to part with the papers for a fair price, being glad to get the money I offered for them. …

I set about preparing for a career of some activity in the way of running through the lines and communicating with the Confederate authorities. … I engaged quite extensively in the drug business, while performing the duties of a special messenger and bearer of Confederate dispatches. Drugs of all kinds were very scarce within the Confederate lines, and consequently brought enormous prices, so that any one who could manage to smuggle them past the Federal outposts was certain of reaping a handsome profit. I succeeded in obtaining a good quantity of this kind of merchandise from the different hospitals, and, as I could carry many dollars’ worth about my person without attracting particular attention, I much more than made my expenses on the several trips I undertook to Mandeville and beyond. Confederate money was also cheap, as well as plenty, in New Orleans, as everybody had some of it. … It therefore offered fine opportunities for speculation to any one who could carry it to where it was of more value than it was in New Orleans just at that time. I therefore invested quite heavily in Confederate promises to pay, and, as with the drugs, contrived to make the speculation pay handsomely.

Having made several trips with success and with much profit, I began to think that I was, perhaps, making out with my enterprises entirely too well ; and, apprehensive of getting into some difficulty which I might not be able to get out of as easily as I could wish, — for I saw a number of indications of trouble ahead, — I resolved, while on one of my expeditions, after a consultation with my Confederate friends, to return to New Orleans, for the purpose of buying up a quantity of the proscribed money, and then to leave for good, getting out of [Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin] Butler’s power while I had a fair chance of doing so. This arrangement fell through, however; for I was persuaded to make a trip to Havana for the purpose of carrying a dispatch to the Confederate cruiser … Alabama … and [to conduct] some other business of a secret character for advancing the interests of the Confederacy. This commission I accepted with eagerness and returned to New Orleans with what haste I could, with the dispatch secreted on my person, for the purpose of taking the first vessel for Havana.

The idea of making a trip to Havana was very agreeable to me for a number of reasons. My health was not so robust as it had been, and my wounded arm, although it had healed up, was still very sore and hurt me severely at times. … I needed more than anything else, for restoration to perfect health, such a rest as a sea voyage alone could give. There was, it is true, some risks in visiting Havana at this season, but I was acclimated and did not worry myself much with fears of yellow fever or other diseases. … The most important reason for my wishing to take a run over there was a desire to make the acquaintance of the Confederate agents and to learn something of their methods of transacting business in the way of sending communications through the lines. …

[T]hings were in a bad way in many respects in the beleaguered Confederacy. The coast blockade was now fully established, and the enemy’s lines were drawn so close along the principal avenues of communication with the outside world and the interior that our commerce was completely killed, and our people were already suffering for many of the necessities of life, while the requirements of warfare with a powerful enemy, amply provided with resources, were impoverishing them more and more every day. Whole districts had been devastated by the maneuverings of the different armies, and the suffering among the poorer classes throughout the entire South was very great, while many persons, who were possessed of ample wealth before the war, were now feeling the pinchings of poverty and were learning what it was not to know where the next meal was coming from. …

I started off for Havana … in anticipation of a particularly pleasant cruise which would not only be beneficial to my health, but which would afford me an agreeable change of scene. … Leaving the turbulent current and the muddy banks of the Mississippi behind me, the vessel upon which I embarked was soon ploughing her way through the beautiful blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, pointed towards my native city — a city that I had not visited since I left it years ago, when a child, to go to New Orleans for the purpose of completing my education. It was upon these waters, and in their vicinity, that my adventure-loving ancestors had achieved renown and wealth in making explorations and conquests of the New World discovered by Columbus. Not far from the track of the ship in which I was now speeding towards Havana had sailed the expedition fitted out by old Governor Don Diego Velazquez, which discovered Mexico and prepared the way for the brilliant exploits of [Hernando] Cortez and his followers, while the whole Gulf and its surrounding shores were alive with memories of the valiant deeds of the valiant people of my father’s race.

Nothing more delightful than a cruise on the Gulf of Mexico during the summer season can be imagined. The water is deeply, darkly, beautifully blue — a blue totally unlike that of the Atlantic Ocean, and one of the loveliest of colors — and to sail upon the broad bosom of this sea of sapphire, for three or four days in fine weather, with just breeze enough to make the spray fly from the tops of the waves, is one of the rarest enjoyments that life affords. I certainly enjoyed it, and every warm sea breeze that fanned my cheeks brought health, strength, and exhilaration of spirits with it. This was just what I wanted to revive me after the trials and sufferings — physical and mental — of the past twelve months, and to prepare me for the trying duties yet to be performed.

At length, far in the distance, the lofty Cuban highlands were seen, resting like a faint blue cloud on the horizon, but taking shape as we approached, until, from the misty outlines, the mountain forms began to disclose themselves, and finally cities, villages, and even single houses and trees were revealed. It seemed like going into another world, for anything more unlike the low, flat, and unpicturesque country which I had just left could scarcely be imagined, and I not only felt proud of my beautiful native island, but I wondered not that Spain should cling with such tenacity to this the fairest, and now the only really important portion of the great dominion which her valorous sons had centuries before conquered for her in the New World. At the same time, I begrudged that this fair island should be the dependency of a foreign power, for I was, despite my Spanish ancestry, an American, heart and soul, and if there was anything that could have induced me to abandon the cause of the Southern Confederacy, it would have been an attempt on the part of the Cubans to have liberated themselves from the Spanish yoke. …

After a voyage which had been to me one of uninterrupted pleasure, our ship dropped anchor before the city of Havana. No city on the globe has been more fitly named, for this harbor is unsurpassed and nestles beneath the shadow of the vine-clad hills — a broad, land-locked basin in which the navies of the world might float. … [I] landed at the earliest possible moment, and … I succeeded in finding the Confederate agent, into whose trusty hands I had been directed to place my dispatches for the Alabama. … I confidently expected to visit Havana again, and, perhaps, many times before the end of the war, and therefore was anxious to make the most of the present opportunity for gaining all the information I was able that would in any way aid me in the successful prosecution of such exploits as I might hereafter think it expedient to undertake. …

I found that the friends of the Confederacy were completely in the ascendant in Havana, and that more than one of its capitalists were deeply interested in the profitable but hazardous business of blockade-running, although, through a variety of circumstances, this city was not the headquarters of the extensive trade which the misfortunes of the South were building up, and which promised to yield almost fabulous profits should the war continue for any length of time, as these good money-loving people evidently desired that it should. …

The return trip was as agreeable as the one out, and it greatly refreshed and benefited me, so that when I again set foot on the levee at New Orleans, I felt in better condition than I had been in for a long time and was prepared for any amount of hard work, and of hard work there was likely to be plenty to do, for Butler was tightening his grasp on the people. … I did manage to do several tolerably good strokes of work before New Orleans became too unpleasant a place for me to abide in, and I was forced to the conclusion that it was best for me to take up my quarters elsewhere, outside of Butler’s jurisdiction. …

Unlike many others, I settled myself down resolutely to the business of running the lines and was not satisfied with making a trip or two and then either ceasing operations altogether or else waiting until suspicion should die away before making another attempt. I considered myself as much in the Confederate service as I was when I wore the uniform of an officer, and I felt it my duty to be, like a soldier, always vigilant, and always ready to do the enemy all the damage I possibly could. I therefore went about the prosecution of my plans systematically, taking all proper precautions, of course, to avoid detection, but trusting a good deal to luck and to my ready wit to get me out of any difficulty into which I might happen to fall. …

I do not know whether or not Butler and his satellites ever suspected me up to the time they caught me. When I was finally detected and arraigned before the general, he tried his best to play the bully and to frighten me into making some admissions, and he intimated that I had been under surveillance for a long time. This, however, was probably all brag, or at least I chose to understand it as such, and as I did not frighten at all to his satisfaction, he did not succeed in making a great deal out of me.

Not a great while after my return from Havana, I undertook to go to Robertson’s Plantation, for the purpose of sending some dispatches as well as some verbal information to the Confederate forces stationed at Franklin. It was necessary for me to make the trip after nightfall and to walk the entire distance of seventeen miles, and that such a tramp could scarcely be a particularly pleasant exercise, those who are acquainted with the country around New Orleans need not be reminded. … I had not much difficulty in getting past the outposts, and once sure that I was out of sight and sound of the Federal pickets, I started off at a steady pace, bent upon getting over as much ground as I could before daylight came and rendered it necessary for me to be more cautious in my movements. I made pretty good time, but did not get along as fast as I would have done had I been in male attire, and long before I reached my destination I heartily wished that it had been possible for me to have donned a masculine habit in safety, for a woman’s skirts are not adapted for fast traveling on a Louisiana highway on a sultry summer’s night, with only the stars and the fireflies to lighten the pathway.

It was a terribly lonesome walk. After getting past the pickets, I did not meet with a single human being throughout the whole of my long and weary journey. The only sounds to be heard were the barking of the alligators or the splashing of one of these monsters as he plunged into the stream at my approach. I was frequently startled by the sounds made by these horrid animals close at hand after a considerable interval of silence, but pushed on resolutely despite them, and despite the swarms of mosquitoes, which seemed to increase in number as I proceeded, and which occasioned me infinite annoyance. Whenever I sat down to rest, which I was compelled to do a number of times before my journey was completed, these venomous insects attacked me with the greatest fury, and my face and hands were terribly bitten before I was able to escape from them. These were some of the delights of my long night walk for the purpose of fulfilling my mission as a bearer of dispatches, and it was an immense relief to me when, just about daybreak, I reached my destination, foot-sore and completely tired out, but satisfied with having accomplished my errand without having been interrupted.

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