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Loreta’s Civil War: Not the handsomest man I ever saw

July 12, 2016

KS54

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 24: Velazquez is arrested, brought before the infamous commander of Federal forces in New Orleans, and accused of being a spy.

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I found some Confederate soldiers preparing to cross the lake, and, going to one of them, who seemed to be in command of the party, I told him a number of things which I had thought it more prudent not to commit to writing, and desired him to pass the word along. Then, waiting until the boat was ready to set sail, I gave him an enclosure containing my dispatches, asking him, if possible, to deliver it at headquarters, or if he was unable to do this, to drop it at the earliest moment in the post office. … He promised a faithful compliance with my instructions, and jumping into the boat, he and his companions shoved off from the shore and were soon lost in the heavy mist that rested upon the surface of the lake. …

Unluckily for me, [the] officer to whom I had entrusted my dispatch was captured, and the document was found upon his person. Through some means, which I could not surmise, the provost marshal was informed that I was the writer of the dispatch, although the name signed to it was not the one he knew me by. A negro was found, too, who swore that he had seen me walking along the river, outside of the lines, and the result was that I was placed under arrest, and taken before [Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin] Butler himself.

Butler was not the handsomest man I ever saw in my life, and he certainly looked the tyrant that he was. It was a favorite amusement with him to browbeat people who were brought before him, and he was remarkably skillful in terrifying those who were weak enough to submit to being bullied by him into making just the admission he wanted them to make. I had heard a good deal about his peculiar methods of dealing with those who had incurred his displeasure in any way … and I was therefore prepared, in a measure, for the ordeal which I was now compelled to undergo. …

[W]hen I was brought into his presence, he proceeded on the theory that I was the person he wanted and that I was guilty of the charge made against me. He evidently thought the case was a perfectly plain one and that I would not attempt a denial. I, however, kept cool and refused to look at the matter from his point of view, and, as none of the witnesses who appeared were able to swear positively to my identity as the woman who had acted as the bearer of the dispatch found on the Confederate officer, I began to think that I was going to get clear without a great deal of trouble.

Butler, however, was not one from whom it was easy to get away when his suspicions were once aroused, and I saw plainly that he was convinced of the fact that he had captured the right person this time, and that his prisoner was a spy who had been giving him serious annoyance. He was, therefore, resolved not to let me slip through his fingers if he could help it, and finding that he could not absolutely prove anything against me, he concluded to try whether it would not be possible to force me into committing myself.

When, therefore, instead of ordering my release, Butler settled his pudgy figure back in his chair, and, apparently, making a vigorous attempt to look straight at me with both eyes at once — an impossibility, by the way — said, with a harsh, grating voice, and with what was intended to be an intensely satirical manner, “Well, madam, you have shown your hand nicely. I have been wanting you for some time past, and I propose to send you to Ship Island” — I felt that the real ordeal was but just commencing.

Without permitting myself to be disconcerted, either by his manner or by his threat, I replied, “I guess not; the law does not permit you to sentence anyone on mere hearsay or belief, and no evidence has been produced against me. …”

“Come, come, madam, I don’t want any of this nonsense,” struck in Butler, sharply. “I know you, and your tricks; and as your little game is played out, you might as well confess, and be done with it.”

“There is no difficulty about your finding out who I am,” I retorted. “My name, and residence, and circumstances are well known to your officers, and have been ever since the capture of the city. You have no proof against me, and I have nothing to confess.”

“Do you mean to say,” continued the general, “that you are not the writer of that letter, or that you did not smuggle it through the lines?”

“I don’t mean to say anything about it,” I answered, “and I don’t mean to confess what I didn’t do.”

By this time Butler, seeing that he was not making much headway with me, began to get angry, and he roared out, “Well, madam, if you won’t confess without compulsion, I’ll see whether I can’t compel you. I’m tired of this sort of thing, and I’m going to make an example of you for the benefit of the other female spies who are hanging about this city.” I replied, as cool as possible, “You may get yourself into trouble, sir, if you attempt to punish an innocent woman on a false and scandalous charge like this, when there is not a particle of evidence to sustain it.”

This appeared to infuriate Butler more than ever; and, turning to one of his officers, he gave an order that I should be locked up in a cell in the Custom House until my case was investigated further. When I heard this order I turned to him with all the dignity I could command, and said, “One word, sir, you will please to understand that I am a British subject and that I claim the protection of the British flag.”

Butler, who displayed a particular antipathy to foreigners, and especially to the English, on all occasions, blurted out, “We will see about that. I don’t care for Johnny Bull,” and then turning to the officer he said, “Take that woman to the Custom House.”

This ended the investigation, and I left the presence of the general, feeling tolerably well-satisfied with having got the best of him thus far, but dubious about the ultimate issue of the affair, for I was confident that he would make an endeavor to fasten the charge on me in such a manner that there would be no escape. …

I, however, was not disposed to vex myself with troubles before they came, and preserved my equanimity, trusting to my usual good luck to bring my present difficulties to a satisfactory conclusion. The officer in whose charge I was placed was a gentleman in every respect, and he treated me in the most courteous manner while escorting me to the Custom House, apologizing for being compelled to perform so unpleasant a duty, and, on our arrival at the building which was to serve as my prison, he procured a nice camp bed for my cell, and in other ways tried to make me as comfortable as circumstances would permit. He ordered that my meals should be sent me regularly and promised that an effort would be made to prevent my incarceration from being any more unpleasant than was absolutely necessary. …

A friend of mine, Sergeant B., hearing that I was imprisoned, came to see me, and on my expressing a great desire to have some pens, ink, and paper, he promised to procure them and slip them in to me. He also said that he would carry any message I might desire to send to my friends outside. I thanked him and requested him to try and let me have some writing materials as soon as possible. He therefore procured them, and I immediately wrote a note to Mr. Coppell, the British consul, in which I explained my situation briefly, and asked his assistance.

Mr. Coppell called upon me at once, and I, claiming that I was a British subject … asked his protection and his influence for a release without more delay. He promised to do what he could for me and asked for my proofs of British citizenship. I therefore gave him my trunk key and the number of my room, with a description of the papers I had purchased in view of just such an emergency as this, and he, having obtained them, went to Butler’s headquarters to demand my liberation.

I do not know what passed between the consul and the general, but the result of the interview was an order for my release, and I accordingly walked out of the Custom House under Mr. Coppell’s escort, and with all the rebel in me exultant at having got the better of Butler.

I understood plainly that my operations as a spy in New Orleans were now at an end, and that the safest and best thing I could do, if I did not want to get into further trouble, would be to leave the city at the earliest possible moment. There was, however, no longer any necessity for keeping my rebel sympathies concealed, and I was really glad of an opportunity to let them be seen. As we were going out of the Custom House I heard some one bragging how they were going to thrash Johnny Bull, and I could not resist the temptation of turning to Mr. Coppell, who must also have heard the remark, and saying, “That fellow must be crazy. He and his friends had better wipe out secession first, before they talk about whipping Johnny Bull.” I said this loud enough for everbody to hear me, and it made the speaker and others around us furious, and elicited several retorts, at which we only laughed. This was a foolish proceeding on my part, but I could not help taking a bit of womanly revenge on my enemies for what they had done to me.

Having obtained my freedom again, I prepared to forsake New Orleans and applied for a pass. This, however, was refused me, and I saw that if I intended to get out of Butler’s power so as to be able to resume operations either as a spy or as a Confederate officer, it would be necessary for me to run the blockade. Situated as I was, and under suspicion of being a spy, this, I was well aware, would be a particularly risky thing to attempt; but there was no alternative left me except to either attempt it, or else remain in the city in idleness, and in constant danger of having some of my many previous transactions, in the way of carrying information to the Confederates, found out. I felt very certain that if Butler did succeed in discovering who I was … I would not get off so easily as I had done in my first controversy with him, and I therefore concluded that I ran a greater risk in remaining in New Orleans than I did in attempting to leave it surreptitiously. …

I knew well that some of the stanchest adherents of the Confederacy were to be found among the poor white population of New Orleans and vicinity. I knew that if I could once make the other side of Lake Pontchartrain I would be safe, and that there would be fewer risks to run in attempting an escape in that direction than in any other. I accordingly laid my plans for a trip across the lake, with a view of striking a point near the railroad so that I could reach Jackson with the least inconvenience.

Going down to the lake, I found a fisherman who was pursuing his avocation under a permit from Butler, and taking advantage of an opportunity to speak to him when our conversation could not be overheard, I asked, “Do any rebels ever cross the lake without papers?”

“Yes,” said he, “sometimes.”

“Do you think that you could take me over if I were to make it worth your while?” said I.

“Are you a Reb?” he questioned, looking at me sharply.

“They say I am,” I answered.

“Well, I might take you over if you will pay enough.”

“I’ll give you a good deal more than you can get for any job you do for the Federals.”

“All right, then,” said he, and without more argument we struck a bargain and arranged time and place of meeting, my boatman giving me some directions how to proceed so as to avoid attracting attention, from which I inferred that this was not the first time he had been engaged in running the blockade. … At the appointed time I was at the rendezvous, and saw my boatman waiting. Fearful, however, of being apprehended just as I was about to start, I did not show myself at first, but crept cautiously through the bushes until I could see whether any one was observing my movements. Finding the coast apparently clear, I made a signal to the man, and he approached and took me into the boat.

In a moment more the sail was hoisted, and we were speeding over the lake before a good breeze, which promised, ere a great while, to waft me beyond Butler’s jurisdiction, and enable me once more to give the Confederacy the benefit of my services.

I had a reasonable amount of confidence in the fidelity of the boatman, but at the same time was determined to be prepared against any attempt at treachery on his part. I had, accordingly, provided myself with a six-shooter and had taken pains to see that it was loaded and all in condition for instant use before leaving my room. On taking my seat in the boat I placed my hand on this weapon, and was resolved to put it to the head of the man if he showed the slightest indication of a desire to betray me. I had no fancy for a sojourn on Ship Island, and would, without the slightest hesitation, have used my revolver freely before submitting to a capture. The man, however, was faithful enough, and with the prospect of a liberal reward before him, he was only eager to reach the other side of the lake as soon as he could, and to avoid the Federal patrols in doing so.

Fortune favored us, and it was not long before we were out of the reach of immediate danger, and in a fair way to make the Mississippi shore without being interfered with. On landing I paid the boatman his money, according to the bargain I had made with him and started off for the nearest railroad station for the purpose of going to Jackson. Thus ended my career in New Orleans as a Confederate spy. It was a successful one, taking all things into consideration, but I was not sorry to get away, and considered myself fortunate in being able to make my escape with as much ease as I did.

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2 Comments
  1. Very interesting! I must read more about this woman, definitely a woman before her time! Thanks for sharing.

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