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Loreta’s Civil War: The proper costume of my sex

July 14, 2016

KS53

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 25: Velazquez barely escapes a hotel fire, reunites with her missing slave, and returns to Richmond to resume her espionage activities.

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In leaving New Orleans I had no very definite plans for the immediate future … but did not doubt of my ability to find a field for the display of my talents ere a great while. I was now more intent than ever upon being employed on detective and scouting duty, for which my recent residence in New Orleans had been an excellent schooling; so excellent, indeed, that I considered myself as well out of my apprenticeship, and as quite competent to assume all the responsibilities of the most difficult or dangerous jobs that might be thrust upon me. …

I judged that matters ought soon to be approaching a crisis somewhere, although exactly what definite aims the belligerents were driving at, if, indeed, they had any just then, I could not comprehend. I resolved, if a grand movement of any kind was coming off, that I must have a hand in it in some shape but that if something of importance was not attempted before a great while I would return to Virginia and see what Fortune had in store for me there. I judged, however, that I would not have much difficulty in finding work to do in the West if I went about looking for it in the right way, and I knew of no better locality in which to seek the information I needed before commencing operations in the field again than Jackson.

To Jackson, therefore, I went … and arrived just in time to witness an occurrence for which I was sincerely sorry. This was the burning of the Bowman House by [Confederate Gen. John C.] Breckenridge’s men, who were infuriated at being told that the proprietor had permitted the Federals to occupy the hotel, and that he had entertained them. … The unfortunate man was in reality not to blame in the matter, for the Federals had occupied his house without his consent. … This incident will serve to show the desperately unpleasant position of the non-combatants throughout this whole region at this and later periods of the war. They were literally between two fires, and no matter how peaceably disposed they might be, they could satisfy neither party and were made to suffer by both. The proprietor of the Bowman House was forced to witness a fine property destroyed before his eyes through the reckless and unthinking anger of men who never stopped to inquire whether he was guilty or not of any offense against them or their cause before taking vengeance upon him. He was reduced to poverty by the burning of his hotel, and I could not help feeling the keenest regret for the occurrence, although I recognized it as one of the inevitable calamities of warfare.

I was, myself, in the hotel when it was fired and barely succeeded in escaping from the building with my life. Not expecting any such occurrence, I had taken rooms and was proceeding to make myself comfortable when, all of a sudden, I found that it was in flames, and that it would be as much as I could do to get out unscathed. The men who fired the building did not give the proprietor an opportunity to make explanations, or if they did, they refused to believe him. …

Several times already had the Federals made attacks of greater or less importance on Vicksburg, which city was now the most important position held by the Confederacy, and commanding the Mississippi River as it did, its possession was considered a matter of the most vital importance. The fall of Vicksburg, everybody knew, would practically give the Federals possession of the river throughout its entire length, and as such a calamity would … be an even greater blow to the Confederate cause than the fall of New Orleans had been. … That sooner or later the Federals would make a more determined effort than they had done previously to take this post appeared to be certain but the natural advantages of the position were such and the fortifications in course of construction were so strong … that the utmost confidence in the ability of the garrison to hold it was felt by every one. …

On my arrival at Jackson I heard of my negro boy Bob for the first time since I had lost him, just after the battle of Shiloh. I therefore proceeded to Grenada, where I found the darkey, who appeared to be heartily glad to see me again after such a long separation. Bob, it seems, had gone plump into a Federal camp, having missed his road, after I had started him off for Corinth but, not liking the company he found there, had slipped away at the earliest opportunity and had wandered about in a rather aimless manner for some time, seeking for me. Not being able to hear anything of me, he had made up his mind that I was dead, and was quite surprised to see me turn up again alive and well. …

From Grenada, I returned once more to Jackson and found the place in considerable excitement over the prospective army movements but as there did not seem to be much for me to do in the particular line of business I desired to take up, I now determined to put my old intention of returning to Virginia into execution, and … I was soon speeding eastward again on my way to Richmond.

I should have mentioned that after leaving New Orleans I resumed male attire at the earliest possible moment and figured once more as Lt. Harry T. Buford. Perhaps if I had gone to [Confederate Gen. Joseph E.] Johnston or some other commanding officer of high rank and frankly stated that I was a woman, giving at the same time a narrative of my exploits, and furnishing references as guarantees of the truthfulness of my story, I would have obtained the kind of employment I was looking for, with permission to use the garments of either sex, as I might deem expedient for the particular errand I had in hand. …

Once past the Confederate pickets, I believed that I could easily reach Washington, and I felt certain that a skillful spy, such as I esteemed myself now to be, could, without great difficulty, find out plenty of things which the Richmond authorities would be glad to know, and for the furnishing of which they would be glad to extend me such recognition as I desired. The military situation in Virginia, too, was more satisfactory than it was in the West, and I had a hankering to be where the Confederates were occasionally winning some victories. Since I had been in the West, I had witnessed little else than disaster, and I greatly desired to take a hand in a fight when the victory would rest with the Confederates, if only for the sake of variety. …

The war had now been in progress nearly two years, and, although the South had not been conquered, affairs were beginning to look decidedly blue for us. All our fine expectations of an easy achievement of our independence had long since vanished, and the situation every day was getting more and more desperate. The country was becoming exhausted, and had not its natural resources been enormous, our people must, ere this, have given up the contest. As it was, with a large portion of the male population in the field, and with heavy drafts being constantly made upon it to fill the ranks of the armies, the cultivation of the ground was neglected, and the necessities of life every day became scarcer and dearer. We were shut out, too, owing to the stringency of the Federal blockade, from anything like regular intercourse with Europe, and all kinds of manufactured articles, and the food we had been accustomed to import, were held at such enormous figures, that they were utterly beyond the reach of any but the most wealthy. The suffering among the poorer classes in all parts of the South was very great, and in those portions which had been devastated by the tramp of the different armies, many of the people were very nearly on the verge of starvation.

It was fast becoming a serious question how long the contest could be prolonged, unless some signal advantage could speedily be achieved in the field by the Confederate forces. It is impossible to express in words how eagerly all classes looked for the achievement of some such advantage, and how bitter was the disappointment, as month after month wore away, and in spite of occasional victories, the people saw, day by day, the Federals drawing their lines closer and closer, and slowly but surely closing in upon them.

We were now entering upon the desperate stage of the war, when the contest was conducted almost against hope, and had the South been inhabited by a less determined race, or one less animated by a fixed resolve to fight to the very last, and until it was impossible to fight any longer, the Federal forces would have succeeded long ere they did in compelling a surrender of the Confederate armies. The men who commanded the armies, however, were not the sort to give up until they were absolutely defeated, and it was starvation, rather than the Federal arms, that at length forced the contest to the conclusion it reached, by the surrender of the armies under the command of [Robert E.] Lee and [Joseph E.] Johnston. …

Richmond … was a very different place from what it was on my last visit to it, as I soon found to my cost. Martial law was in force in its most rigorous aspect. … Beleaguered as Richmond was, every person was more or less an object of suspicion, and strangers, especially, were watched with a vigilance that left them few opportunities to do mischief, or were put under arrest, and placed in close confinement. …

It is not surprising, therefore, that almost immediately upon my arrival in Richmond I fell under the surveillance … as a suspicious character, and was called upon to give an account of myself. My story was not accepted in the same spirit of credibility that some rather tough yarns I had manufactured in the course of my career, for the purpose of satisfying the curiosity of inquisitive people, had been. … There was, evidently, something suspicious and mysterious about me, and, suspicion having once been excited, some lynx-eyed detective was not long in noting certain feminine ways I had, and which even my long practice in figuring as a man had not enabled me to get rid of, and the result was, that I was arrested on the charge of being a woman in disguise, and supposedly a Federal spy, and was conducted to Castle Thunder to reflect upon the mutabilities of fortune until I could give a satisfactory account of myself.

I thought that this was rather hard lines, but as good luck often comes to us in the guise of present tribulation, as matters turned out it was the very best thing that could have happened to me, for it compelled me to reveal myself and my plans to persons who were willing and able to aid me, and to tell my story to friendly and sympathetic ears.

The commander of Castle Thunder was Major G. W. Alexander, a gentleman who, ever since I made his acquaintance through being committed to his custody as a prisoner, I have always been proud to number among my best and most highly-esteemed friends. Major Alexander and his lovely wife both showed the greatest interest in me, and they treated me with such kindness and consideration that I was induced to tell them exactly who I was, what my purposes were in assuming the male garb, what adventures I had passed through, and what my aspirations were for the future. They not only believed my story, but thinking that my services to the Confederacy merited better treatment than I was then receiving at the hands of the authorities, interested themselves greatly in my behalf.

Both the major and his wife … seemed to be shocked, however, at the idea of a woman dressing herself in the garb of the other sex and attempting to play the part of a soldier, and they eagerly urged me to resume the proper costume of my sex again, assuring me that there would be plenty of work for me to do if I were disposed still to devote myself to the service of the Confederacy. The major, however … was urgent that I should abandon my disguise and represented, in forcible terms, the dangers I ran in persisting in wearing it.

To these remonstrances I turned a deaf ear. I had passed through too many real trials to be frightened by imaginary ones, and I did not like to change my costume under compulsion. I accordingly refused positively to put on the garments of a woman, except as a means of gaining my liberty, and with the full intention of resuming male attire at the earliest opportunity. Major Alexander, therefore, finding me fixed in my determination to have my own way, undertook to have matters arranged to my satisfaction without putting me to the necessity of discarding my disguise. …

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