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Loreta’s Civil War: I turned my head and spit

July 16, 2016

KS52

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 26: Confederate authorities in Lynchburg arrest Velazquez and accuse her of dressing as a man, and the town’s ladies are fascinated with her.

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[Confederate Brig. Gen. John H.] Winder was one of the most remarkable men I became acquainted with during my whole career as an officer and a spy in the Confederate service. He was a venerable, pleasant-looking old gentleman, with white hair, and a rather agreeable expression of countenance that was well calculated to deceive superficial observers with regard to his real character. He had a most confiding, plausible way about him, and an air of general benevolence that completely masked the hardness of his heart, and imposed so on his victims that, until they found themselves fairly caught in his cunningly-laid traps, they were unwilling to believe him to be the desperate old sinner he really was. Calculated as Gen. Winder was to leave a favorable impression at first glance, he would not bear inspection. No man of strongly-marked character can long conceal his real self from those who are accustomed to study human nature, and a very slight acquaintance with Winder sufficed to convince me that he was a dangerous man to trifle with, and that cruelty and rapacity were among his predominant traits. His eyes were hard, cold, and piercing, and there was a wicked twist about his mouth that was far from being reassuring. I do not believe that man had such a thing as a conscience, that he was utterly unscrupulous with regard to the means he took for the accomplishment of his ends, I know. He was a most valuable officer, however, and I doubt whether another individual in the whole Confederacy could have been found who would have commanded the secret service corps with the signal ability he did. …

Without more interruption or delay I proceeded on my journey and finally reached [Confederate Gen. Earl] Van Dorn, to whom I delivered my package of supposed dispatches [from Winder]. He read Winder’s letter, and looked through the lot of [blank papers] which had accompanied them, then, glancing at me, he burst into a laugh, which indicated that he saw something funny in the proceeding, and after a few questions, he ordered me to return. This might be good fun for Van Dorn and Winder but I did not particularly admire having been sent all this distance on such a fool’s errand, and was very much disposed to resent it. A little reflection, however, told me that it was none of my business what the pretended dispatches were, and that as I had accomplished my errand according to order, and without falling into the snare that Gen. Winder himself had evidently set for me, I had every reason to be satisfied and would probably find, on getting back to Richmond, that he was satisfied also.

I was anxious to reach Richmond at as early a day as possible, for I heard a number of rumors which induced me to believe that another great battle was shortly to be fought. …. I found, however, on reaching Richmond, that there was no present chance for a battle, and consequently settled myself down as contentedly as possible to do whatever work might be assigned me in the secret service department. It seemed to be an impossibility for me now to avoid getting into continual trouble about my disguise. [I]t began to be whispered about among the soldiers and citizens that a woman dressed as a man had been discovered, and some highly-exaggerated rumors with regard to my exploits were diligently circulated. My having received a wound shortly after the battle of Shiloh appeared to be a particularly attractive episode to the minds of many people, and my performances at that battle were believed, in some quarters, to have been of a most extraordinary nature. Indeed, I do not know but that some people thought me the commander-in-chief of the Confederate forces on the occasion, while I was credited with exploits of unparalleled heroism.

This sort of rather indefinite celebrity might have amused me and pleased my vanity were it not the source of much annoyance. Not only did the report that this woman-soldier had come to Virginia have a tendency to attract attention to me and to excite suspicions that might never have occurred to anyone, but the extraordinary vigilance that was exercised on all sides to prevent spies from pursuing their occupations in safety and to prevent deserters from escaping was sure to occasion me troubles of various kinds. I felt out of the reach of serious danger, it is true, having been assigned to duty in the secret service corps by Gen. Winder but the fact of my being in this corps would not prevent my arrest and detention at any time if somebody should take a fancy to believe that I was not all that my outward appearances represented.

I was vexed, therefore, but scarcely surprised, when, shortly after my return from my trip to Van Dorn’s headquarters, on taking a run over to Lynchburg, I was again arrested on the charge of being a woman in disguise. My sword was taken from me, and I was otherwise treated with a good deal more rudeness than I thought there was any occasion for, and this treatment had the effect of making me obstinate and indisposed to give my captors any satisfaction with regard to who I was, and for a considerable time I stood out strongly for my rights as an officer in the Confederate army. I was subjected to a brief examination before his honor the mayor, but refused to commit myself; and it very soon became apparent that my captors were in somewhat of a quandary as to the best course to pursue with regard to me. It was finally, however, decided to hold me for the present, and I was assigned to tolerably comfortable quarters, where I proceeded to make myself as much at home as I could.

Now the fun commenced. It having become rumored about that a woman, disguised as a Confederate officer, had been arrested, all the curiosity-seekers of the town became immensely excited, especially as the most exaggerated reports of my heroic deeds on the battlefield and elsewhere were in circulation, and everybody — the women in particular — evinced the most eager desire to see the heroine of innumerable bloody conflicts.

I began to be pestered with visitors, who plied me with all sorts of questions, some of them most insulting ones, but which I was compelled to refrain from getting angry at for fear of betraying myself. My position was a most unpleasant one, and it required very skillful management for me to play the part of a man to advantage. What gave piquancy to the situation was that, while it was generally believed I was a woman, and the particular woman whose exploits had reached their ears, my visitors were [not] quite sure which sex I belonged to, and all their efforts were directed to solving the mystery.

While the attentions I received from the good citizens of Lynchburg, and particularly from the women folk of that town, were all in a greater or less degree annoying, some of my interviews with the visitors who persisted in calling upon me were decidedly amusing and caused me much hearty laughter.

On one occasion I heard feminine voices and footsteps approaching and prepared myself for the ordeal which I would be compelled to go through with. During the two years and more I had been wearing male attire, I had not only learned the general carriage of a man, but had picked up a good many little masculine traits which I had practiced until I was quite perfect in them. I relied greatly upon these to aid me in maintaining my incognito, for they were eminently characteristic and well calculated to throw a suspicious person off guard. So when I heard these visitors coming, I stuck my feet up on the window-sill, and, just as they were opening the door, I turned my head and spit.

This action attracted the attention of the youngest of the two ladies who were entering, immediately, and I heard her say in a whisper to the elder, “Oh, ma, that can’t be a woman! See how he spits!” I saw that my little ruse was a success and laughed inwardly at the impression it made on the ladies.

They were a mother and daughter, and had evidently come to remonstrate with me in good set terms about the impropriety of my costume. One little peculiarly mannish gesture, however, so completely confounded them that they did not venture to approach the subject they had in their minds except in the most roundabout way. They were very nice people and were disposed to be as kind to me as they possibly could but I did not think proper to give them any satisfaction with regard to what they were most concerned about, and, after a somewhat embarrassed conversation … they took their departure as wise as they came.

Not long after, I had another visitor of a somewhat different kind. This was a motherly old lady who seemed to consider that her years and experience gave her a right to speak to me in plain words, whether I was a man or a woman. She accordingly, without any ceremony, began to subject me to a very rigid cross-examination but I replied to her questions in a manner that was anything but to her satisfaction. The result was that both of us at length began to be somewhat vexed, and, as I could not understand what right she had to undertake such a task … and considered her behavior impertinent in the extreme, I resolved to say a few words that I thought would settle her.

Finding that she could not obtain any definite answers to her questions, she finally said, “Well, all I’ve got to say is, that if you really are a young man, you deserve credit for what you have done to advance the interests of the cause. If you are a woman, however, you are disgracing your sex by dressing yourself up in men’s clothes and attempting to be a soldier. If you wanted to serve your country, you might have found some other way of doing it, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

This made me a little mad, but I kept cool, and, shrugging my shoulders, said, in as deliberate a manner as possible, looking the old lady straight in the eyes, “Well, madam, as you seem to be in doubt about my sex and are apparently exceedingly anxious to find out whether I am a man or a woman, allow me to suggest that the facts of the case can very readily be established to your satisfaction. Suppose you –”

But it would be cruelty to the reader to give the rest of my reply, so I will leave it unrecorded.

It had an astonishing effect, however, on my visitor. She got red in the face, her eyes flashed, and, muttering something that I did not hear, she bounced out of the room, leaving me to enjoy a hearty laugh at the comical termination of the adventure. My irate visitor went down stairs in hot haste, and, in a terrible state of excitement, informed the mayor that that nasty little fellow had insulted her. The supposed insult I explained in such a way that the laugh was fairly turned upon the ancient dame.

If such occurrences as these had been the only annoyances to which I was subjected, no particular harm would have been done. … To my surprise and indignation, however, I received one day the following letter from a general officer with whom I was acquainted and whom I had hitherto regarded as something of a gentleman:

“Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, C.S.A.

“Dear Sir: If you will accept a position on my staff as one of my [aides], I can obtain for you your release from the civil authorities. You will have a pleasant time. I will furnish you with a fine horse and you can share my quarters and my mess.”

The meaning of this did not require explanation. It stung me to the heart that a man who had fought with me on the same field of battle should offer me such an indignity, situated as I was, and I was so overcome with rage at the insult that I would have killed him without thought of the consequences to myself, could I have reached him. I replied instantly to his note, stating that I would meet him at any time and place he might designate, and that I would either kill him or he would have to kill me, for I was resolved that no man should insult me with impunity. I heard no more from him, and when I gained my freedom once more, he was gone. At that time the writer of this insulting note was single, but now he is married, and it is only for the sake of his noble little wife and his family that I refrain from branding his name with infamy. I am informed that he always speaks of me with the highest respect but, as I have no respect for him, I care not what his opinion of me may be.

Finally, I obtained my release, and having had quite enough of Lynchburg, and being anxious to escape from the gaze of the impertinently curious people, who watched my every motion, I took my departure without any delay.

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