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Loreta’s Civil War: Squeezing out a few real tears

July 21, 2016

KS50

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 28: Velazquez practices her skills of manipulation on a hapless Confederate officer dazzled by her charm and beauty.

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Luckily for me no one observed my movements, and I made my way to the nearest Federal picket station without interruption. I gave my name as Mrs. Williams, told as much as I thought the officer in charge ought to know about me, and asked to see [Union Maj. Gen. William S.] Rosecrans. I was accordingly ushered into the general’s presence and gave him a somewhat more detailed account of myself. I represented that I was a widow woman who was endeavoring to escape from the Confederacy and who desired to go to her friends in the North, and, judging from appearances, I quite won upon the sympathies of the Federal commander. He asked me a great number of questions, which I answered to his satisfaction, and he then dismissed me, with a pass permitting me to go North. I could not help smiling at the ease with which I deceived Gen. Rosecrans and said to myself, as I retired from his presence, “My good old fellow, I’ll teach you what we Southern women are good for before I am done with you.”

Having got my pass, I started off, with a general notion of seeing all I could see, and finding out all I could find out, watching all the time for an opportunity for the execution of a grand coup. Picking up information here and there, some of which was of no little importance, I traveled as far as Martinsburg and had a considerable notion of proceeding to Washington to see whether a second visit to that city would not be even more productive of results than my first. Circumstances occurred, however, which detained me in Martinsburg, and my trip to Washington was, therefore, deferred to another opportunity. …

It was after night when I reached Martinsburg and the only unoccupied room in the hotel where I stopped was the one belonging to a Federal quartermaster, that officer having been called away to Washington. The landlord, accordingly, put me in there, and I proceeded to make myself as much at home as possible in the quartermaster’s quarters. As luck would have it, however, the officer returned during the night, and after I had retired, and finding the door bolted, he commenced a furious knocking.

I was asleep when he began to make this noise, and it caused me to wake with a start. I had no idea who it was, but thought some drunken fellow was making a disturbance. I therefore concluded not to take any notice, thinking that when he found he could not get in he would go away. The quartermaster, however, was angry at finding his room occupied, and being unable to obtain a response, finally said, “Open the door, inside there, or I will break it open!”

I thought that it was high time for me to speak now, and so said, in a half-terrified tone of voice, “Who are you? What do you want?” Finding that his apartment had a feminine occupant, he lowered his voice somewhat, and said, “Excuse me, madam,” and walked to the office, where he gave the clerk some sharp words for permitting any one to take his room. I heard him say, “I would like thundering well to know who she is,” but the clerk was unable to give him any satisfactory information, and the upshot of the whole matter was, that he was obliged to sleep in the parlor. …

Having made my morning toilet, and having, in anticipation of striking up an acquaintance with the quartermaster, endeavored to make myself as attractive as possible in outward appearance, I left my room and went and took a seat in the parlor. It was not long before I saw my gentleman, or one whom I supposed to be he, walking past the door, and looking at me with a rather curious gaze. I, however, took no notice of him, concluding that it would be more to the purpose to let him make the first advances, something that he was evidently not indisposed to do.

Breakfast was announced as ready before a great while, and with the announcement came the quartermaster’s opportunity to introduce himself to me. Advancing towards me, he bowed very politely, and said, “Are you Mrs. Williams?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied, “that is my name.”

Smiling as agreeably as he could, he said, “I owe you an apology, madam, for the disturbance I made at your door last night. I was not aware that there was a lady in possession of the room.”

“Oh, sir,” I said, “no apology is necessary, I assure you. Indeed, I rather owe you one, for I fear I must have caused you some inconvenience.”

“Oh, not at all, madam. On the contrary, when I learned that a lady had possession of the apartment, I regretted exceedingly that I had made so much noise. We officers of the army, however, are inclined to become rather rough in our ways, owing to the associations we are thrown in with, and to our absence from female society. We forget, sometimes, that we are civilized human beings, and don’t know exactly how to behave ourselves under circumstances where rudeness is inexcusable.”

“Oh, pray, sir, don’t apologize,” I answered. “I am sure that an officer of our brave army would not be intentionally rude under any circumstances.” I thought that this would do to start the idea in his mind that I was a staunch Federal.

Just then a colored woman appeared and asked us whether we would not walk into breakfast, and my new-made friend very politely said, “As you are a stranger here, will you permit me to escort you to the breakfast room?”

“Certainly, sir,” I replied, and taking his arm, we walked into the room together, my escort finding a seat for me beside himself at one of the pleasantest tables.

During the progress of the meal, my friend manifested the greatest interest in me and my movements, and by a series of questions, he elicited the information that I was from Cincinnati, that I was uncertain how long I would remain, and that I was in search of a brother [named Dick], whom I greatly feared was either killed or wounded, as he had not been heard of for an unusually long time.

The little game I was playing with the quartermaster will serve as a very fair specimen of the methods which a secret service agent is compelled to use for the purpose of gaining such information as is desired. A spy, or a detective, must have a quick eye, a sharp ear, a retentive memory, and a talent for taking advantage of small and apparently unimportant points as aids for the accomplishment of the object in view. While making the journey which had brought me as far as Martinsburg, I had, of course, kept my eyes and ears open and had consequently accumulated quite an extensive stock of knowledge which I thought might be useful some time. …

My friend asked me what company my brother belonged to, but I said that I could not tell him that. All I knew was that … the command had been engaged in some sharp fighting lately, [and] his family, as they had not heard from him, were becoming exceedingly anxious. I believe that I wiped the semblance of a tear from my eye as I told all this and looked as distressed as possible, in the hope of working on the quartermaster’s sympathies. He proved as sympathetic as I could have desired, and bidding me not to distress myself unnecessarily, but to hope for the best, he promised to undertake to find out for me where my brother was, if still alive, or, if it should turn out that he had been killed, where he was buried.

Accordingly, when we had finished breakfast, he escorted me back to the parlor, and then, saying au revoir, he went immediately to headquarters to inspect the roll of the command. Before a great while he returned, and, with a very sorrowful countenance, stated that it gave him pain to tell me that my dear brother was dead.

“Oh, that is awful!” I cried, and began to go on at quite a rate, actually, I believe, squeezing out a few real tears.

My friend tried to soothe me as well as he could, and finally, becoming calm, in response to repeated requests to do so on his part, I asked him where Dick was buried and declared that I must visit his grave. That I should desire to see and to weep over the grave of my dear departed brother seemed to the quartermaster both reasonable and natural, and he said that he would get an ambulance and take me to the burial-place.

Before many moments, therefore, the vehicle was in attendance, and my friend and I drove out to where my supposititious brother was buried. It was now my turn to question, and my escort proved to be so exceedingly communicative that before we returned to the hotel, I was informed of the exact number of troops in the neighborhood, their positions, their commanders, where the enemy were supposed to be located, who they were commanded by, the results of the recent conflicts, and a variety of other matters of more or less importance. The man was as innocent and as unsuspicious as a newborn babe, and I could scarcely keep from laughing sometimes at the eagerness he displayed in telling me all manner of things that, had he been possessed of ordinary common sense, he would never have revealed to any one, much less to a total stranger. …

Some of the information thus obtained I knew would be of vital importance to the Confederates, could it be conveyed to them immediately. I therefore made my arrangement and that night slipped through the Federal lines and told all that I had to tell. … With that extraordinary good luck which so often attends bold adventures, I succeeded in getting back without being observed or suspected, and my escort of the morning was never the wiser by the knowledge that his silly talkativeness had produced such good results for the Confederacy.

I remained about a week in Martinsburg, and enjoyed myself immensely. Not only my friend, the quartermaster, but a number of other officers paid me very marked attentions, and I was soon quite a rival to the belles of the place. I did not have another opportunity to communicate with the Confederate forces but this week was not an idle one, nevertheless, and by the time it was ended, I was in possession of a large number of facts that were well worth knowing. While still undecided whether to push on farther or not, I received some intelligence which induced me to think it better to return. …

[W]hen I got back to Chattanooga, I had some trouble in making any farther progress but by representing myself as a soldier’s wife and expressing an extreme anxiety to see my husband, I was permitted to remain within the Federal lines, but was not afforded any particular facilities for finding out anything worth knowing. My anxiety now was to regain the Confederate lines at the earliest possible moment. As I knew the country pretty well, I felt certain of being able to find the farmhouse where I had left my uniform, if I could only get a chance to go to it. Fortune favors the brave in a majority of cases, and ere long I was enabled to reach the house, but only to find that it had been burned, and, with the exception of the smoke-house and kitchen, was a mass of charred ruins.

I confess that my heart sank within me when I saw that the house had been destroyed, for I would have been in a nice predicament, and without my masculine garments would have been even more unwelcome among the Confederates than I was among the Federals. To my great joy, however, I discovered the ash-barrel just where I had placed it and unharmed, and in a few moments I had discarded my feminine raiment and was once more in the guise of a Confederate officer. The costume I wore, however, was not one in which I could appear with impunity in that neighborhood, and it was necessary, therefore, that I should make haste to get where it would be regarded with friendly feelings. …

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