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Loreta’s Civil War: ‘You are she?’

July 28, 2016

KS45

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 31: Velazquez tells her fiance the truth about Lt. Harry T. Buford.

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I was greatly agitated, not only at the sight of his extreme happiness but because I felt that the dreaded hour was now come when I must reveal my secret to him. I loved him most fondly, and it was but yesterday that I had heard from his own lips assurances of his affection for me, the verity of which it was impossible for me to doubt, and yet I dreaded whether his feelings towards me might not change when he heard my story. I felt that they ought not, and I did not believe that they would but I had heard so many men, and good men too, speak harshly with regard to women undertaking to play the role that I had, that my very love gave encouragement to my fears lest [my beau] Capt. De Caulp — when he learned I had been in the army ever since the outbreak of the war, and from before the date of our engagement, disguised as a man — would regard my course with such disapproval that he would refuse to consider the motives which induced me to adopt the course I had taken.

The situation was, for me, painful beyond expression, and although I felt that the secret must now be told, I scarcely knew how to tell it or how to begin an even ordinary friendly conversation with him. The disclosure which I was about to make was, moreover, one that was meant for no other ears than his and was certainly not a proper one for the public ward of the hospital. My first care, therefore, was to get him to a place where we could converse without being overheard, and so I said, “Captain, I congratulate you heartily, and I hope to have the pleasure of meeting with your lady. As you expect to have a visit from her soon, and as you will doubtless want to talk over a great number of confidential matters, don’t you think that it would be better if the doctor were to move you into a private room?”

He said, “Yes, thank you for the suggestion — that is just what I would like. I wish you would tell the doctor I want to see him.”

I accordingly conveyed his message with all possible dispatch, and the doctor very cheerfully granted his request and had him taken to a private chamber. A barber was then sent for, and he was shaved and made to look as nicely as possible, and it touched me deeply to notice what pains he took to make himself presentable in view of the expected arrival of his lady-love, whom, by the anxious manner in which he glanced at the door, he was evidently looking for every minute and almost dreading her arrival before he was ready to receive her.

So soon as we were alone together, I said gravely, “Now, captain, I have something of great importance to say to you before our sweetheart comes.” He looked at me wonderingly, evidently impressed by my manner, and apparently half-fearing that something had occurred to defeat his expectations.

I then knelt by the bedside, and taking from my pocket a picture of himself that he had sent me, and his last letter, said, “Did you ever see these before?”

He glanced at them, recognized them, and turned deadly pale. His hand trembled so that he could scarcely hold the picture and the letter, and looking at me with a scared expression, he gasped, “Yes, they are mine! Where did you get them? Has anything happened?”

“No, no, captain,” I exclaimed. “You must not be frightened — nothing has happened that will be displeasing to you.”

“But I don’t understand,” he said. “How did you get these?”

“Ah!” I said, “that is my secret just now. You know you told me last night, when you showed me the portrait of your lady, that you had not seen her for three years — are you so very sure of that?”

He still failed to comprehend what I meant, and stared at me in astonishment. I, therefore, went to his pocket, and got the picture, and, placing it in his hand, said, “Now take a good look at that, and tell me if you have not seen somebody very much like it inside of three years.”

He looked at the picture, and then at me, with a most puzzled expression, unable to say anything, until I, oppressed with his silence, and unable to endure longer a scene that was becoming most painful to both of us, said, “Well, captain, don’t you thing that the picture of your lady-love looks the least bit like your friend Harry Buford?”

A light seemed to suddenly break upon him — he gasped for breath and sank back overcome on his pillow, the great drops of perspiration standing out all over his forehead. Then, raising himself, he looked me hard in the face, and, grasping my hand tightly, exclaimed, “Can it be possible that you are she?”

“Yes,” said I, clasping his hand still tighter, “I am, indeed, your own Loreta. It was your sweetheart who fought by your side at the great battle of Shiloh, and not only on that occasion, but ever since the outbreak of the war she has been doing a soldier’s work for the cause of the Confederacy. Can you love her a little for that as well as for herself, or will you despise her because she was not willing to stay at home like other women, but undertook to appear on the battlefield in the guise of a man for the purpose of doing a man’s duty?”

“I love you ten times more than ever for this, Loreta!” he said, with a vehemence that brought tears of joy to my eyes. I then went into a long explanation of my reasons for acting as I had done and gave him an outline of my adventures, reserving the details for a future time when he would be stronger and less agitated. He suggested that I should not reveal the secret to any one else just at present, whereupon I proposed that we should continue as we were until the war was over, I to make such arrangements, however, as would enable me to be near him. He would not listen to anything of this kind, but said, “No, my noble lady, I can never permit that — I cannot consent to part from you again until I have called you by the endearing name of wife.” He then burst into tears, and, leaning his face on my shoulder, said, between his sobs, “Oh, Loreta, can it be possible that you have been so far from me and yet so near to me, all this time?”

This interview had agitated both of us greatly, and, as Capt. De Caulp was still very weak, I was somewhat fearful of the consequences to him, so I tore myself away after promising to see him again soon, and requesting him to compose himself and not let his excitement retard his recovery.

The crisis was past for me, and all was well. I had the strongest assurances that a woman could have of the undivided love of as noble a man as ever breathed, and to say that I was supremely happy but faintly expresses what I felt as I left the chamber of Capt. De Caulp. It all seemed like a dream to me, but it was a happy one, and I desired never to awaken from it. I was of too practical and decided a disposition, however, to give way to mere sentiment on such an occasion as this, and the fact that my lover was still confined to a sick-bed rendered it the more important that I should be about and making such preparations as were necessary for our approaching marriage.

I felt quite strong enough to leave the hospital and told Dr. Hay so. He was a little dubious about it but finally consented that I should go out on condition that I would take good care of myself and not attempt to enjoy out-of-door life too much of a sudden. As he was himself about going out as I was prepared to leave the hospital, I walked down the street with him, holding his arm. As we were sauntering along, I asked him, “Doctor, how do you like Capt. De Caulp?”

“Oh, very much, indeed!” said he. “He is a perfect gentleman in every respect and a man of very polished manners and superior talents. He is of foreign extraction, I think.”

“Yes,” said I, “I believe he is. I have known him for five years, and I think a great deal of him. I was with him at the Battle of Shiloh, and he behaved like a true hero.”

“Ah, indeed!” said the doctor. “I knew that you were acquainted, but I did not know that you had served together during the war.”

“Do you think he will soon be well?” I inquired. “He seems to be getting along quite nicely.”

“Oh, yes, if he takes proper care of himself. He has had a pretty hard time of it, but I don’t see any reason why he should not be in a fair way for recovery now, provided nothing occurs to set him back. He will have to look out and not expose himself too much, however, for a while yet.”

At the corner of White Hall Street I left the doctor to go to the depot. He said, as I parted from him, “You must be careful and not exercise too much, lieutenant, or you will suffer for it. You are scarcely fairly on your feet as yet.” I promised to take care of myself and went to the depot, arriving there just as the downtrain was coming in. … I then returned to the hospital, and asked for my discharge. This was granted me, and I also obtained a ticket to go to Montgomery, where I had some business to attend to. … The next day I returned to Atlanta and went immediately to the hospital to visit Capt. De Caulp. To my great joy I found him out of bed and so much improved that he was confident of being well enough to walk out.

We, therefore, went down to the Thompson House together, and I engaged a room and set about making preparations for my marriage.

I was anxious that the affair should pass off as quietly as possible and particularly desired not to give any opportunity for unseemly gossip or talk, and on discussing the matter with Capt. De Caulp, we came to the conclusion that it would be better to tell the whole story to Drs. Benton and Hammond, and to ask them to witness the ceremony under a promise to say nothing to anyone about the fact of my having worn the uniform of a Confederate officer. We, however, resolved to take no one else into our confidence, although there were several good friends of both of us in the town whom we would have been glad to have had at our wedding.

I procured a sufficiency of woman’s apparel for my wedding outfit by purchasing at a variety of places, under the pleas that I wanted the garments for some persons out of town, or for presents to the girls at the hotel — in fact, making up whatever story I thought would answer my purpose. My trousseau was, perhaps, not so complete or so elegant as it might have been under some circumstances or as I could have desired but then the particular circumstances under which the wedding was to take place were peculiar, and neither the bridegroom nor the bride was disposed to be over-ceremonious, or to make much ado about trifles. So long as the captain and myself were satisfied, it did not much matter whether any one else was pleased or not, and we both concluded that a very modest wardrobe would be all that I would need, the main thing being that I should be dressed as a woman when the ceremony took place, for fear of creating too much of a sensation, and, perhaps, of making the clergyman feel unpleasant should I appear before him, hanging on the captain’s arm, in my uniform.

My arrangements having all been made, we concluded to inform the friends whom we had agreed to invite, and accordingly we walked to the hospital together, when the captain called Dr. Benton into his private room and astonished him by telling him that he was going to be married and by asking him to attend the wedding. I broke the news as gently as I could to Dr. Hammond, who scarcely knew what to make of it at first, but who, when I made him clearly understand the situation, gave me his hearty congratulations and promised to be present when the happy event came off.

The next day Capt. De Caulp and I were married in the parlor of the hotel by the Rev. Mr. Pinkington, the post chaplain, in as quiet and unpretentious a way as either of us could desire. The clergyman and our kind friends wished us all manner of happiness, and we both looked forward to a bright future, when, after the war was over, we could settle down in our home and enjoy the blessings of peace in each other’s society. …

I was very desirous of resuming my uniform and of accompanying my husband to the field. I wanted to go through the war with him and to fight by his side, just as I had done at Shiloh. He, however, was bitterly opposed to this, and, with my ample knowledge of army life, I could not but admit the full force of his objections. He contended, that, apart from everything else, I had served my country long enough as a soldier, and that I was under some obligation now to think of him as well as of myself, and no longer to peril life, health, and reputation by exposing myself, as I had been doing. He said that he would fight twice as hard as before and that would answer for both of us, although he was not sure but that what I had done ought to count in his favor — as man and wife were one — and procure him a release from further service.

I very reluctantly yielded an assent to his wishes, although, if I could have looked a little into the future, I either would have prevented his going to the front at all, or else would have insisted upon going with him. Indeed, he ought not to have gone when he did but he knew that the services of every man were needed, and so soon as he was at all able to be on duty, he felt as if he was shirking his share of the work by remaining at the rear when so much hard fighting was going on.

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