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Loreta’s Civil War: No occasion for any violence

October 31, 2016

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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.

Read previous chapters of her incredible story here.

Part 33: Velazquez meets an intelligence agent who gives her a new mission, and, this time, a dress is her disguise.

******

Shortly after my arrival at Mobile, I received a rather mysterious note in a masculine hand, asking me to meet the writer that evening at the corner of the square, but giving no hint whatever of the purpose of the invitation. I hesitated for some little time about taking any notice of the request, thinking that if the writer had any real business with me, he would seek me out and communicate with me in some less mysterious way. On a little reflection, however, I concluded that it would be best for me to meet the gentleman, whoever he might be, according to the terms of his invitation, and to find out who he was and what he wanted. I felt tolerably well able to take care of myself, although I was aware that the circumstances of my army career being rather extensively known, I was especially liable to annoyances of a peculiarly unpleasant kind from impertinent people. …

The fact … that I was traveling under credentials from Gen. Winder, and was in a manner an attache of the Secret Service Department, rendered it not improbable that this was an application for me to undertake some such enterprise as I for a long time had been ardently desirous of engaging in. The more I considered the matter, the more I was disposed to take this view of it, and accordingly, at the hour named, I was promptly at the rendezvous, wondering what the result of the adventure would be.

My surmise proved to be correct. I had scarcely arrived at the corner of the square when my correspondent, who I discovered was Lt. Shorter of Arkansas, advanced towards me, and said, “Good evening. I am glad to see you. How have you been?”

“I am quite well,” I replied, and waited for him to introduce the subject concerning which he was evidently desirous of conversing with me.

After a few inconsequential remarks on either side, he said, “I see that you received my note.”

“Yes.”

“Well, you must excuse me for asking for a secret interview like this, but the matter I wanted to talk to you about is of great importance, and, as in these times we don’t know whom to trust, it was necessary that I should have an opportunity to carry on our conversation without danger of being watched or overheard. You have had considerable experience in running through the lines, and in spy and secret service duty, have you not?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I have done something in that line.”

‘”You have usually been tolerably lucky, haven’t you?”

“Yes, I have had reasonably good luck. I got caught once in New Orleans, but that was because the parties to whom I had delivered my dispatches were captured. [Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F.]Butler tried his hand at frightening me, but he did not succeed very well, and I managed to slip away from him before he had any positive evidence against me which would have justified him in treating me as a spy.”

“Well, you’re just the kind I want, for I have a job on hand that will require both skill and nerve, and I would like you to undertake it, especially as you seem to have a talent for disguising yourself.”

I concluded that I would find out exactly what he wanted me to do before I gave him any satisfaction, so I said, “What kind of a job is it? I have risked my neck pretty often without getting very many thanks for it, and I don’t know that I care a great deal about running all kinds of risks for little glory, and no more substantial reward.”

“Oh, come now,” said he, “You must not talk that way. Now is the very time that your services will be worth something, and this bit of business that I am anxious for you to undertake is of such a nature that it would not do to give it to any but a first-rate hand.”

“Well, what is it? When I know what you want me to do I will be better able to say whether it would be worth my while to do it.”

“Wouldn’t you like to take a trip through the lines?” said the lieutenant. …

I considered a moment and then said, “Yes, I will go, if it is for anything to serve the cause.”

“That’s the way to talk,” said he. “I am in the secret service, and I want you to take a dispatch through the lines and give it to a certain party. …”

“Well,” said I, “I will make an effort, and do my best to succeed.”

“Oh, you must succeed,” said the lieutenant, “for there will be the devil to pay if the Feds discover what you are up to, and you will have to do your prettiest to prevent them from even suspecting that you are up to any unlawful tricks.”

“I’ll do my best, and I can’t do any more than that, but as I have fooled them before, so I guess I can again.”

“Well,” said he, “that’s all right. Now, what I want you to do is to meet me tomorrow evening at Meridian. I will have everything ready for you and will give you your instructions, and you be prepared for a hard journey. In the meantime, keep quiet, and don’t whisper a word to anybody.”

We then said good night and parted, I going back to the hotel to do a heap of thinking before I went to sleep. Lt. Shorter, beyond saying that I was to go through the lines — and endeavoring to impress upon me the great importance of the enterprise — had given me no hint of where I was to go, or what the exact nature of my errand would be, and I consequently had to depend upon myself in making such preparations as were necessary. Having considered the subject as well as I was able, I concluded to procure a very fine suit of women’s clothing and to make up a small bundle of such few extra articles besides those upon my back, as I thought I would require.

My arrangements having been all made, I started for Meridian the next day, and on my arrival at that place found Lt. Shorter waiting for me at the depot. … Having obtained a [hotel] room where we could converse privately, the lieutenant proceeded to explain what he wanted me to do and to give me directions for proceeding. He said that he had captured a spy belonging to the Federal Gen. Hurlbut’s command and had taken from him a paper containing quite accurate accounts of the forces of [Confederate Gens.] Chalmers, Forrest, Richardson, and Ferguson, [along with] their movements. This he had changed so that it would throw the enemy on the wrong scent, and I was to take it to Memphis and deliver it to the Federal Gen. Washburn, telling him such a story as would induce him to believe that I had obtained it from the spy. He also had a dispatch for Forrest, which he wanted me to carry to the Confederate secret agent in Memphis [and] giving me the password which would enable me to communicate with him without difficulty. …

After some further conversation about the best plan of proceeding … Lt. Shorter suggested some changes in my dress, his idea being, that I should impersonate a poor countrywoman who had lost her husband at the outbreak of the war and who was flying into the Federal lines for protection. He also gave me letters to the different Confederate commanders whom I would meet on my road, directing them to assist me, and put in my hand the sum of one hundred and thirty-six dollars in greenbacks. … This, he thought, would see me through, but in case it should not prove sufficient, he said … any commanding officer I met would supply me with funds and that after I reached Memphis I would find plenty of friends of the Confederacy upon whom I could call for assistance.

Everything being in readiness for my journey, the next morning I took the train for Okolona, where, procuring a pass from Capt. Mariotta, the provost marshal, I hired a conveyance and drove to the headquarters of Gen. Ferguson. On showing my order for assistance to the general, he received me with the greatest politeness and invited me into his quarters, where he gave me some information and additional instructions, and reiterated Lt Shorter’s cautions to be vigilant and careful, as I was on a mission of great importance.

The general then handed me ninety dollars, and presented me with a pistol, which he said was one of a pair he had carried through the war. The money he was sure I would need, and the pistol might be a handy thing to have in case I should be compelled to defend myself, for my journey would take me through a rough country, and I might chance to meet with stragglers who would give me trouble. He advised me, however, not to use the weapon except in case of absolute necessity, and especially not to carry it with me into the Federal lines, for if it was discovered that I had it about me, it might excite suspicions that I was a spy, when such a thing would not otherwise be thought of.

A fine horse having been provided for me, I said adieu to Gen. Ferguson, who wished me good luck, and started off with an escort who was to conduct me to a point somewhere to the northeast of Holly Springs, from whence I would have to make my way alone, getting into the Federal lines as best I could.

In spite of the fact that I was quite sick and sometimes felt that I could scarcely sit upon my horse, I rode all that night and nearly all the next day through lonesome woods, past desolate clearings — occupied, if at all, by poor negroes or even poorer whites, all of whom had a half-terrified look, as if they were expecting every moment to have a rapacious soldiery come tramping through their little patches of ground and appropriating whatever was eatable or worth taking. … At length we reached a negro’s cabin, which, although it was but a poor shelter, was better than nothing at all, and feeling too ill to proceed any farther without rest and refreshments, I resolved to stop there all night.

The inhabitants of the cabin were not very much inclined to be over-communicative and apparently did not want me for a lodger, and their abode was not one that I would have cared to make a prolonged sojourn in. I was too much of a veteran campaigner, however, to be over-fastidious about my accommodations for a single night and was too sick not to find any shelter welcome. From what I could learn from these people, I was not very many miles from the Federal lines, and I secured their good will, to a reasonable degree, by promising to pay well for my night’s lodging. ….

I wished my escort now to return to Gen. Ferguson’s headquarters, but, as he suggested that the negroes might prove treacherous, we both concluded that it would be best for him to remain until I was fairly started in the morning on my way to the Federal lines. A supper which, under some circumstances I would scarcely have found eatable, was prepared for us, and I partook of it with a certain degree of relish, despite the coarse quality of the food, being too tired and hungry to be critical or squeamish. Then, completely used up by my long and toilsome ride, I retired to the miserable bed that was assigned me, and ere long was in happy obliviousness of the cares and trials of this world.

About three o’clock in the morning I was up and ready to start, after having made a hasty toilet, and after a breakfast which served to satisfy my hunger but which certainly did not tempt my palate. My escort now bade me goodbye and was soon out of sight, on his way back to camp, while I, mounted on a little pony and with the old negro to lead the way, faced in the opposite direction. …

Not having the most implicit confidence in my guide, I took care to keep him in front of me all the time and had my hand constantly upon the pistol which Gen. Ferguson had given me, and which I was resolved to use upon my colored companion in case he should be inclined to act treacherously. Fortunately there was no occasion for any violence, and our journey continued without interruption, except such as was caused by the rough nature of the ground, until, at length, I spied through the trees a little church. It was now broad daylight, although the sun was not yet up, and the surroundings of this building … were dismal enough. I surmised … that the Federal pickets must be somewhere near, and I concluded that it was time for me to get rid of the darkey. …

Watching the old negro until he was out of sight, I rode up to the church, and dismounting, entered the building. My first care now was to get rid of my pistol, as I thought it would most probably be taken from me if the Federals found that I had it, and the discovery of it, secreted upon my person, would be not unlikely to cause me to be suspected of being a spy, which, of course, was the very thing I was most anxious to avoid. Raising a plank in the flooring, I put the pistol under it and covered it well with dirt. My intention was to return this way, and I expected to get the weapon, and give it back to Gen. Ferguson.

Circumstances, however, induced me to change my plans, and as I have never visited the spot since, if the church is still standing, the pistol is probably where I placed it, for I buried it tolerably deep and smoothed the dirt well over it so that it would not be likely to be discovered except by accident.

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