Loreta’s Civil War: An awkward, lubberly manner
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.
Read previous chapters of her incredible story here.
Part 34: Velazquez manipulates a young lieutenant to bring her closer to her goal: a meeting with a Union general.
As I stated before, my disguise, as I had arranged it with Lt. Shorter, was that of a poor countrywoman, and the story I was to tell was that I was a widow and was flying for protection to the Federal lines. Having disposed of the pistol, I sat down for a few minutes to think over the situation and to decide upon the best method of procedure with the first Federal soldier I met. Experience had taught me, however, that no settled plan … amounts to much, so far as the details are concerned, and that it is necessary to be governed by circumstances. I resolved, therefore, to regulate my conduct and conversation according to the character and behavior of those I chanced to meet. And so, having first ascertained that my papers were all right, I mounted my pony again and started in the direction where I supposed I would find the Federal camp.
Letting my pony take his own gait — and he was not inclined to make his pace any more rapid than there was necessity for — I traveled for a couple of miles before I saw any one. At length a picket, who had evidently been watching me for some time, stepped out of the woods into the road, and when I came up to him, he halted me and asked where I was from and where I was going.
“Good morning, sir,” I said, in an innocent, unsophisticated sort of way. “Are you commanding this outpost?”
“No,” he replied. “What do you want?”
“Well, sir, I wish you would tell the captain I want to see him. …”
The soldier then called to his officer, and in a few moments up stepped a good-looking young lieutenant, whose blouse was badly out at the elbows, and whose clothing generally bore marks of very hard service. Although his attire was not of the most elegant description, he was a gentleman, and, as he approached me, he tipped his hat, and said, with a pleasant smile, “Good morning, madam. What is it you wish?”
“Well, captain,” said I, “I want to go to Memphis, to see Gen. Washburn. I have some papers here for him.”
This made him start a little, and he began to suspect that he had a matter of serious business on hand, and, evidently with a different interest in me from what he had felt before, he inquired, with a rather severe and serious air, “Where are you from, madam?”
“I am from Holly Springs. A man there gave me these papers and told me that if I would get them through he would pay me a hundred dollars.”
“What kind of looking man was he, and where did he go after he left you?”
“I mustn’t tell you that, sir. The man said not to tell anything about him, except to the one these papers are for, and he would understand all about it.”
“Well, madam, you will have to go with me to headquarters. When we get there I will see what can be done for you.”
His relief came … and off we started for headquarters. As I had informed my new-made friend that I was hungry, having ridden for a considerable distance since very early in the morning, he stopped with me at a white house near the road, … went in with me, and asked the woman … to give me some breakfast. Quite a comfortable meal was soon in readiness, and while I was eating, the lieutenant busied himself in trying to ascertain something about the number and position of the Confederate troops. I told him that there seemed to be a large force of them near Holly Springs, but beyond that statement — which was, I believe, far from being the truth — I am afraid he did not find me a very satisfactory witness. I am sure that such information as I did give him was not likely to be of very great use.
After I had finished my breakfast, the lieutenant took me to Moscow, on the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, and here, for the first time, I was subjected to very serious annoyance and first began to appreciate the fact that I was engaged in a particularly risky undertaking. The soldiers, seeing me coming into the town mounted on a ragged little pony, and under the escort of an officer, jumped at the conclusion that I was a spy and commenced to gather round me in crowds. …
Finally we reached the building occupied by the colonel in command, and I was ushered by that official into a private room, in the rear of the one used as an office. The lieutenant accompanied me and related the manner of my coming to the picket station, and the story which I had told him.
The colonel then proceeded to cross-question me, being apparently desirous of finding out whether I was possessed of any information worth his knowing, as well as whether I was exactly what I professed to be. I flattered myself that I played my part tolerably well. I knew very little about the movements of the Confederates, or their number, but, under the process of rigid cross-questioning to which I was subjected, I said just enough to stimulate curiosity, pretending that what I was telling was what I had picked up merely incidentally, and that, as I took no interest in the fighting that was going on, except to desire to get as far away from it as possible, I really knew scarcely anything, except from rumor.
As for myself, I stuck close to one simple story. I was a poor widow woman whose husband had died about the time of the breaking out of the war. I was for the Union and had been badly treated by the rebels, who had robbed me of nearly everything, and I had been anxious to get away for some time with a little money I had collected and had finally got tired of waiting for the Federal troops to come down my way and had resolved to try and get through the lines … that a man had promised I should be paid a hundred dollars if I would carry a dispatch to Gen. Washburn …
The colonel tried to make me vary this story and he several times pretended that I had contradicted myself. He was tolerably smart at a cross-examination, but not by any means smart enough for the subject he had to deal with on this occasion. I had the most innocent air in the world about me and pretended half the time that I was so stupid that I could not understand what his interrogatories meant, and, instead of answering them, would go off into a long story about my troubles, and the hardships I had suffered, and the bad treatment I had received. The colonel then tried to induce me to give him the dispatch, saying that he would pay me the hundred dollars and would forward it to Gen. Washburn. This I refused to do, as I had promised not to let anybody but the general have it, if I could help it. Neither would I tell who it was that had entrusted me with the dispatch. …
When we reached the depot, the colonel procured me a ticket and gave me five dollars, and I overheard him say in an undertone to the lieutenant, “You get in the rear car and keep an eye on her movements. I think that she is all right, but it would be just as well to watch her.”
The lieutenant said, “There’s no doubt in my mind but she is all right.”
This little conversation made me smile to myself and served to convince me that I would have no trouble in getting along nicely with my friend the lieutenant.
The colonel moved off, and the lieutenant and I stepped aboard the train. … The lieutenant was overwhelmingly polite, and after having got me fixed comfortably in my seat, he said, in a low tone, “I may go up with you as far as my camp, if I can get anyone to hold my horse.”
I thought that this would be a good chance to improve my acquaintance with him and perhaps do something for the furtherance of my plans, so I said, “I would be so glad if you would. I would so much like to have company.” And I smiled on him as sweetly as I was able to impress him with the idea that I profoundly appreciated his courtesy. The young fellow was evidently more than half convinced that he had made a conquest, while I was quite sure that I had. If he had known what my real feelings were and with what entire willingness I would have made a prisoner of him, could I have got him into the Confederate lines, perhaps he would not have been quite so eager for my society. …
As matters turned out, the lieutenant not only did accompany me, but he let out many things that he ought to have kept quiet about, knowing, as he did, the manner in which I had come into the lines and having no assurance whatever beyond my bare word that I was not a spy. To be sure, the information I obtained from him with regard to the main object of my errand was not very momentous, for I was afraid to say too much on points relating to my errand. But I … learned enough to enable me to know exactly how to go to work to find out a great deal more. Besides this, he was really of much assistance to me in other ways and saved me considerable trouble at headquarters — for all of which I hope I was duly thankful.
It may be thought that an officer of the experience of this one — he had been through the war from the beginning — would have understood his business sufficiently by this time to have known how to hold his tongue concerning matters that it was desirable the enemy should not become informed of, when in the society of a person whom he well knew might be a spy. If all the officers and men in an army, however, were endowed with … plain common sense, the business of the secret service agents would be a very much more difficult and hazardous one than it really is. The young fellow was only a lieutenant, with no great responsibilities, while some of my most brilliant successes in the way of obtaining information have been with generals, and even with their superiors, as the reader will discover, if [the reader] feels sufficient interest in my story to follow it to the end.
The fact is that human nature is greatly given to confidence, so much so that the most unconfiding and suspicious people are usually the easiest to extract any desired information from, provided you go the right way about it. This may seem to be a paradox but it is not. It is merely a statement of a peculiar trait of human nature. Women have the reputation of being bad secret-keepers. Well, that depends on circumstances. I have always succeeded in keeping mine when I have had any worth keeping, and I have always found it more difficult to beguile women than men into telling me what I have wanted to know when they had the slightest reason to suspect that I was not a suitable recipient of their confidence. The truth seems to be that while women find it often troublesome, and well nigh impossible, to keep little and inconsequential secrets, they are first-rate hands at keeping great ones.
For certain kinds of secret service work women are, out of all comparison, superior to men. This, I believe, is acknowledged by all detectives and others who have been compelled to employ secret agents. One reason for this is that women, when they undertake a secret service job, are really quicker-witted and more wide awake than men. They more easily deceive other people and are less easily imposed upon. Of course there is a great deal of secret service work for which women are not well-fitted, and much that it is scarcely possible for them to perform at all, but, as a rule, for an enterprise that requires real finesse, a woman will be likely to accomplish far more than a man.
I was just thinking that my lieutenant had deserted me or that he was in another car for the purpose of keeping an eye on me unobserved when he appeared beside me, having jumped on the rear end of the car as it was starting.
He said, “You have no objections to my occupying the same seat with you, have you, madam?”
“Oh, no, sir!” I replied. “I shall be exceedingly glad to have the pleasure of your society, so far as you are going.”
“Well, I only intend going up to my camp now, but I have half a mind to run on as far as Memphis — that is, if my company will not be disagreeable to you.”
“I will be very greatly pleased if you will go through with me. It has been a long time since I have met any agreeable gentlemen, and I particularly admire officers.”
As I said this I gave him a killing glance and then dropped my eyes as if half-ashamed of having made such a bold advance to him. The bait took, however, as I expected it would, and the lieutenant, giving his mustache a twist, and running his hand through his hair, settled himself down in the seat with a most self-satisfied air, evidently supposing that the conquest of my heart was more than half completed, and began to make himself as agreeable as he knew how. Finesse was certainly not this youth’s most marked characteristic, and he went about making himself agreeable and endeavoring to discover who I was, where I came from, and all about me in such an awkward, lubberly manner that it was mere play for me to impose upon him. …
At length the whistle blew, and the train stopped at his camp. He jumped up and rushed out without even saying good-bye, and while I was wondering where he had left his politeness, I saw him running as fast as he could go and presently dodge into a tent. In a moment or two more out he came in his shirt sleeves and ran for the train, with his coat in his hand, and jumped on board just as we were starting. I turned around and watched him as he got into the car behind me and saw him put on a rather better-looking uniform coat than the out-at-the-elbows blouse he had been wearing, and a paper collar and black necktie. These last I considered as particularly delicate attentions to myself.
When he had completed his toilet, he came forward, and, seating himself beside me, said, “I will allow myself the pleasure of going through to Memphis with you.”
I assured him that I was pleased beyond measure and came to the conclusion that it would be my fault if long before we reached Memphis I did not stand so well in his good graces that I would be able to make a most useful ally of him in carrying out my plans for the benefit of the Confederacy. …
[Our] conversation amused me and gave me a good number of points worth knowing in the particular business in which I was engaged until at length the train reached Memphis, and my escort assisting me to alight, requested me to wait on the platform for him while he engaged a carriage.
In a few moments he returned with a close-bodied carriage, and when I was seated in it [the] driver was accordingly directed to take us to headquarters, and before many more minutes I was ushered into the presence of the provost marshal, to whom I stated my errand. The fact of the lieutenant being with me undoubtedly prevented a great many questions being asked, some of which it might not have been agreeable, or even possible, for me to answer, and I accordingly was more than ever impressed with the value of having him for an acquaintance, especially as he put in a word now and then which had the effect of establishing me on a satisfactory footing with the provost marshal. That official, when he had heard my story, said, “Madam, I am sorry, but the general is very much indisposed, and cannot see you. I will be glad to receive anything you may have for him, and to give him any message from you. …”