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Loreta’s Civil War: The desolation of the great city

July 11, 2017

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart shared 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 57: Velazquez tours Richmond, the Carolinas, and New Orleans. The scale of destruction horrifies her.

******

Finding that there was nothing to be done in Washington, I went on to Richmond, where I took up my quarters at the Exchange Hotel. The news of my arrival soon spread around, and I received ample attentions from many old Confederate friends who seemed disposed to treat me with all possible kindness.

The Richmond I beheld, however, was a very different place from the beautiful city I had visited for the first time in the summer of 1861, just before the Battle of Bull Run. A four years’ siege, ending in a fire which had consumed a large portion of the city, had destroyed its beauty as well as its prosperity, while the inhabitants wore such forlorn faces that I felt sick at heart at beholding them.

I hastened away, therefore, and passed through Charlotte, N.C., and Columbia, S.C., where the same dismal changes were visible. Charleston was badly battered and burned but was not in quite as bad a plight as the other places named. The finest portion of the city was destroyed, however, and it looked very desolate.

I went to the Charleston Hotel, where I met an old friend from Columbia, who invited me to accompany him and some others on an excursion. His married daughter and several intimate acquaintances, who were of the party, were introduced to me, among them a Yankee captain, who had married a fair daughter of South Carolina, who, with all her relatives, were strong secessionists.

This officer attached himself particularly to me and urged me to give my views about the war and the present condition of affairs in the way of an argument with him. We accordingly had a very animated conversation for some time, and he was obliged, finally, to retire from the contest, saying that he could not quarrel with me as I was a lady, and, moreover, had everybody on my side. I did not think him a very brilliant genius, but he was quite a good fellow in his way, and to show that there were no hard feelings between us, we shook hands and declared ourselves friends.

The next day one of the officers had the audacity to call on me simply out of curiosity. He had heard about my serving in the Confederate army in male attire, and he wished to see what kind of a looking woman I was. I thought it a rather impudent proceeding but concluded to gratify him. I accordingly walked into the drawing-room where he was, and after some little conversation, which was conducted with considerable coolness on my side, he invited me to take a ride with him.

I was astounded that he should make such a proposition, knowing who I was and I being where I was, surrounded by the friends of the cause I had served, while he, of course, expected to figure in his Federal uniform by my side.

I scarcely knew what to say but finally told him that I could not go, as I had an engagement. This, however, was a mere pretense and was intended to gain time for consultation with my friends. Some of these, however, suggested that I should accept the invitation and give him a genuine specimen of my abilities as a horsewoman.

I accordingly went to every livery stable in the city until I at length found a very swift horse that I thought would suit my purpose. This being secured, I wrote a challenge for him to ride a race with me. We were to ride down the main street. He, without being aware of what was on foot, accepted, and the next afternoon, therefore, we mounted our steeds and started. When we arrived at the appointed place, I said, “Let us show these people what good equestrians we are.”

He gave his horse a lash, but I reined mine in, telling him that I would give him twenty feet. When he had this distance, I gave my steed a cut with the whip and flew past my cavalier like the wind, saying, loud enough for everyone to hear me, “This is the way we caught you at Blackburn’s Ford and Bull Run.”

This was enough for him, and, turning his horse, he rode back to the hotel to find that a large party there [was] interested in the race and that there were some heavy bets on the result, the odds being all against him. This gentleman, apparently, did not desire to continue his acquaintance with me, for I saw no more of him.

A few days after this occurrence I said farewell to my Charleston friends and went to Atlanta, where I was very warmly received. The surgeons who had been attached to the hospital and many others called, and a disposition to show me every attention was manifested on all sides.

The Federal Gen. Wallace and his staff were stopping at the same hotel as myself, as was also Capt. B., one of the officers whom I had met in Washington and whom I had used for the purpose of getting acquainted and of furthering my plans in that city. I met this gentleman in the hall and passed friendly greetings with him, and shortly after he came into the parlor for the purpose of having a friendly chat. The captain, up to this time, had never suspected in the least that I was not and had not been an adherent of the Federal cause, and not supposing that I had any special interest in the war, our conversation turned chiefly upon other topics. I knew that he must shortly be undeceived, but I did not care to tell him about the part I had taken in the contest or the advantages I had taken of his acquaintance with me.

While we were talking. Confederate Gen. G.T. Anderson came in and called me “lieutenant.” The astonishment of the captain was ludicrous. He could not understand what the general meant at first and thought it was a joke. The truth, however, came out at last, and he learned not only that I was a rebel, but that when I met him in Washington I was endeavoring to gain information for the Confederates.

The captain, being somewhat bewildered, took his departure soon after, and at the invitation of Gen. Anderson I went out to visit the entrenchments. “When we got back, I found that Gen. Wallace had been informed as to who I was and that he was anxious to see me. I said that I would be very glad to meet him, and the general and a number of his officers accordingly came into the parlor to see me. Gen. Wallace was very pleasant, and, as we shook hands, he complimented me with much heartiness upon having played a difficult part so long and so well, and with having distinguished myself by my valor. I thanked him very sincerely for his good opinion of me and then fell into a lively conversation with him and his officers.

One of the officers asked me to ride with him but I begged to be excused, as I did not think it would look well, especially in Atlanta, where everybody knew me, to be seen riding out with an escort wearing a Federal uniform. He understood and appreciated my feelings on the subject and said no more about it.

The next evening I started for New Orleans and passed over a good deal of my old campaigning ground before I reached my destination.

My journey through the South had disclosed a pitiable state of things. The men of intellect and the true representatives of Southern interests were disfranchised and impoverished, while the management of affairs was in the hands of ignorant negroes just relieved from slavery and white “carpetbaggers,” who had come to prey upon the desolation of the country. On every side were ruin and poverty, on every side disgust of the present and despair of the future. The people, many of them, absolutely did not know what to do, and it is no wonder that at this dismal time certain ill-advised emigration schemes found countenance with those who saw no hope for themselves or their children but either to go out of the country, or to remove so far away from their old homes that they would be able to start life anew under better auspices than were then possible within the limits of the late Confederacy.

New Orleans, once a great, wealthy, and populous city, was in a pitiful plight. The pedestal of [Andrew] Jackson’s statue in the public square was disfigured by inscriptions such as those who erected it never intended should go there, which were cut during the occupancy of the Federal army, while the once pretty flower-beds were now nothing but masses of weeds and dead stalks.

Along the levee, matters were even worse. Instead of forests of masts or the innumerable chimneys of the steamboats, belching forth volumes of smoke, or huge barricades of cotton, sugar, and other produce, or thousands of drays, carts, and other vehicles such as thronged the levee in olden times, the wharves were now silent and served merely as promenades for motley groups of poor men, women, and children who looked as if they did not know where the next meal was to come from.

The desolation of the great city sickened me, and I was the more indignant at what I saw, for I knew that this general prostration of business and impoverishment of all classes was not one of the legitimate results of warfare but that ambitious and unscrupulous politicians were making use of the forlorn condition of the South for the furtherance of their own bad ends.

I longed to quit the scene of so much misery and fully sympathized with those who preferred to fly from the country of their birth and to seek homes in other lands rather than to remain and be victimized, as they were being, by the wretches who had usurped all control of the affairs of the late rebel states.

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