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Loreta’s Civil War: More bombast than true enterprise

July 13, 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 58: Velazquez decides it is time for a fundamental change in her life. She marries again, and she joins an expedition of Southerners ready to start over in the Venezuelan wilderness.

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Taking advantage of the condition of mind and pocket which a great many people were in, a number of emigration schemes were started, most of them, I am confident, by swindlers. Many persons were so anxious to get away that they did not exercise even common prudence in investigating the facilities that were offered them, and the result was that they did much worse than if they had remained. The sufferings endured by some of these emigrants cannot be estimated, and the story of their attempts to find homes for themselves and their children in some land where they could live in peace and quietness and enjoy the fruits of their labor without fear of being plundered is one of the saddest and dreariest pages in the history of the country.

I was much interested in these emigration schemes when I first heard of them and was extremely anxious to investigate them, for my own sake as well as for that of my suffering fellow-country people of the South. Venezuela was one of the countries which it was proposed to colonize, and representations were made to the effect that the Venezuelan government would extend a cordial welcome to emigrants and would aid them in establishing themselves.

I consulted with a number of wise and prudent men with regard to this Venezuelan project but did not get much encouragement from them. They said that they would prefer to see the country for themselves and to find out exactly what the government was willing to do before they would care to invest any money. They thought that the country was rich and fertile but that many of the reports about it were palpably exaggerations, having been gotten up in the interests of speculators. It would consequently not be a prudent thing for anyone to emigrate there unless some trustworthy person should undertake to go and see what was to be seen, for the purpose of making a strictly truthful report. …

It having been announced that I intended to go to Venezuela, I was called upon at the City Hotel, where I had my quarters, by Capt. Fred. A. Johnston, who was fitting out an expedition. He gave me a most glowing account of the country, describing it as a perfect paradise, although I speedily judged, from his conversation, that he knew nothing about it except from hearsay.

I had no difficulty in reading Capt. Johnston’s character, and what I saw of him subsequently only confirmed my first impressions. He was a nervous, excitable man, with more bombast than true enterprise. He was anxious to make money, and to make it very quick, and was consequently not particularly scrupulous about the means. He had a tolerably good education but was not smart enough to put it to good use, and he was always engaged in some wild speculation or other, but never could accomplish anything. He was a plausible man, however, and a good talker, and, considering how many people felt at the time, it was no wonder a number were deceived by him.

After a long conversation with Johnston, I made up my mind to go with him, and in the meantime secretly advised my friends not to put any money in his or any other expedition until they heard from me. I was visited by a number of persons, who, on being informed that I proposed to go with Johnston’s expedition, said, in effect, “We will depend upon the report you make as to the climate and the country, for we have families to support and we do not want to run the risk of going to a foreign land, about which we know absolutely nothing.” I promised to make a faithful report. …

I commenced making my preparations, and Johnston, who was apparently beginning to consider me a valuable ally, came and invited me to go over to Algiers, across the river from New Orleans, with him for the purpose of meeting the others who were going. I found a number of proposed emigrants at Algiers who were waiting for the vessel which was to convey them to their new homes. They all seemed to be in a cheerful mood and well satisfied at the prospect of speedily getting away from a land where there was so much suffering. A meeting was called for the purpose of consultation with regard to chartering a vessel and arranging for supplies, and Johnston greatly desired me to deliver an address. This I declined to do but I took occasion to say, that while it might be well enough for single men to engage in an enterprise of this kind, it was, in my opinion, rather too risky a thing for those who had families dependent upon them.

After my return to the city I reviewed the situation in my mind more clearly than I had hitherto done. I was becoming less and less satisfied with the way things looked and could not help asking myself. Why should I make any attempt to leave the country I had fought for and give it up to the carpetbaggers and negroes? Why should I interest myself in such an enterprise as this one of Johnston’s merely for the purpose of gaining information for people whose duty it was to look out for themselves? I called, in my perplexity, on an old gentleman who had been a good deal in California and asked his opinion of the Pacific slope and of the advisability of those who wished to emigrate from the South going there.

He said that there was not a country in the world equal to California, and it would be vastly better for those who wanted to find new homes to find them there or in some other portion of the far west rather than to go to South America. As for Johnston, he said that he would not take his own family to Venezuela until he had looked at the country himself, and it was doubtful whether he would then.

The poor people whom Johnston had enlisted in his scheme, however, had their hearts set upon going to Venezuela, and nowhere else, and though my heart ached at the disappointment and perhaps severe suffering that was in store for them, I saw that it was useless to attempt to turn them from their purpose. They had their new homes all pictured in their imaginations, and Venezuela appeared to them like a second Garden of Eden, where all was peace, happiness, and prosperity, with no free negroes or carpetbaggers to intrude upon them.

Many of this band of emigrants were most estimable people, but, as I speedily discovered, there were some worthless ones among them, and I dreaded more and more the execution of the task I had set myself to do. Having, however, announced my intention of going, and having excited the expectations of my friends, I concluded that it would not do to back out, and so determined to go through with the thing, no matter what the consequences might be.

Among the emigrants who had enlisted in Johnston’s band was a young Confederate officer, Maj. Wasson. He was a remarkably fine-looking man, with long, wavy, flaxen hair, which he wore brushed off his forehead, blue eyes, and fair complexion. The day before going over to Algiers with Johnston I had seen him on one of the street cars and was very much struck with him. At Algiers I had some conversation with him and invited him to call on me at the hotel. This he did, and I discovered that he was a stranger to all the rest of the band of emigrants, that he was anxious to get out of the country, and that, attracted by Johnston’s representations, he had resolved to go to Venezuela with his expedition.

After that I saw a great deal of Maj. Wasson, and a strong attachment sprang up between us. A few days before we were to sail, he asked me to accept his hand, and I did so willingly, for not only did I admire him greatly but I felt that it would be better in every way that I should accompany the expedition as a married woman.

We were accordingly married and for some days kept the matter secret, it being our original intention not to say anything about it until after we were out at sea. As I was, however, pursued by the attentions of several other gentlemen, we finally concluded that the fact of our being husband and wife had best be announced.

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