Rebel raider disguised in hoop skirt

By Richard P. Cox (Washington Times, October 6, 2007)

One of the most famous cross-dressing episodes of the war involved the Confederate officer known as Richard Thomas Zarvona.

Richard Thomas Jr. (his birth name) came from a notable Southern Maryland family. His father had been speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates and president of the Senate. An uncle had been governor. The Thomas estate, Mattapany, had once been the residence of Charles Calvert, the third Lord Baltimore and Lord Proprietor of Maryland. (Mattapany is now the official residence of the commander at Patuxent Naval Air Station.)

Thomas seems to have been born for adventure. He entered West Point at age 16, but his preference for the "martial arts" instead of the civil engineering courses that dominated the curriculum led to his standing near the bottom of the first-year class. He resigned early in his second year.

Family legend has it that Thomas went to work on government surveys in California and other points in the West. He then made his way to China, where he helped protect coastal shipping from pirates. He later turned up in Italy and joined Giuseppe Garibaldi's revolutionary army fighting for Italian independence.

Thomas reportedly also spent time in France, where he learned to speak the language fluently and, according to family lore, fell in love with a French girl, who drowned. He felt her loss so deeply that he took her name and thereafter chose to be known as Richard Thomas Zarvona.

A daring plan

Evidence suggests that sometime during his stay in Europe, Zarvona served with the French Zouaves, who gained a reputation for strict discipline and fighting ability but more famously for their unusual uniforms, consisting of flared-out red pantaloons, blue doublets, crimson fezzes, white gaiters and scimitar-like sabers.

Zarvona returned to Maryland shortly before hostilities broke out between North and South. In May 1861, he formed the nucleus of what he hoped would be a Confederate Zouave regiment on the Virginia side of the Potomac.

He learned from his men about the movements of the USS Pawnee, a Federal gunboat patrolling the Potomac whose mission was to disrupt the passage of people and supplies from Confederate sympathizers in Maryland into Virginia. They also told him about the St. Nicholas, a steamer that carried passengers between Baltimore and points along the Potomac and served as the Pawnee's supply ship.

Zarvona formulated a plan for seizing both vessels. He applied to Virginia Gov. John Letcher for financial assistance. Letcher at first viewed Zarvona as an eccentric but changed his mind after Zarvona presented the details of his plan.

Zarvona proposed going to Baltimore and enlisting the help of a dozen or more Southern sympathizers. They would board the St. Nicholas as passengers and at the right moment on the Potomac, at a given signal, would seize the vessel, steer it into the Coan River on the Virginia side and gather up Confederate reinforcements before steaming alongside the Pawnee to capture it.

Letcher was impressed with Zarvona's plan and requested the Confederate secretary of the Navy to supply arms and ammunition for the party boarding the Pawnee. He gave Zarvona an advance of $1,000 to procure arms and pay for men who would join the enterprise. Letcher also promised Zarvona a colonelcy if the plan succeeded and told him he could use the title in enlisting recruits. Zarvona and a comrade, George W. Alexander, a former engineer in the U.S. Navy, furtively made their way to Baltimore.

Madame LaForte

Zarvona's recruiting efforts were successful. On the evening of June 28, 1861, his men boarded the St. Nicholas in Baltimore. They arrived at the wharf one by one and in pairs so as not to arouse suspicion. They were searched for contraband, as military authorities required, but nothing was found.

Among the nearly 60 passengers boarding the steamer was a stylishly dressed young lady who spoke only broken English with a strong French accent. Her brother (a fierce-looking, bearded man) traveled with her as her translator. Her name was Madame LaForte, she said, and she had a number of large trunks with her because she wanted to set up a millinery business in Washington. Entranced by her smile, the purser assigned her a large stateroom off the main deck and had deckhands haul her trunks to her cabin.

When the St. Nicholas departed, the lady emerged from her stateroom and began to flirt shamelessly with the male passengers and ship's officers. The captain, who prided himself on his knowledge of French, tried his skills on the lady, who proved herself a native of France with a stream of coquettish language that quite overwhelmed him. She covered her eyes and cheeks with a veil. She tossed her fan about and cocked her head at an angle toward any gentleman who occupied her attention.

George Watts, one of Zarvona's recruits, was worried. While wandering about the decks, he hadn't seen anyone resembling Zarvona. Had the colonel missed the boat, as it were? He felt sure he would be arrested as a Rebel spy, sent to Fort McHenry and hanged.

Just then, about midnight, not long after the steamer rounded Point Lookout into the Potomac, George W. Alexander, the bearded brother of the "French lady," tapped him on the shoulder and said he was wanted in a nearby cabin.

As Watts explained in a newspaper interview in 1910, "I hurried to the cabin and found all our boys gathered around that frisky French lady. She looked at me when I came in, and Lord, I knew those eyes! It was the Colonel. The French lady then shed her bonnet, wig and dress and stepped forth clad in a brilliant new Zouave uniform. In a jiffy the 'French lady's' three trunks were dragged out and opened. One was filled with cutlasses, another with Colt revolvers and the third with carbines. Each man buckled on a sword and pistol and grabbed a gun, and then the Colonel told us what to do."

Zarvona and two others confronted the boat's captain, who, when told that 30 armed men were aboard, quickly surrendered command. The Confederates who had boarded in Baltimore as well as their compatriots who had come aboard at Point Lookout seized the steamer. Some in their number, officers in the Confederate Navy, steered the St. Nicholas toward the Coan River.

Coffee and ice

In the early morning of June 29, the St. Nicholas docked in the Coan River and took aboard 30 Confederate soldiers. The passengers from Baltimore were permitted to leave with all their possessions.

Then came disappointing news. Confederate sharpshooters had killed the USS Pawnee's captain, and the gunboat had returned to the Washington Naval Yard for the funeral. It would be impossible to wait for the Pawnee's return. What to do?

Bent on making his seizure of the St. Nicholas worthwhile, Zarvona ordered the steamer to head into the Chesapeake Bay for a raiding expedition that would compensate for the lost opportunity with the Pawnee.

The Monticello, a brig heading to Baltimore from Brazil and laden with 35,000 bags of coffee, became their first prize. The ship was taken over by Confederate sailors, who took it to Fredericksburg, Va., where coffee was in short supply. Their next victim was the Mary Pierce, 10 days out of Boston and bound for Washington with a load of ice. A prize crew took it to Fredericksburg also, where the local hospitals welcomed the ice.

The St. Nicholas was running desperately short of coal. Luckily, the schooner Margaret soon hove into view, bound from Alexandria to New York with a cargo of coal.

By this time, Zarvona was worried that the seizure of the St. Nicholas had been discovered and feared that Yankee ships would be looking for it. He ordered the St. Nicholas, with the Margaret in tow, to set a course for the Rappahannock River and Fredericksburg.

Zarvona and his crew received an enthusiastic welcome in Fredericksburg. A ball was given in their honor, and Zarvona delighted those present by appearing in the hoops and skirts of the lady milliner from France.

Zarvona was honored and entertained in Richmond as well. On the Fourth of July, Zarvona and his Zouave troops paraded through the city streets to much acclaim.

Comedy of errors

Zarvona's success, however, quickly led to his downfall. Growing restless in Richmond, he began planning his next raid. He resolved to repeat his performance by seizing another steamer out of Baltimore.

Soon, Federal intelligence agents learned from spies on both sides of the Potomac that a small boat had come over from the Coan River to the Maryland side and had landed the captured crews from the St. Nicholas and the other Northern vessels. The boat was said to be heading up the Bay. It was manned by well-armed men, variously estimated from 18 to 30 in number. By July 8, 1861, these men had abandoned their boat and taken passage on the steamer Mary Washington, headed for Baltimore.

Zarvona and his comrades were shocked to discover that already onboard the Mary Washington were the crews of the St. Nicholas and the other captured ships the men he had just returned to Maryland. Things got even dicier when some Federal soldiers and police officers boarded at Fairhaven, a resort south of Annapolis.

Zarvona's former prisoners quickly tipped off the soldiers. He and his comrades were kept under observation but not arrested to avoid a possible armed confrontation. As the steamer neared Baltimore, Zarvona grew apprehensive that he had been identified. He tried to lower a lifeboat to escape but was stopped by some officers. Zarvona drew a pistol, and the officers drew their revolvers. The officers informed Zarvona they would take him dead or alive. He called out for his "boys" to help, and by that means the Federals discovered the rest of Rebels onboard.

In the meantime, the Federal commander had ordered the Mary Washington's captain to steer for Fort McHenry so troops could be brought aboard to seize the Rebels. When it became common knowledge that the steamer was heading for the fort, the passengers raised a commotion, some trying to aid the Rebels while others sided with the Federals. When the Mary Washington docked at Fort McHenry, a detachment of infantry went onboard and marched Zarvona's accomplices off to confinement.

Somehow during the commotion, the colonel had slipped away. Some female Confederate sympathizers had stuffed him into a bureau in the ladies' cabin. Removing the bottoms of the drawers, they had fitted the slender Zarvona into place. He finally was located after 1 hours of searching. Some reports say he was again dressed as a woman when he was found. The "French spy lady," as he had become known in both the North and the South, was a sad spectacle as he was dragged, cramped and drenched with perspiration, off to prison.

Solitary prisoner

Zarvona was placed in solitary confinement in Fort McHenry. In his baggage were found his Zouave uniform, some letters confirming his mission of depredation on Chesapeake shipping, his commission in the volunteer forces of Virginia and a letter of credit drawn on a Baltimore bank. All were used as evidence against him.

Northern military authorities charged Zarvona with piracy and treason and ignored repeated requests that he be exchanged. In December 1861, Zarvona was transferred to Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor, where his health rapidly deteriorated.

Gov. Letcher was aroused by the reports reaching him about Zarvona's condition and treatment, and in January 1863, he wrote a letter directly to President Lincoln. In it, he protested the Federal military's failure to treat Zarvona as a prisoner of war even though he was carrying a military commission when captured. He also protested that the colonel had by that time been held for 18 months without a trial.

Letcher also stated that he would place some Federal prisoners of war in solitary confinement in Virginia prisons in retaliation for Zarvona's treatment.

The governor was as good as his word. By February, the seven Federal soldiers Letcher had transferred to solitary confinement were writing letters to the War Department in Washington, pleading for Zarvona's release. Wives, relatives and friends of the "hostages" mounted an incessant letter-writing campaign to get the U.S. government to relent.

By mid-March, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had concluded that Zarvona's confinement served no useful purpose but instead invited further reprisals from Virginia. On April 11, 1863, the U.S. Army commissioner-general of prisoners notified authorities at Fort Delaware (where Zarvona had been transferred) that Stanton had authorized Zarvona's exchange.

Not forgotten

Zarvona reached Richmond on May 6, 1863, his nervous system completely broken down. He immediately proposed that he be given command of the combined Maryland Confederate regiments even though he obviously was unfit for duty and such an assignment would have violated the terms of his parole.

Deeply disappointed, Zarvona sailed for France. He returned to Maryland in 1870, left for France again to try to restore the family fortune, but failed. He returned for good in 1872, a shattered man. In 1873, he wrote a rather disconnected account of his life. He lived his last years in anguish over his health and declining finances. He felt that his friends had abandoned him and his gallantry had been forgotten. Richard Thomas Zarvona died on March 17, 1875, and was buried at a family estate in St. Mary's County, Md.

However, he was not forgotten. Company H of the 47th Virginia Infantry was more commonly called Zarvona's Zouaves during and after the war. A Maryland chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy is named after him.

In 1990, the Maryland Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans dedicated a marker for his previously unmarked grave. Perhaps Richard Thomas Zarvona would have taken some consolation from the fact that he and his alter ego, the "French lady," are mentioned more than 70 times in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

Richard P. Cox, a member of the Chesapeake Civil War Round Table, is a lawyer and freelance writer from Annapolis.