They Were No Ladies: Part II

Part I of this series told of  a Union officer’s assuming a feminine disguise in May 1861 to gather information instrumental in keeping St. Louis in Federal hands.  A few weeks later, a Confederate employed a similar ruse to aid the rebel cause.

Nearly 100 Zouave units served in the Civil War, over 70 for the Union and about 25 for the Confederacy. A crossdressing episode involving one of latter earned it a special place in history.

Nearly 100 Zouave units served in the Civil War, over 70 for the Union and about 25 for the Confederacy. A crossdressing episode involving one of the latter earned it a special place in history.

Richard Thomas, Jr. grew up possessing a prosaic name mismatched with a personality inclined toward the romantic. Born into a wealthy Maryland family in 1833, young Richard enjoyed an idyllic childhood on his family’s large plantation, Mattapany, once owned by Charles Calvert, the third lord of Baltimore. Richard, Sr. spent many years in public service, including stints as the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates and President of the Senate. His prominence drew many visitors to Mattapany, where young Richard watched the glitterati of The Old Line State stream through his home’s front door.

Some of those visitors were likely responsible for Richard, Jr.’s receiving an appointment to West Point in 1850, the year following his father’s death. Sixteen-year-old Richard entered the academy in September, only to find that his love for the pomp and circumstance of the parade ground did not extend to the civil engineering curriculum of the classroom.  With a record including low course rankings and 183 demerits, Richard withdrew from West Point shortly after beginning his second year.

According to what author Richard Cox termed “family legend” in a 2007 Washington Times article, Richard swapped academia for adventure and spent the next decade participating in a variety of far-flung activities. The first, working on government surveying crews in the west, may have been a logical extension of his West Point engineering classes. However, subsequent endeavors, such as fighting pirates along the China coast and serving with Garibaldi’s freedom fighters in Italy, appear to have been driven by his romantic inclinations. Some of them may have been exaggerations. For instance, his service with Garibaldi has not been documented, and Richard spoke no Italian.

It does appear, however, that Richard spend considerable time in France. In early 1861 he returned to Maryland speaking fluent French and touting the fighting capabilities of the colorfully clad French Zouaves. He also returned with a new name:  Richard Thomas Zarvona. He claimed the exotic addition was an homage to his true love, a young French woman who had met a tragic death.

Richard’s return to his childhood home coincided with the beginning of the Civil War.  Maryland remained in the Union but fielded both Federal and Confederate units.  As a member of Maryland’s slaveholding aristocracy, Richard aligned himself with the Southern cause.

Perhaps envisioning himself as an American Garibaldi, Richard set about to gather his own group of fighters to free Maryland and the South from Yankees. Not surprisingly, it was to be a French-inspired unit known by the alliterative appellation “Zarvona’s Zouaves.”

By May, Richard had recruited 30-50 men, devised a dramatic plan for using them to benefit the Confederacy, and received $1,000 from Virginia’s governor to recruit and equip more men to carry out his scheme.

The plan was to seize the USS Pawnee, a Federal gunboat operating on the Potomac River and frequently shelling Confederate posts on the Virginia banks. Once captured, the Pawnee would become a welcome addition to the tiny Confederate Navy.

Commandeering a gunboat is no mean feat, but Richard reveled in the challenge. He and his men would first capture the Pawnee’s supply boat, the steamer St. Nicholas, maneuver alongside the gunboat, and quickly overwhelm her unsuspecting crew. Not only would they do it, they would do it with the flair and drama Richard loved.

En route to Washington the evening of June 28, 1861, the St. Nicholas docked in Baltimore and picked up approximately 60 passengers.  About half of the newcomers were Richard’s Zouaves, dressed as laborers. They boarded in pairs or individually and mingled with the other passengers. Also boarding were a bearded Frenchman escorting his sister to Washington where she planned to open a millinery shop. The pair was given a large stateroom to accommodate the several trunks containing her supplies.

The French lady was really Richard, disguised in a dress, a wig, and a veiled hat.  As the St. Nicholas steamed into the twilight, the French lady is said to have flirtatiously conversed in French with other passengers and the captain, coquettishly hiding her face behind a fluttering fan. By midnight, she had retired to her stateroom, but her bearded brother, actually a former U.S. Navy engineer named George W. Alexander, remained on deck, quietly telling the Zouaves to find their way to her stateroom.

Richard had kept his plan to impersonate a French lady secret from his men, most of whom had seen him on deck but failed to recognize him. In the stateroom, he revealed his identity and the contents of the lady’s large trunks: uniforms and weapons.

Once thirty armed Zouaves appeared on deck, the captain surrendered the St. Nicholas. The Confederates steered her into a Potomac tributary in Virginia’s Northern Neck region where they docked, took on additional rebel soldiers, and permitted the civilian passengers to disembark.

Phase one of the debut of Zarvona’s Zouaves had gone off without a hitch. Phase two, however, had been foiled. The Pawnee was out of reach, having been called to Washington.

The plan to launch his men and himself into the Civil War with pyrotechnic brilliance had fizzled, but Richard quickly changed plans. Soon the St. Nicholas steamed into Chesapeake Bay where she seized three commercial vessels and their cargos. Richard managed to have all three, along with the St. Nicholas, reach Fredericksburg, Virginia without being detected by the Yankees. Upon their arrival, the Zouaves became the darlings of the locals, who held a ball in their honor. Cox notes that Richard delighted his hosts by wearing French lady garb to the gala. In Richmond a few days later, Governor Letcher rewarded Richard with the rank of colonel, and Zarvona’s Zouaves were cheered as they marched through the streets of the capitol. This time Richard wore his uniform.

The glory days did not last. Richard’s next attempt to take over a boat failed when he unwittingly chose one whose passengers included some of the St. Nicholas crew members he had allowed to return to Baltimore.  Although Richard and his men were dressed in mufti, he was recognized and subsequently arrested.

Because he was out of uniform when arrested, he was treated as a traitor rather than a prisoner of war and placed in solitary confinement for much of an 18-month imprisonment. Only when Governor Letcher protested Richard’s treatment by placing Federal prisoners in solitary confinement did the U. S. Department of War reclassify Richard as a prisoner of war. When he was finally exchanged in April 1863, Richard Thomas Zarvona was in poor health, mentally and physically.  His service to the Confederacy had been brief but brilliant.