- The Washington Times - Saturday, 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 scimitarlike 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.

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