In 1861, sixty people boarded the St. Nicholas, a steamer that carried passengers between Baltimore and points along the Potomac – among them a Madame LaForte, a stylish young lady who spoke very little English with a strong French accent. She was accompanied by her brother. She had a number of large trunks with her because she wanted to set up a millinery business in Washington. A beguiled purser assigned her a large stateroom, and dutiful deckhands hauled her trunks to her cabin.
When the St. Nicholas departed, Madame LaForte emerged from her stateroom and began to flirt shamelessly with the male passengers and ship’s officers, overwhelming all who attended her, including the captain, with a stream of coquettish French.
Another passenger, George Watts, was worried. He had been searching the decks, looking for a Colonel Zarvona, the man who had recruited him and several others for a dangerous mission. Had the colonel missed the boat? Would Watts be arrested as a Rebel spy and hanged. At midnight, the brother of the French lady tapped him on the shoulder and said he was wanted in a nearby cabin.
As Watts recounted: “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 later seized the steamer, which in addition to carrying passengers, carried supplies to the Union gunboat, the USS Pawnee. Their plan was to seize that ship as well.
In the early morning of June 29, the St. Nicholas docked and took aboard 30 Confederate soldiers. The passengers from Baltimore were permitted to leave with all their possessions. Then came the bad news: the gunboat had returned to Washington.
Determined to make his seizure of the St. Nicholas worthwhile, Zarvona began a raiding expedition that would give them the Monticello, a brig laden with 35,000 bags of coffee, the Mary Pierce, with a load of ice, and the schooner Margaret with a cargo of coal.
Zarvona and his crew returned to Fredericksburg where they received an enthusiastic welcome. At a ball given in their honor, Colonel Zarvona delighted those present by appearing in the hoops and skirts of the lady milliner from France in celebration of his new-found fame as the Confederacy’s first cross-dressing soldier of fortune.