Loreta’s Civil War: Hypocrites and traitors
Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart will share 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.
Read previous chapters of her incredible story here.
Part 37: As she prepares a new espionage operation in the heart of Washington D.C., Velazquez identifies her archenemy, Col. Baker, and pauses to study his character and the danger he may pose to her.
At the time of my arrival at the North the anti-war party was concentrating its strength for the approaching presidential campaign, and many men who were prominent in it were decidedly confident that the next election would place a president in the White House whose views about the proper policy to be pursued towards the South would be radically different from those of Mr. Lincoln. If an anti-war president could be elected … a speedy wind-up of the war on terms satisfactory to the Confederates would almost certainly follow his inauguration.
This being the situation, it was as much for the interest of the Richmond government that the political dissensions existing within the Federal lines should be kept alive and the success of the anti-war party promoted by every possible means as it was to win victories on the battlefield. Indeed, it was much more important, for victories cost men and treasure which the Confederacy could not well spare, and even more was to be gained by fighting the enemy on his own ground with the ballot than there was by shooting him on Confederate soil with the bullet.
It was an important part of the duty of the Confederate agents at the North to aid by every possible means the success of the anti-war party, and to this end they labored incessantly and effectively in various ways, but outside of the field of politics, there was an immense amount of highly important work being done, the like of which my brief experiences in New Orleans had barely given me a hint of. …
Many officials in the government employ were either secret service agents of the Confederacy or were in the pay of such. There was not a public building at Washington that did not contain a person or persons who was not only willing but eager to do much more than furnish information to the commanders of the Confederate armies and to the Richmond authorities, as far as it was possible to do so without placing themselves in peril. In all of the large cities were men and women, many of them in government employ, who were in constant communication with the Confederate agents, and in all of them were merchants who were rapidly growing wealthy by sending goods of all kinds, including arms and ammunition, to the South, either by having them smuggled through the lines or by shipping them to some neutral port for the purpose of having them transferred to blockade-runners.
Some of these merchants made no pretensions but sold to whoever would buy, having the avowed intention of making all the money they could by every safe means. They simply asked no questions, but took their cash and shipped according to order. Others were blockade-runners, pure and simple, and their only anxiety was to keep their operations concealed from the government detectives.
Millions of dollars’ worth of goods, however, were sold for the Southern market by men who were loud in their protestations of loyalty to the Federal government, who bitterly denounced the South in public and in private, who contributed largely to aid in carrying on the war, and who enjoyed in the fullest manner the confidence of the government, and of those of their fellow-citizens who honestly believed that the war was a just one.
I will not say that all of these men were hypocrites and traitors, for I am confident that very many of them were not. Some, however — and those not the least influential and wealthy — had different opinions about things in general, and the war, in particular, in public and in the social circles which they frequented, and in their counting-rooms, when certain people called on them for the purpose of buying goods. They were more than anxious to sell to any one who would buy, but in case the buyer was known to be, or was suspected of being, a Confederate agent, the question of the moment was to sell without being found out. Of course, some of them were detected occasionally, but there was generally a way to be found for dealing with these gentlemen with tender consciences and highly loyal reputations, by which their goods could be purchased for cash and their reputations spared at the same time.
Another element in the situation was the intense opposition to the conscription which was going on for the purpose of recruiting the armies — the supply of volunteers having long since failed. This opposition, before my arrival at the North, had culminated in bloody riots in New York and several other places which caused the greatest alarm because they indicated in a very positive manner that there was a very large disaffected class in the population, which, if excited to take up arms, might be able to start anew and formidable rebellion within the Federal lines. Many of those, too, who professed to favor the war were opposed to the conscription, that is, they were opposed to being conscripted themselves, although they were willing enough that other people should go and do their fighting for them.
The most obnoxious feature of the draft, however, had been in a measure overcome — the different states, cities, and towns offering liberal bounties for men to enlist. In this manner most of the quotas were filled, but the payment of bounties — a demoralizing proceeding under any circumstances — opened the way for the most shameless and gigantic frauds. The story of the bounty jumping during the last two years of the war is not one that any patriotic American citizen can read with complacency or satisfaction, and for pure infamy I think that it surpasses anything that the future historian of the war will be compelled to put on record.
I had a good deal to do with these bounty-jumping frauds and with a number of other matters very nearly as bad … and it may be thought that I was as culpable as those whom I now denounce. To those who are only willing to consider such a subject as this from one point of view, I have simply nothing to say. But fair-minded persons, North and South, will, however, freely admit that my actions as a secret agent of the Confederate government are not to be put in comparison with those of the dealers in human flesh and blood, the counterfeiters, and others who did what they did solely from motives of gain. At any rate, acting as I was under orders from the only government the authority of which I acknowledged, and animated only by an ardent desire to advance the interests of the cause which I had espoused, I felt that I was justified in embarrassing the enemy by any means in my power, and that the kind of warfare which I carried on in the rear of the Federal armies was just as legitimate as that which was carried on face to face with them in the field. …
It took me some little time, of course, to master the entire situation, but a very brief residence at the North enabled me to see that there was a vast amount of most important and valuable work to be done within the Federal lines, and that it was exactly the kind of work that I could do with the very best effect. I arranged my plans, therefore, for a series of operations in behalf of the Confederate cause, and, at the earliest practicable moment, placed myself in communication with the Richmond authorities and with the various secret service agents in the Northern States and in Canada, and also with Federal officials of various kinds with whom I desired to establish confidential relations. …
[In] going to Washington I had no very definite idea of what I would do, or, indeed, what I could do. I was now about to work under different auspices from any under which I had hitherto been placed, and it was necessary for me to look around a bit and study the situation. In a general sort of way I hoped to get access to the different departments so that I would be able to find out what was going on and to place myself in communication with persons who would be able to give me such information as I desired. It was also important that I should make the acquaintance of and be on friendly terms with officers of the army and others who would have the power to help me in case I wanted to run through the lines, or in event of my getting into any trouble through meddling with affairs that the government might not desire an irresponsible outsider like myself to know too much about.
The visit I had paid to the prison where my brother was confined made me think deeply about the privations and sufferings endured by the brave Southern boys captured on a hundred battlefields and now in the hands of the Federal authorities. The more I thought of them the more I was moved by an intense desire to do something to secure their release, and more than one crude suggestion of a plan for the accomplishment of so desirable an end floated through my mind. …
I hoped, on going to Washington, to find there someone with whom I was acquainted and through whom I might fall in with those who could aid me in the execution of my designs [or] meet some of my military friends of the good old days before the war, and I was not long in learning that Gen. A and Capt. B were both on duty in or near Washington. I will remark here that I designate these gentlemen by the two first letters of the alphabet because I desire to avoid giving any clue to their real names. They were both men of unimpeachable honor, and, had they suspected in the least what my designs really were, I believe that they would immediately have procured my arrest, in spite of any private friendship they might have had for me. I made use of them for the furtherance of my plans in the interest of the Confederacy, but they neither of them, on any occasion, wittingly gave me any information that they should not have given. On the contrary, they declined to be of any assistance to me in visiting the departments or in going to the front, on the plea that the stringent rules in force would not permit them to do so. … [T]he chief aid which they extended was in introducing me to people whom I could use and in maintaining intimate and friendly personal relations with me by which I was enabled to gain a standing in certain quarters without trouble.
The general, when I introduced myself to him, appeared to be very glad to see me and asked me innumerable questions about myself, my friends, and my adventures since we last had seen each other. I had a plausible story ready to tell him, in which fact and fiction were mingled with some degree of skill, and expressed myself with considerable bitterness concerning the rebels, wishing that I could do something to aid in securing a speedy termination of the war by their defeat. After a very pleasant intercourse with the general, I parted from him with a request that he would do me the honor to call on me at the hotel, which he promised to do.
The next day I met Capt. B in the street and we exchanged greetings. He, too, promised to call upon me. This promise he kept, and I had quite a long talk with him on general topics, preferring to see more of him before attempting to make him useful.
I saw both the general and the captain several times after that, and in the course of conversation with one of them, I forget which, he happened to say something about Col. Baker which excited my interest and induced me to make particular inquiry concerning him. I had never heard of this individual before, but I now speedily learned that he was the chief government detective officer and that he was uncommonly expert in hunting down rebel spies and in putting a stop to their performances. I immediately concluded that Col. Baker was a personage whom it was eminently desirable that I should become acquainted with at the earliest possible moment and that it would be much more advantageous for me to make his acquaintance through the introduction of one of my military friends than through finding him on my track just when I had some enterprise for the benefit of the Confederacy in process of consummation.
Whichever of the two it was that I had my original conversation with about Baker, it was the general who made me acquainted with him and who spoke of me in such a manner as to put me in the good graces of this terrible man at the start.
Col. Lafayette C. Baker occupied at Washington a somewhat similar position to that held by Gen. Winder at Richmond, although he scarcely had the large powers and extensive authority of the chief of the Confederate secret service department. In fact, Col. Baker was a detective officer more than anything else, and he had comparatively little to do with military matters. The chief employment of himself and his assistants was to hunt down offenders of all kinds, and he was much more successful in this than he was in procuring information for the use of the war department, although he prided himself considerably on his own performances as a spy and upon several not unsuccessful secret service expeditions into the Confederacy that had been made by his directions. …
I confess that I came into the presence of so formidable an individual with some degree of trepidation but I very soon learned to regard him as not half so ferocious as he looked and as very far from being as difficult and dangerous a personage to deal with as he was made out to be. …
Baker was a tolerably fair-looking man, after a certain fashion. He was a returned Californian, having resided in San Francisco for a number of years before the war, and having been a member of the famous vigilance committee which made such short work with the rogues of that city in 1856. He had the bronzed face and the wiry frame of a western pioneer, and his manners were marked by a good deal of far-western brusqueness. His hair was dark and thick, and he wore a full and rather heavy beard but his eyes were the most expressive feature of his face. These were a cold gray, and they had a peculiarly sharp and piercing expression, especially when he was talking on business. He also had a particularly sharp and abrupt manner of speaking at times, and more than once, when I have had reason to think that he might have knowledge of some of my transactions as a Confederate secret service agent, I have felt cold creeps all over me as he looked me straight in the eyes and spoke in that cutting tone of voice he was in the habit of using on occasions.
Col. Baker was, in my opinion, a first-rate detective officer and nothing more, for something more is necessary in the chief of a secret service department in time of war than to be a good hand at hunting down offenders. Give him a definite object to go for, and a very slight clue, and he would … accomplish a creditable piece of work. He had, however, very little skill in starting enterprises for himself. Gen. Winder, in his place, would have made Washington a much more uncomfortable residence for Confederate spies and agents than it was during the war, and the fact that I was able to play double with the colonel … and to carry on … a number of important operations on behalf of the Confederacy, so to speak, under his very nose, was not very creditable to him. …
Colonel Baker, however, was not without his good qualities, even if he was far from being as great a personage as he thought he was. He was stern and severe, but he was a kinder man at heart than Gen. Winder, although he lacked the intellectual attainments of the Confederate officer. With regard to the relative honesty of the two, it is perhaps as well that I should express no opinion.