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Loreta’s Civil War: I am willing to risk it

March 23, 2017

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.

You can read the entire 1876 memoir online here. Learn more about Velazquez (and the incredible documentary film Maria Agui Carter made about her) here.

Read previous chapters of her incredible story here.

Part 38: Velazquez angles her way into a job as a spy for the Union. It’s a crucial part of her role in an astounding Confederate covert operation to turn the tide of the war.

******

On being introduced to Col. Baker by Gen. A., I asked him if he could not give me a position in his detective corps in some capacity, explaining as my reason for making a request that, having lost everything through the rebellion, I was in urgent need of obtaining some remunerative employment by which I could support myself. … I told pretty much the same story that I had to the Federal officers at Memphis: I was of Spanish extraction, and all of my friends and relatives were either in Spain or Cuba. My husband, who was a United States army officer … had died about the outbreak of the war, and I had been plundered and otherwise so badly treated by the rebels that I had been compelled to come North, where I had resided for a considerable period, but without being able to do much in the way of supporting myself. I was well acquainted throughout the South, having traveled a great deal … and I did not doubt but that I possessed much information that would be of value to the government and believed that I could obtain more. …

Baker asked me a good many questions — not particularly skillful ones it seemed to me — about myself, my family, how long I had been at the North, what induced me to take up with the idea of joining the secret service corps, what employment I had hitherto been engaged in, and a variety of other matters. To his interrogatories I replied promptly and with seeming frankness, and I left his presence tolerably confident that he believed all I had told him. … [But] was cautious — he would see about it, he would talk further with me on the subject, he did not know that he had anything he could give me to do just at present, but he might have need of me shortly, and would let me know when he wanted me — and all that sort of thing. …

This interview with Col. Baker convinced me that he was the man to begin with if I wanted to get admission behind the scenes at Washington and if I wanted to execute any really masterly coup at the North in behalf of the Confederacy. As a member of his corps, I would not only be able to do many things that would be impossible otherwise. … As for Baker himself, I made up my mind that he was an individual wise in his own esteem, but with no comprehensive ideas whom it would not be difficult to fool to the top of his bent. All that it would be necessary for me to do, in case he employed me, would be the performance of some real or apparently real services for him to secure his fullest confidence, while at the same time I could carry on my real work to the very best advantage.

Having waited about Washington for a week or two without hearing anything from Col. Baker … I decided to return to New York as I thought, from a hint given me in a letter from my brother, that I might be able to commence operations there. I resolved, however, to cultivate Baker’s acquaintance at the earliest opportunity but thought that perhaps it would be best not to trouble him again until I had some definite scheme to propose.

When I reached New York and saw my brother, he was expecting every day to be exchanged, and he told me that he had been visited by several Confederate agents who wanted him to try and carry some documents through when he went South. He was afraid, however, to attempt anything of this kind, and, besides, did not think that it would be honorable under the circumstances. Without saying anything about my plans to him, therefore, I went and saw the agents in question, told them who I was, referred them to people who knew me in the West, and in a general way disclosed to them my schemes for aiding the Confederacy. I did not, however, tell them about my interview with Col. Baker or that I had the intention of becoming an employee of his. This, I thought, was a matter I had best keep to myself for the present for fear of accident.

These agents were exceedingly glad to see me and had several jobs of work cut out which they were anxious that I should attend to. They did not strike me as being very important, but I thought that they would do to begin with and that they would aid me in becoming acquainted with the Confederate working force in the North. I, therefore, promised to give them my aid so soon as my brother should leave for the South.

They then evinced a great eagerness to have me persuade my brother to carry some dispatches through but I said that it would be useless to ask him, and that the most I could expect of him was that he would take a verbal message from myself to the officials who knew me in Richmond to the effect that I was at the North, endeavoring to aid the Confederate cause by every means in my power, and filled with zeal to do whatever was to be done. It required considerable persuasion to induce my brother to do even this much, but finally, to my great satisfaction, he consented.

Shortly after this my brother went South on a cartel of exchange, and in due time I received information that my message had been delivered and that I was recognized as a Confederate secret service agent.

In the meanwhile I made a large number of acquaintances among the adherents of both the Federal and Confederate governments and did a great deal of work of one kind or another. None of my performances, however, for several months were of sufficient importance to warrant special mention in these pages, and their chief value to me was that they kept me employed and taught me what kind of work there was to do and how to do it. During this time, I visited Washington frequently and always made it a point to see Col. Baker, to whom I furnished a number of bits of information, the majority of which were of no particular value to him, although several were of real importance and aided him materially in his effort to break up certain fraudulent practices and to bring the rogues to justice.

By this means I retained his favor and succeeded in gaining his confidence to a degree that the reader will probably think rather astonishing, considering my antecedents and the kind of work that I was engaged in sub rosa. It should be borne in mind, however, that Baker did not know and could not know anything of my previous history, that I had been highly recommended to him, and that I was constantly proving useful to him. …

My grand opportunity at length did arrive, and the cunning secret service chief fell into the trap laid for him as innocently and unsuspectingly as if he had never heard of such a thing as a spy in his life. The colonel, as I have before remarked, was not a bad sort of a fellow in his way, and as I had a sincere regard for him, I am sorry he is not alive now that he might be able to read this narrative and so learn how completely he was taken in, and by a woman, too. He was a smart man but not smart enough for all occasions. …

[My] magnificent scheme was on foot during the summer and fall of 1864, for making an attack upon the enemy in the rear, which, if it had been carried out with skill and determination might have given a very different ending to the war. As it was, the very inefficient attempt that was made created an excitement that almost amounted to a panic and seemed to show how effective a really well-directed blow … would have been. … A large extent of country was to be operated upon, [and] several distinct movements of equal importance were to be carried on at the same time, the failure of any one of which would imperil everything, and a neutral soil was to be the base of operations.

That a considerable number of persons should be informed of the essential points of the proposed campaign could not be avoided, and, of course, each person admitted to the secret diminished the chances of it being kept. … Besides all this, two great difficulties in the way of success existed. There was no thoroughness of organization … and there was no recognized leader whose authority was admitted by all and who had the direction of all the movements. …

We were utterly unable to tell how much we could count on in the way of active assistance from the Southern sympathizers, or “Copperheads,” as they were called. … These people were really traitors both to the South and the North, and in the long run they did the cause of the Confederacy far more harm than they did it good. They professed to believe that the South was right, and yet they were not willing to take up arms for her. … They annoyed the government by their captious criticisms of all its actions, by opposing the prosecution of the war in every way that they could with safety to themselves, and by loud expressions of Southern sympathy. All they accomplished, however, was a prolongation of the war and the disfranchisement of nearly the entire white population of the South after the war was ended, for to them — more than to the Southerners themselves — was due the imposition of the hard terms which were the price of peace. To the “Copperheads,” therefore, as a class, the South owe little or nothing, and, according to my view, they were the kind of friends that people in difficulties had best be without.

The great scheme to which I have alluded was no less than an attack upon the country bordering upon the Great Lakes; the release of the Confederate prisoners confined at Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie, near Sandusky, Ohio, and at other localities; their organization into an army, which was to engage in the work of devastating the country, burning the cities and towns, seizing upon forts, arsenals, depots, and manufactories of munitions of war, for the purpose of holding them … or of destroying them; and … of creating such a diversion in [the Union] rear as would necessitate the withdrawal of a large [Federal] force from the front.

It was expected … that the Federal forces would be placed between two fires and that the commanders of the Confederate armies in the South and in the North would be able between them to crush the enemy and dictate terms of peace, or at least give a new phase to the war by transferring it from the impoverished and desolated South to the rich, prosperous, and fertile North. …

While the plans for the proposed grand attack in the rear was maturing, I was asked to attempt a trip to Richmond and consented without hesitation. I was to consult with and receive final instructions from the Richmond authorities with regard to the proposed raid on the lakeshores and was also to attend to a variety of commercial and other matters, and especially to obtain letters and dispatches for Canada.

Now was my time to make use of Col. Baker, and I accordingly resolved to see what I could do with him without more delay. Having received my papers and instructions, therefore, I went to Washington and called on the colonel, who received me … and asked what he could do for me, for he saw … that I had some definite project on hand and began to believe that I really meant serious business.

In order to understand the situation from Col. Baker’s point of view, it may be necessary to state that more than once rumors that attempts to liberate the Confederate prisoners were to be made had been in circulation and that Baker, as I knew, was exceedingly anxious to effect the arrest of some of the more active of the Confederate agents engaged in this and similar schemes.

I told him, therefore, that I had obtained information to the effect that a noted Confederate spy had been captured and was now in one of the prisons, from whence he could doubtless find means to communicate with Confederates outside. My proposition was that I should go to Richmond, where, by passing myself off as a Confederate among people with whom I was acquainted, I would not only … succeed in finding out exactly who this man was and where he was, but what he and his confederates were trying to do. I suggested, also, that I could most likely pick up other information of sufficient value to pay for whatever the trip would cost the government.

When I had explained what I proposed to do, Baker said, “I am afraid if you attempt to run through the lines the Rebs will capture you. [If] they do, they will use you rough.”

I replied, “I am not afraid to take the risk if you will only give me the means of making the trip and attend to getting me through the Federal lines.”

“It will be a troublesome thing to get you through our lines,” said Baker, “for it don’t do to let everybody know what is going on when a bit of business like this is on hand, and after you pass our lines you will have to get through those of the rebels, and that you will find no easy job, I can tell you, for they are getting more and more suspicious and particular every day.”

“Oh, as for that,” said I, “I can … go to Havana, where my relatives are living, and try and run through from there. I believe, however, that I can get through from here if I make the right kind of an effort — at any rate, I would like to make the attempt, if only to show you what I am capable of.”

The colonel laughed at my enthusiasm and said, “Well, you are a plucky little woman, and as you seem to be so anxious to spy out what the Rebs are doing, I have half a notion to give you a chance. You must not blame me, however, if you get caught, and they take a notion to hang you, for, you know, that is a way they have of dealing with people who engage in this sort of business, and your sex won’t save you.”

“Oh,” said I, “I don’t think that my neck was ever made to be fitted in a noose, and I am willing to risk it.”

[H]e gave me a variety of instructions about how to proceed and about the particular kind of information I was to endeavor to obtain. I saw very plainly that he did not entirely trust me, or, rather, that he was afraid to trust me too much, but I attributed his lack of confidence in me to the fact that I was as yet untried and consequently might be led by my enthusiasm into underrating the difficulties of the task I was undertaking rather than to any doubt in his mind with regard to my fidelity. I resolved, therefore, to give him such proofs of my abilities as well as of my fidelity as would insure me his entire confidence in the future.

It having been determined that I should make the trip, Baker told me to get ready for my journey immediately, and, in the mean time, he could procure me the necessary passes to enable me to get through the Federal lines, and money to meet my expenses.

When we next met, he gave me five thousand dollars in bogus Confederate bills and one hundred and fifty dollars in greenbacks, which he said ought to be enough to see me through all right. I suggested that if the Confederates caught me passing bogus currency, they would be apt to deal harder with me than they would simply as a spy. Baker laughed at this and said that that was one of the risks I must run but that he did not think there was any danger, as these bogus notes passed more readily in the Confederacy than the genuine ones did, which he could only account for on the supposition that the Confederacy was a bogus government. He seemed to think that this was rather a good joke, although I was not able to see exactly where the laugh came in, and am afraid that I must have struggled hard with the faint smile that I attempted.

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