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Loreta’s Civil War: Playing a desperate game

April 4, 2017

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart shared 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 41: Her mission accomplished, Velazquez returns to Washington to check in with her Union supervisor. He is impressed with her, while she worries that he may find out how she is manipulating him.

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On my return from Canada, I went first to New York, where I delivered such matters as had been committed to my care for my associates there, and after a conference with them, hurried on to Washington for the purpose of seeing Col. Baker.

It was not without many apprehensions that I concluded to face the colonel again, for I did not know how much information he might have about me by this time, and it really seemed like walking into the lion’s den. That his officers were aware of some of my movements, as they were following me up rather too closely for comfort, was certain but whether they had yet succeeded in identifying the rebel spy and secret-service agent with the woman whom Baker had employed to go on a confidential mission to Richmond was not so clear. Taking all things into consideration, I concluded that Baker and his men must be rather in a mist about me, for the detective, whom I had met on the cars, was evidently working somewhat in the dark, which could hardly have been the case had his chief suspected me of playing a double game with him. If Baker, however, had the least suspicion with regard to me, the fact of my very prolonged absence would, I knew, be liable to increase it, although under ordinary circumstances there would have been no difficulty in explaining this to his satisfaction, for he well knew that the errand he had sent me on was a difficult as well as a perilous one and that it was not to be accomplished quite as easily as a trip between Washington and New York.

Making all allowances for the probabilities in my own favor, however, I confess that I experienced some trepidation at the idea of facing the colonel, and I wondered not a little what he would do with me in case he did happen to know who I really was. It was of such great importance, however, that I should gain immediate admittance to the military prisons, and I knew that such admittance could be gained by going there as one of Baker’s corps, whereas it might otherwise be impossible, that I determined to take all the risks, so far as my own safety was concerned, and to try and have the colonel my ally in making the preparations for what … would be one of the most brilliant episodes of the war, so far as the Confederates were concerned, and that would not unlikely have the effect of bringing the contest to a speedy termination.

The idea of being able to use the chief of the Federal detectives for the advancement of the Confederate cause was one that gave me enormous satisfaction, and I more than once fancied what a capital good joke it would be for me, after I succeeded in getting beyond Col. Baker’s reach, to inform him how badly he had been taken in and to ask him what he thought of me and of my performances from a professional point of view.

While on my way to Washington for the purpose of meeting him and of making a report of my Richmond trip, my prospective interview was anything but a joking matter. The thing had to be done, though, so, stifling my fears, I, on my arrival in Washington, walked boldly into the colonel’s presence and announced myself as having just got back from Richmond.

Baker received me with proper cordiality and congratulated me on my safe return. There was nothing whatever in his manner to indicate that he had the slightest suspicion of me. This was reassuring, still I could not be quite certain but that, having once got me into his power, he intended to find out what I had to say for myself before beginning a less agreeable conversation.

I, however, did not propose to commence saying disagreeable things if he did not, and so, presuming that he imagined me to have just returned from the Confederate capital, I proceeded to make such a report of my doings as I thought would suit him.

I told him that I had obtained the name of the spy whom he was anxious to discover, and such a description of him as would enable me to identify him without any difficulty, if I could get to see him. The information I had obtained with regard to him induced me to believe that he was at Johnson’s Island, but of this I could not be certain.

I then went on to say that it was understood in Richmond that arrangements were being made for a grand stampede of the rebel prisoners, and that this spy, in some way, found means to communicate with the Copperheads and the rebel secret service agents. This was the story which it had been arranged between my confederate and myself I should tell Baker, for several reasons. There was the least bit of truth in it, and, in endeavoring to throw a detective like Baker off the scent, a little truth mingled with the fiction would be likely to accomplish the object better than a story which was all fiction.

As there had been rumors more than once of attempted stampedes of the prisoners, it was concluded that Baker would not be likely to regard this one as of any very great importance, especially if he had no inkling of the grand raid which was to take place in connection with the release of the prisoners, while at the same time he would be anxious to find out whether a stampede was really to be attempted, and if I managed right, would most likely employ me to make the investigations for him.

This explanation is worth making, for its own sake, as it will give the reader an idea of my method of working, and at the same time will serve to show that I was not revealing to the colonel any secrets which it was my duty to keep from him.

Baker fell into the trap just as innocently as if he had been a young man from the country instead of the chief detective officer of a great government which was engaged in a gigantic contest. On my suggesting my willingness to follow the thing up by visiting the prisons for the purpose of finding the spy, and if possible discovering the facts with regard to any conspiracy that might be on foot, he did not give me any definite answer at once but said he would think about it — but I saw plainly that he considered the idea as rather a good one and did not doubt that he would speedily make up his mind to send me.

When we had finished talking over this matter, I proceeded to give him a detailed account of what I saw and heard in Richmond. I said that the rebels were very strict and very suspicious and would not allow anyone to go to the front or to visit the prisons or the public buildings. I was, however, able to pick up quite a number of facts that might be useful and then went on to tell him a well-connected story, partly true and partly false, about the way things looked, and the way people talked, what the forces in the field and their locations were, how the blockade-runners managed to get in and out of port, what I had seen and heard on the road as I was going to and fro, and so on. None of the real facts that I gave the colonel were of any importance, although I magnified them as much as I could, but they served to give an air of plausibility to my narrative and to convince him that I was quite an expert spy. …

Baker asked me numerous questions, which I answered to the best of my ability, so far as was consistent with the good of the Confederate cause, and when we had concluded our conversation he praised me very warmly, said that I was a plucky little woman, that he had thought I had vim enough to go through if anyone could, that I had done a good service to the country, and a variety of other nice things, which had the effect of making me feel quite pleasant and quite at my ease with him again. … Baker also remarked [that] he had been getting somewhat uneasy about me, to which I replied, by telling him how and why I had been detained, and the explanation appeared to be entirely satisfactory, for he said no more on that point.

I was curious to know exactly how well he was informed with regard to my real movements and had half a dozen questions on the end of my tongue which I wanted to ask him. I concluded, however, that this would be going rather too far, and would do no good, while it might have the effect of exciting suspicions where none at present existed. I did, however, venture to inquire whether he had told anyone that I was attached to the corps.

“No, no,” he replied, “certainly not, and I don’t want you to tell any one either. If I employ you for anything, it will be for strictly confidential business, which must be between ourselves. I would rather that even my own people should not know anything about you as a secret-service agent.”

Having finished our business talk, I asked for my friends Gen. A. and Capt. B., and was informed that the captain was in the field but that the general was in the city and would doubtless be glad to see me.

On reaching the Kirkwood House, where I had taken a room, I sent my card to the general at Willard’s Hotel, and he came immediately to see me. While we were chatting, in came Baker, who, I judged by his manner, had something which he wanted to say to me and surmised that it was a consent that I should visit the prisoners.

“Ah, general,” said he, “I see that you are bound to continue your attentions to our little friend here. She hasn’t been in Washington many hours and you have found her out already. I guess, however, that she likes me better than she does you, for she came to see me as soon as she arrived.”

The general looked a trifle surprised at this, and said, “Why, Baker, you must be getting to be a lady’s man! I didn’t know that you were particularly inclined that way.”

Baker laughed at this, and said, “She is a first-rate little woman, and I wish there were more like her. She has just made a very successful trip to Richmond and has brought me some important items.”

“Is that so?” said the general. “Why, I did not know that she belonged to your corps.”

“Neither does she in a regular way but as she knew a good deal about Richmond and was acquainted with a number of people there, I thought I would let her make a trip, especially as she was extremely anxious to try her luck.”

The general congratulated me on my success and then proposed that we should all three go that evening to Ford’s Theater. Baker assented, and I was quite willing, as I thought an evening’s entertainment in witnessing a good play would brighten me up a little. Besides, I was anxious to cultivate the acquaintance of these two men and was especially solicitous to have all possible opportunities of conversing with the colonel, with a view of inducing him to accede to my proposition for a visit to the military prisons. Baker and the general then said goodbye … and went away together.

About seven o’clock in the evening the general returned alone, and as he was escorting me to the carriage I asked where Baker was. The general replied that he had been compelled to go unexpectedly to the Executive Mansion on some business but would probably join us in the theater.

This aroused all my apprehensions of danger again, and I became fearfully uneasy lest all the colonel’s fine words should merely have been intended to draw me out and conceal some sinister designs towards me. I stifled my fears, however, as well as I could, and after we got to the theater tried to converse with the general in an agreeable and natural manner. I was startled by the least sound, however, and was unable to avoid turning around to look every time anyone came in, almost expecting every moment that Baker or one of his officers would appear for the purpose of arresting me.

My fears proved to be groundless. Baker did come in soon after the play commenced, and, taking a seat beside me, made an apology for not joining the party sooner, but [begged] to be excused, as he had been compelled to go up to the White House for the purpose of having a talk with the president and the secretary of war. There was nothing in his manner then or afterwards to indicate that he was suspicious of me, and both he and the general … were apparently greatly absorbed in what was occurring on the stage.

As for myself, I found it impossible to get interested. I was uneasy for my own safety, knowing that I was playing a desperate game, and was even more anxious lest the grand scheme which I was endeavoring to promote should fail through any fault or misdirection of mine. My thoughts, too, wandered to our brave men in the field and to the sufferings of the poor prisoners. I almost reproached myself for even making an appearance of indulging in an evening’s recreation in company with two Federal officers while so many thousand Confederates were enduring so much but consoled myself with the reflection that I was not doing this for mere pleasure but was engaged in the performance of an important task, which might be greatly promoted through my acquaintance with these men. Finally, to my great relief and satisfaction, the play came to an end and the curtain dropped for the last time.

As we passed out, the general proposed that we should go to the Grand Hotel and have some supper. I did not care to do this, but thought it best to accept the invitation.

We had a really superb repast — one of the finest I had ever sat down to, and, as I was hungry, I ate quite heartily. In the way of drinkables, I confined myself to lemonade but the gentlemen took wine. The general, who was quite fond of his toddy, drank rather more than was good for him and soon became very talkative and a trifle noisy. He was one of those men, however, who never forget to be gentlemen, and he neither said nor did anything offensive. Finally, he began spinning some long yarn, during which Baker took an opportunity to whisper to me that he would probably want to see me in the morning. I nodded assent, although my fears began to rise a little but I hoped that instead of demanding a different account of my doings from that which I had already given him, the colonel would give me my commission for a trip to the West.

After we had finished our supper, we returned to the Kirkwood, where I bade them good night, at about a quarter before twelve, at the drawing-room door, and as soon as they were gone hastened to my own room to obtain the rest of which I stood in so much need, for I was tired out with the fatigues of travel and the excitement and anxieties of the day.

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