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Loreta’s Civil War: Blow them out of the water

April 13, 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 44: Plans form and plans fall apart, but Velazquez remains focused on her overall strategy to assist the Confederacy from her vantage point far from the war’s front lines.

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As we were crossing to the town, the lieutenant again proposed that we should take a drive that afternoon. I, however, excused myself and gave him to understand that I had engagements which would prevent me from meeting him again. The young man, therefore, to my infinite relief — for his attentions were beginning to be troublesome — stated that he would return to Cincinnati by the first train, and, when I parted from him in the hotel, I sincerely hoped that he would do so for I did not wish to have him watching my movements.

I now wrote a letter to Col. Baker, in which I stated that the man I was looking for was not at Johnson’s Island and that I thought I would go on to Indianapolis and visit the prison camp there. After I had dined, not seeing the lieutenant, I inquired for him and was told that he had gone. Being, therefore, in no danger of meeting him again, I went to the telegraph office and sent dispatches to the Detroit and Buffalo agents to notify them that I had visited the prison and executed my commission there, and one to St. Louis, in accordance with the instructions under which I was acting, for the agent there to send certain parties to meet me at Indianapolis.

The next morning I was off for Indianapolis to continue the search I had begun in Sandusky, although I desired very much to remain in the last named city for the purpose of watching the progress of events, and, perhaps, of taking part in any fighting that might occur. I very well knew that by acting as a spy and as a bearer of dispatches I was performing much more valuable service than I would as a soldier, and yet, at the prospect of a battle, all my fighting blood was up, and I could scarcely restrain my desire to be an active participant in the great and exciting scenes I thought were about to take place.

I afterwards wished that I had remained, for I felt confident that had I been in Sandusky when the appointed time for striking the blow came and had been entrusted with the direction of affairs, there would have been no such miserable fizzle as actually did occur.

The general plan, as the reader has already been told, was to organize a raid along the lake shores, to release the prisoners, to gather about us all the Southern sympathizers who could be induced to join us, and to make such a diversion in the Federal rear as would compel the withdrawal of a large force from the front. We also placed great reliance on the effects of the panic which, it was hoped, would be created, and also on British intervention, which it was expected would be brought about by a border war, in which it would be impossible to prevent trespass upon British territory.

In addition to this, the Indians were to be stirred up to acts of hostility all along the frontier, from the lakes to the gulf.

The prisoners, as they effected their escape, were to act according to circumstances. Those at Sandusky and at places nearest to that point were to unite with the outsiders, and form an army to operate along the lake shores and as far into the adjacent country as they could penetrate, while others were to endeavor to effect a junction with Price and Quantrill in Missouri and to march under their orders.

The execution of this scheme was to begin at a certain time, after the prisoners had been made acquainted with such details of the general plan as were necessary to be known by them, by the capture of the Federal gunboat Michigan, and of such other steamers as the Confederates could overpower by stratagem or force. This being done, the prisoners on Johnson’s Island were to be notified by a prearranged signal and were to make a break and overpower their guards, with the assistance of the boats. The prisoners once free, the organization of both military and naval forces was to be proceeded with as rapidly as possible and all the damage done to the enemy that could be done with the means at hand.

In pursuance of this plan, the Confederates in Canada seized the lake steamers Indian Queen and Parsons, and started for Sandusky. On arriving off that place, however, their signals were unanswered, and after waiting as long as they dared they were forced to the conclusion that something unexpected had occurred to interfere with the success of the plans and had no recourse but to make their escape as rapidly as they could, well knowing that the Michigan, if she ever got her guns to bear on them, would blow them out of the water in very short order.

The scheme fell through, not because the party from Canada did not keep their engagement or were not willing and anxious to do all that they had the power to do, but because one of the men who went to Sandusky for the purpose of seizing the Michigan turned traitor. I may, perhaps, be doing this person an injustice in applying this harsh name to him but if he was not a willful traitor, he was a fool and too weak and cowardly to have been entrusted with such responsible and weighty duties as he was.

Arrangements had been made to secure the attendance of all, or nearly all, the officers of the Michigan at an entertainment, and during their absence the vessel was to have been seized. Before this entertainment could come off, however, the man to whom I have alluded was either recognized as a Confederate, or else he made some drunken utterances that excited suspicion. At all events, he was arrested, and on a search being made, papers were found in his possession which gave the Federal government full information with regard to the plot and enabled them to take means to meet it. All this might have happened, and yet no one been seriously to blame but this man, on the papers being found on him, confessed everything, and revealed, not merely the particulars of the scheme but who his associates were.

He should have permitted himself to have been torn limb from limb before doing this, as I would have done, had I been captured, sooner than I would have revealed anything to the enemy.

The failure of this raid caused much disappointment at the South, and the Confederates in Canada, by whom it had been planned and to whom its execution was entrusted were greatly censured and were accused both of treachery and lack of courage. These censures and accusations were unjust for they did all they could do, and if they were to blame for anything, it was in confiding in a person or persons who were unworthy of confidence.

The excitement which the capture of the Sandusky party and the discovery of what it was that they and the Confederates proposed to do caused at the North showed how great would have been the panic that the successful execution of the scheme would have caused. I cannot express the disgust and indignation I felt when I heard that the plot had failed, and how it failed, and it was on this account, as much as anything else, that I left the country for a time and refused to have anything more to do with my late associates and their schemes, although I was still intent upon doing all I could to advance the interests of the Confederacy.

On my arrival at Indianapolis, I found two men from St. Louis awaiting me, they having been sent there in compliance with my telegraphic dispatch from Sandusky. I had a long talk with them about the condition of affairs and delivered the dispatches I had for them. One of them — a tall Missourian — was to go to the borders, to operate with the Indians, and the other was to report to Quantrill on some business of a secret nature. I had no idea what the dispatch which I handed to this second man was about, and, as he did not seem disposed to tell me, I did not ask him.

In compliance with my orders, I was now to wait in Indianapolis until I should receive directions to proceed elsewhere and was to occupy my time in obtaining access to the prison camp for the purpose of conversing with the prisoners, informing them of the movements that were in progress and encouraging them to make an effort to escape, as no rescue could be attempted in their case.

Exactly how to get into the prison enclosure was something of a problem, as, for a number of good and sufficient reasons, I was desirous of doing this without figuring as Col. Baker’s agent, as I had done at Sandusky. Where there is a will there is a way, nearly always, and I speedily found a very easy way to accomplish my object.

Walking out towards the prison camp, the day after my arrival, I determined to try and get in on some plea or other, and only to fall back on Baker’s letter as a last resource when all other means failed. Not very far from the enclosure I met a cake-woman, who, I surmised, was permitted to go among the prisoners for the purpose of trading with them. It occurred to me that with a little management, I could obtain admission along with her, so, going up to her, I purchased a few cakes, and said, “Why, do you go into the prison, among those dirty rebels?”

“Oh, yes,” she replied, “I go in there to sell them cakes.”

“I did not know that they let anyone in.”

“Yes, the officers all know me, and the sergeant always looks through my basket to see that I haven’t anything contraband.”

“I would like mighty well to go in there and see how the rebels look. Do you think they would let me in with you?”

“Yes, you come along with me. I’ll get you in.”

When we came to the gate, therefore, and while the sergeant was examining her basket, the old woman said, “Sergeant, this is my sister. She came with me to see how the rebels look — she never saw one.”

The sergeant laughed and passed us both in without further parley. The cake-woman went into the quarters, where she soon had a crowd of men round her, investing their cash — and precious little of it they had — in the contents of her basket. Looking around me, I spied a major belonging to Lee’s army, whom I had met in Richmond but who had never seen me in female attire, and, going up to him, I had a hurried conversation with him in a low voice.

I told him that now was the time for the prisoners to make a break, if they wanted to gain their freedom, as there were no troops at hand worth speaking of. He wanted to know whether there was not danger of being re-taken.

I replied that I did not think there was if they made a bold dash and all worked together. I then told him what was being done elsewhere, and explaining as well as I could the general plan of operations that had been arranged, suggested that they should try and reach the southern part of the state, and, after crossing the river, report either to Price or Jeff Thompson. I then gave him some money and hurriedly left him to rejoin the old cake-woman, whose basket was by this time emptied and who was prepared to leave.

This duty having been satisfactorily performed, I wrote a letter to Col. Baker, informing him that the man I was looking for was not at the Indianapolis camp but that I had information which led me to think I would find him at Alton. I, therefore, proposed to go to that place, and if he was not there, I would give the whole thing up as a bad job and return East.

I had no intention of going to Alton, but being under obligation to remain for some time … in Indianapolis, I was desirous of employing myself to the best advantage. Exactly what to get at, however, was not an easy thing to determine. After considering the subject in all its aspects, I resolved to go to Gov. Morton for the purpose of asking him whether he could not give me some employment. My idea was that perhaps through the influence of the governor, I could obtain a clerkship or some position which would afford me facilities for gaining information.

I accordingly called on the governor, to whom I represented myself as a poor widow whose husband had been killed in the war and who had no means of support. Gov. Morton treated me kindly enough, although I speedily made up my mind that he was by no means as amiable and goodnatured an individual as my rather jolly friend, Gov. Brough of Ohio.

After hearing my story, he said that there was nothing he could do for me, but that it was very possible I might be able to obtain employment at the arsenal, as there were a good many women working there.

This, it struck me, was a most capital idea, and, therefore, asking the governor to give me some kind of a note or recommendation — which request he complied with by writing a few lines — I left him to see what I could do at the place where they were manufacturing munitions of war to be used against my Confederate friends.

I do not know whether it was the governor’s note that aided me or whether they were really in want of hands, but I was told that I could have work if I desired it. The ordnance officer — a German, whose name I have forgotten — said that I was to commence work on Tuesday, the day I applied to him being Saturday.

At the appointed time, I appeared at the arsenal and was sent into the packing-room, where I was instructed in the mystery of packing cartridges. There were about eighteen girls working in the same room, most of whom were rather light-headed things, interested in very nearly everything except the business they were paid for. A good part of their time was employed in writing, reading, and discussing love-letters, which they were interchanging with the soldiers in the field, and a number of them had a good many more than one correspondent.

The society of these girls was no pleasure to me whatever, especially as I had things of much more importance to think of than their love affairs. Immediately on Gov. Morton suggesting that, perhaps, I could obtain employment at the arsenal, the idea of blowing up that establishment entered my mind. After going to work, I looked about me to see how this could be done and very soon perceived that the thing was possible and without much risk to myself, provided I took proper precautions.

I found, however, that I would not be able to blow up the arsenal without destroying a number of lives, and I shrank from doing this. It was a great temptation to me, however, especially when I reflected that I was really in the Confederate service and that it was a part of my duty to do everything in my power to injure the enemy. I could not, however, get it out of my head that there was a wide difference between killing people in a fair fight and slaughtering them in this fashion, and so, to get myself out of the way of a temptation that was constantly growing stronger and stronger, I suddenly left, after having been at work about two weeks.

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