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Loreta’s Civil War: Villains of the blackest dye

April 20, 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 46: Despite her frustration with Confederate military setbacks, Velazquez turns her attention to a secret logistical operation that will take her back to Cuba.

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It was a comparatively easy matter to persuade me to continue to act as a Confederate secret service agent, although I was too angry over the Johnson’s Island matter to be willing to place myself in peril very soon again by attempting to play a double game, as I had been doing with Col. Baker and other Federal officials. I was willing to risk as much as anyone when there was a fair chance of accomplishing anything, but I was not willing to undertake enterprises of extraordinary peril, and to run the chance of being betrayed through either the stupidity or the treachery of those who professed to be working with me. … I did not care to cultivate the acquaintance of Baker and the members of his corps any further just then and was not sorry to have an opportunity to leave the country for a time.

This opportunity was afforded in a proposition that I should purchase a quantity of goods in Philadelphia and New York to fill Southern orders, and should go to the West Indies with them as a sort of supercargo for the purpose of arranging for their shipment to different Southern ports. I was also to supervise the shipment of a variety of goods of various kinds from Europe.

It was thought that, as in the cases of the proposed raid, a woman would be able to do a great many things without exciting suspicion that it would be hazardous for a man to attempt. It was daily getting to be more and more difficult to smuggle goods, especially merchandise of a bulky nature, through the blockading fleet. The tribulations of the blockade-runners, however, did not begin when they approached the beleaguered ports of the Confederacy. There were great difficulties in the way of purchasing goods, especially at the North, and of getting them shipped in safety, and then, in the majority of cases, they had to be taken to some point in the West Indies to be re-shipped, all of which involved trouble, expense, and risk.

The purchase and shipment of goods at places like New York and Philadelphia required particularly discreet management. There were, doubtless, some merchants and manufacturers who would not knowingly have sold to Confederate agents or for Confederate uses in any shape. For such, I had and have every respect, for they were entirely honest and consistent in their opposition to the secession of the Southern States. I am very much afraid, however, that these were few in number, and I know that the prospect of cash payments and handsome profits caused many men — who were loud in their profession of loyalty to the Federal government and bitter in their denunciations of the South — to close their eyes to numerous transactions of a doubtful character when opportunities for making a good round sum without danger of detection were presented.

Some Northern merchants and manufacturers sold goods, either immediately or at second hand, to Confederate agents innocently enough, being deceived as to the nature of the transactions. No dealers could be expected to maintain a corps of detectives for the purpose of watching their customers and of tracing out the destination of the goods purchased from them, and thus the most ardent and enthusiastic supporters of the Federal government were liable to be imposed upon. That some of these men were honest I know, for I am aware of instances where the sale of goods has been refused, on the plea that there was reason to believe that the intention was to send them South. These refusals have been made where the sales could have been effected with entire safety and with perfect propriety, so far as outward appearances went.

These very fastidious people were not numerous, however, and in the majority of business houses the practice was to welcome all customers and to ask no questions. In many large establishments, the chiefs of which were noted for their “loyalty,” confidential clerks could be found with whom it was possible to transact any amount of contraband business, especially if the cash was promptly forthcoming. Some of these people, I am sure, were well aware of what their subordinates were doing. With regard to others, I am in doubt, but think that they could scarcely have been ignorant of what was going on and only wanted to be able to say, in case of any difficulties occurring, that they, personally, were not to blame.

There were, of course, numerous manufacturers, merchants, jobbers, brokers, and others, who were eager to make money wherever it could be made, and whose only object in concealing their transactions, so far as the Southern market was concerned, was to avoid getting into trouble. Some of these people were loyal to the Federal government after a fashion, while others were as undisguised in their expressions of sympathy for the South as they dared to be. Political partisanship was, however, not a very strong point with either set — they considered it legitimate to make money by the buying and selling of goods without regard to what the politicians at Washington and elsewhere might think or do. So long as they bought and sold in a reasonably honest manner, their consciences did not trouble them. With such as these, I and my associates found it easy to deal.

If it was easy, it was not always satisfactory to deal with people of this kind, and during the last year of the war, especially, some of the largest transactions were with houses that had reputations to lose, and that were managed by men who aimed to stand high in the regards of the government. … To do business with such houses required some finesse, but, except in rare instances, it could be done without a great deal of trouble, and … with the approbation of the heads of the concerns.

Looking at this buying and selling from a Southern point of view, it was not only legitimate and proper, but it was a violation of every natural or political right for the Federal government to interfere with it. From a Northern point of view, however, it was giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and it was … sustaining the government in the prosecution of the war.

The sale of goods for the Southern market and the active or surreptitious encouragement of blockade-running were, however, very venal offenses compared with some others that were committed by people at the North, who professed to be eager for the subjugation of the South. Now that the war is over, a good many who made money by supplying the South with contraband articles other than munitions of war can afford to laugh at the perils they then ran … without fear of the kind of business they were engaged in. As the reader, however, will discover, there was an immense amount of evil and rascality going on, and some of the most trusted officers of the government were engaged in transactions concerning which there could not possibly be two opinions.

With some of these transactions I had considerable to do, and I was cognizant of undiluted villainy that unveiled depths of human depravity such as I never would have believed to be possible, had I not been brought in such close contact with it.

It may be thought by some who read this part of my narrative that I was as much in fault as those with whom I consented to associate for the purpose of accomplishing the object I had in view. I do not despair, however, of finding readers, even in the Northern States, who will be able to take a liberal and charitable view of my course. …

These things have, many of them, never been told before, although dark hints with regard to them have been dropped from time to time. … In fact, there is a secret history of the war, records of which have never been committed to paper and which exists only in the memories of a limited number of people. That this secret history will ever be written out with any degree of fullness is scarcely possible for reasons that will readily be understood but some idea of what it will be like, should it ever be written, may be gathered from these pages….

With regard to my associates. Confederates and others, who were mixed up with me in certain transactions, the case, however, is different. I deem it proper, in certain cases, to refrain from mentioning their names, as many of them are still living and might yet get into trouble through my utterances. I kept faith with them when we were acting together, and will do so still, although some of them were villains of the blackest dye who richly deserve any punishment that the law against which they offended is capable of inflicting upon them.

Having consented to make a trip to the West Indies, I commenced my preparations immediately and was soon as deeply engaged in commercial matters as I had recently been in some of not quite so peaceful a character. Having once got started, I speedily found trade — and especially this kind of trade — quite as exciting as warfare, while it had certain attractions in the way of prospective profits that lighting certainly did not possess.

I had some few transactions with Philadelphia houses, but they were none of them very important, and most of my fitting out was done in New York, where I … labored for a number of weeks with all possible zeal, being resolved to make the venture a profitable one for ourselves as well as of advantage to the Confederacy.

The first thing done was the chartering of a schooner and the engaging of a warehouse. In this warehouse our goods were stored until we were ready to load. The watchman was perfectly aware that we were engaging in contraband traffic, but, as he was paid handsomely for holding his tongue, he kept his own counsel and ours. When everything was ready, the schooner was loaded at Pier No. 4, North River, and she sailed for Havana. …

The greatest trouble we had was not in getting our schooner to sea, but in making our purchases without exciting suspicion that we intended to find our market in some Confederate port. To do this required circumspect management but some of those with whom I was co-operating had done this sort of thing before and knew how to go about it, while I was not long in learning all the tricks of the trade. …

According to the plan which we arranged, I was to pretend that I intended opening a store and was to visit some of the largest houses and obtain their prices and terms of payment. The terms varied from sixty to ninety days, or so much off for cash. At one of the most extensive dry goods establishments in New York — Messrs. C & Co. — I inquired for a Mr. B, who, on being informed that I had been sent to him by certain parties, whose names I mentioned, introduced me to a confidential clerk, who undertook to fill my orders and deliver the goods in accordance with my instructions. He understood the whole matter thoroughly, and, from various expressions he let drop in conversation, I had no difficulty in concluding that his firm was doing a big contraband trade, although the principals, like many other prominent merchants, were taking especial good care not to be known as having anything to do with it.

The leading members of this firm were very prominent as upholders of the Federal cause, and it would have been ruin to them had it been found out that they were surreptitiously shipping goods to the South. I never was quite able to make up my mind whether they really knew what was going on or not. At any rate, all the arrangements for carrying on a contraband traffic were very complete in their establishment, and anyone going there with proper credentials was sure of receiving every attention. If these gentlemen did not know what their employees were doing, they were much less shrewd than they had the credit of being, and I am afraid that a love of gain was a more powerful incentive in their bosoms than loyalty to the cause for which, in public, they professed so much devotion, and for which they professed a willingness to make almost any sacrifices. …

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