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Loreta’s Civil War: Nothing but his fears

May 9, 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 48: Velazquez, both disgusted and cautious, moves forward with an operation within the U.S. Treasury Department.

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Having made my arrangements with parties in Philadelphia and New York and having obtained the information necessary for me to make my initial movements, I went to Washington, and, first of all, had a talk with Col. Baker, giving him some information — real or fictitious, as the case may have been — which I thought would amuse him, and assist in convincing him that I was overflowing with zeal for the Federal cause. This interview with Baker was in accordance with a general plan I had laid out, for … I thought it best to call on him and give an account of myself than to have him or his men getting sight of me unexpectedly and perhaps wondering what I was up to.

Baker’s vigilance having thus been disarmed, I went to a clerk in the Treasury Department, and telling him briefly what I wanted … I asked him to assist me in gaining access to the private rooms in the building where none but the officials in charge and the employees immediately under them were ever allowed to go, except by written permits signed by the secretary. These rooms were chiefly those of the printing bureau, where the Federal bonds and currency were manufactured. …

This clerk was a Confederate sympathizer like a number of other Federal employees of various grades, and he carried his sympathies so far as that he was willing and anxious to aid the Confederacy by every means in his power, so long as he could do so with safety to himself. He was not the sort of a man I had much liking for, but in the kind of work I was engaged in prosecuting, it did not do to be too fastidious about the characters of one’s associates. Moreover, he had proved himself … to be a very efficient spy and was constantly in communication with the Confederate agents, giving them information which often was of extreme importance.

It was probably through him that my associates first learned what was going on in the printing bureau, but of this I am not certain. At any rate, they knew that he was the best person to apply to for the sake of getting such an introduction to the private rooms of the Treasury building … as he was thoroughly posted with regard to the villainies that were being practiced there.

In response to my application to this clerk for assistance, he gave me a letter of introduction to a man occupying a very high and very responsible position — so high and so responsible that I was astonished, beyond measure, on being referred to him on such an errand, who, he said, would accomplish for me what I wished. This letter was so worded that the party to whom it was addressed would understand that I wanted to talk with him about matters that it would not do for everybody to be cognizant of, and I was told that I might speak with the most perfect freedom to him with regard to the business I had in hand.

I accordingly went to this official and presented the letter of introduction, wondering not a little what he would say and do when he read it. His conduct satisfied me at once that he was implicated in unlawful schemes and that he was exactly the man for my purposes. When he read the letter he turned as pale as a sheet, and then red, while his hand trembled so much that I was afraid some of the people in the room would notice it.

He read the letter through two or three times before he was able to obtain sufficient composure to trust himself to speak. He finally, however, said a few commonplace things to me, which meant nothing and were intended for the ears of those around us rather than for mine, and then requested me to give him my address.

I did this, and then, in obedience to a hurried gesture, took my departure without attempting to have any further conversation just then, but feeling well assured that I could speedily be afforded ample opportunity for an exchange of views with him.

That evening my new acquaintance called on me at my hotel, and, although we both for a time fought shy of the main subject, I readily perceived from the general tenor of his conversation that he had, since my visit to his office, been making particular inquiries with regard to me. He remarked, among other things, that he had heard Col. Baker mention my name several times and always in highly commendatory terms. This was very satisfactory intelligence, for it convinced me that I really stood well with the secret service chief. …

At length he said he thought he understood my object in making his acquaintance, and, although he was not quite certain what I wanted, he would endeavor to aid me by any means in his power.

I then told him, plump and plain, that I and my associates had full information with regard to what was being done in certain of the Treasury bureaus, and that we had it in our power to set the detectives to work in such a way that all those engaged in swindling the government would be arrested and brought to punishment. Instead of doing anything of this kind, however, we proposed to share the profits of such fraudulent transactions as were going on in the Treasury Department. As the agent and receivers of the others interested, I wanted to get possession of one or more of the electrotype impressions of the bond and note plates, such as were used for fraudulent issues, and I also desired to obtain facilities for visiting the printing bureau … for the sake of conferring with certain parties there. …

My friend saw that I “had him,” to use a slang phrase that is very appropriate in such a connection as this, for it expresses the situation exactly. He hesitated, however, as well he might, before yielding to my request, and after some immaterial talk, which expressed nothing but his fears, he said, “Well, if I oblige you in this, I will place my honor and my reputation in your hands. I have never yet stepped aside from the duties of my office since I have been sworn in, and what assurances have I that you will not betray me?”

I knew exactly how much of this to believe, and so I said to him, “I don’t care, sir, what you may or may not have done before this. I am satisfied, however, that you are the proper person to assist me in the matter under discussion, and if you do you shall have your share of the profits. You can rely upon my secrecy, for I will be implicated as well as yourself; but, independently of that, I think that my character for reliability is sufficiently well known for you to have no hesitation in trusting me.”

“Yes, I know your reputation for skill and secrecy; you seem to have played it finely with Baker. I am glad somebody has managed to get ahead of that fellow, for he has been making himself an infernal nuisance about here.”

This was said with considerable bitterness, and I could not help smiling both at the words and the manner, for there was something absolutely comical in the idea of my friend and those in league with him considering Baker’s negligence a grievance. I, however, said nothing on that point, but merely remarked that Baker appeared to be a tolerably capable officer.

My friend possibly did not care to argue about Baker, for he went on, without noticing the remark, to say that he would have to swear me to secrecy. I laughed at this and ridiculed the idea of my oath being worth any more than my word under the circumstances. He, therefore, abandoned all notion of attempting to bind me, except by the responsibilities I would incur in connection with himself and the others interested, and began to talk business in a straightforward manner. This suited me exactly, and it was not long before we had matters arranged to our mutual satisfaction.

He agreed to furnish any capital that might be needed to commence operations or to do any preliminary bribing that was necessary and was to have a percentage of whatever profits were made. As for getting possession of a fraudulent plate or plates, I would have to talk about that to the people to whom he would introduce me but he did not doubt, if I managed right, I could get all that were necessary for our purposes.

There were other things to be done, however, besides printing bogus notes and bonds, and he thought that a thriving business could be carried on in the genuine articles, which might be abstracted and returned, after being turned over a few times in the market, so as to yield a sufficient profit to pay for the risk and trouble. The bogus bonds, he thought, could be printed in Washington, and seemed rather anxious that they should be but I said that I doubted whether my associates would consent to that — at any rate, I could not undertake to make definite arrangements without consulting them. The idea was to float these bonds, as far as possible, on the European market, and it was thought that it could readily be done, as they could be sold at rates that would defy competition on the part of the government agents who were working with the genuine articles. …

I, of course, made all necessary promises, and he, accordingly, wrote a note, which he signed with a private mark instead of with his name, and told me to call the next day at the Treasury and give it to a certain prominent official connected with the printing bureau. He then took his leave, and I had little or nothing to do with him afterwards, his share of whatever profits was made being paid to him by someone else.

My arrangement with the parties at whose instance I went to Washington on this business was that in event of my being able to make a satisfactory bargain with the officials in the Treasury Department, I was to be the receiver and bearer of whatever they might confide to my care in the way of bonds, notes, bogus plates, and other matters, and was to travel to and fro between Washington, Philadelphia, and New York as a confidential manager, while brokers in the two last-named cities and elsewhere were to do the [financing].

The scheme was an immense one, although it did not reach its full proportions all at once, and it included not only dealing in genuine — borrowed for the purpose from the treasury — and bogus Federal securities, but Confederate bogus bonds also. These bonds were to be, as far as practicable, put upon the English market at the best rates that could be gotten for them, and our — that is, the Confederate — share of the proceeds was to go into a general fund to be used for advancing the interests of the Cause. As for the Britishers, we considered them fair game when selling them either kind of bogus securities, for we regarded their conduct as treacherous to both parties in the great contest and thought that they might as well be made to pay some of the expenses of conducting it.

From first to last the British government had deluded the people of the Confederacy with false hopes of recognition and interference, and, as at the time of which I am writing, it was becoming daily more apparent that it did not propose to interfere unless it could do so without risking anything, the feeling against it — especially among the Confederates at the North and in Canada, who were constantly in correspondence with agents in England and on the continent — was getting to be very bitter.

It was determined, therefore, to go for Johnny Bull’s pocket, and a lively trade in bogus Confederate and Federal securities was started and kept up for a considerable time, which, among other things, involved my making a trip to London. …

The day after receiving the note … I took it to the person in the printer’s bureau, to whom it was addressed. This individual did not appear to be the least surprised to see me, and it was evident that he had been apprised of the fact that I intended to make him a visit and what the visit would be for.

He proceeded to business at once … by requesting me to call the next day at his office, when, he said, the matter would be arranged to my satisfaction. He was not disposed to be talkative about the situation and, as I found out shortly afterwards, certain persons under him in the bureau were the active agents in the swindling transactions that were going on — his plan being to avoid, as far as practicable, any palpable participation in them. … This man, however, was at the head of the ring, and was responsible for all the rascalities that occurred in connection with the important bureau with which he was connected.

The abstraction of currency and bonds for speculative purpose and the permitting electrotypes of the plates used for printing bonds and currency, to be taken and disposed of to outside parties for the purpose of enabling them to print bogus issues, were not his only offenses. He and another official … had several abandoned women employed under them, at large salaries, and with whom they were in the habit of carousing in their offices at midnight. Indeed, so shameless and abandoned were both the men and the women that their doings became a public scandal and did much to bring about an exposure of their official misdeeds.

Before I knew anything of these matters, Col. Baker pointed out these women to me as the pets of these two men and told me about their introducing them into the Treasury building and taking them to the Canterbury saloon in male attire. This was some time before Baker commenced the investigations which created such a sensation by revealing to the public the vice and corruption that ruled in the Treasury Department. Baker then said he was certain that villainies of no ordinary character were going on and that he proposed some day to try and find out what they were.

The fact that Baker had his eye on these officials and others whom I knew were guilty of transactions … induced me to conclude that I had best have nothing to do with them, and, accordingly, I severed my business relations with the printing bureau after giving those interested a hint to beware of the colonel.

This hint was disregarded for the reason that the scamps knew that he could not commence an investigation into the affairs of the Treasury Department without the consent of Secretary Chase, and this consent, for reasons which to them were good and sufficient, they did not believe would ever be given.

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