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Loreta’s Civil War: Undertook to be saucy to me

May 18, 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 51: Velazquez disguises herself as a maid in Ohio as she gathers information on Unionist sentiments. But, before long, she gets into a fight with her employer.

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The amount of money that was squandered through the system of recruiting adopted by the Federal government cannot be estimated, while evils far worse than the waste of money were encouraged. Playing the part I was, I had every reason to be satisfied with the way things were being managed, but now that the war is over, I suppose I have the same right to express an opinion with regard to this as any other matter of public policy. …

If there was any justice in the war at all, it was a rich man’s fight just as much as it was a poor man’s, and when the time came for deciding who should and who should not take a turn on the battlefield, the chances ought to have been equal between the rich men and the poor men of drawing prizes or blanks in the lottery.

Had things been managed as I have suggested, not only would impartial justice have been done but the proportions of the national debt would have been greatly curtailed while the generals in the field would have kept their ranks full and the downfall of the Confederacy would have occurred at a very much earlier day than it did.

During the whole time that I was interested in this bounty-jumping and substitute-brokerage business, it was a matter of constant surprise to me that some effort was not being made by the government to put a stop to the outrageous frauds that were being committed in the most open manner every day.

The matter finally was taken in hand by Col. Baker, who came on to New York and located himself at the Astor House for the purpose of instituting an investigation. He kept himself very quiet and endeavored to prevent those against whom he was operating from knowing that he was in the city until he was ready to deal with them. It was necessary that he should have some assistance, however, in order to begin right, and … something prompted him to send for me to see whether I would not undertake to find out certain things for him. …

When I received a “strictly private and confidential” note from Col. Baker, requesting me to call on him at seven o’clock on a certain evening at the Astor House, I scarcely knew what to make of it, and, fearful that something against me had been discovered, I was in considerable doubt as to whether to respond or not. My previous experience with Baker, however, had taught me that in dealing with him the bold way was much the best way. …

I accordingly went to the Astor House and sent up my name. The colonel met me in the parlor, and, as he seated himself beside me, he said, with a smile, “Now tell me, my good woman, what have you been doing with yourself?”

This might be a merely friendly greeting, and it might be just the opposite, but, although I almost feared that my time was come, I was determined not to give him a chance to suspect me by my words or manner. So I said, “Oh, I have been visiting my relations.”

“I received your letter,” continued the colonel, “but I have been a little surprised at not seeing you in Washington since your return from the West.”

“I didn’t go to Washington because I really didn’t care to see you. The fact is, I made such a bad failure in what I undertook to do on that trip that I was ashamed of myself.”

Baker, however, took a goodnatured view of what he was pleased to call my bad luck and went on to tell me what his errand in New York was and to ask me to aid him in certain matters that he mentioned.

I professed to know little or nothing about the bounty and substitute frauds, but, after discussing the subject pretty thoroughly with him, consented to try and find out what he wanted and to sound certain people for him in order to ascertain whether they were willing to aid him in carrying on his investigations.

The first thing I did after parting with Baker was to warn my associates so that they might close out before it was too late to do so on advantageous terms. What became of the others in the business I did not care and was rather glad than otherwise to have an opportunity of putting Baker on their track.

In a couple of days I furnished the colonel with the information he wanted, and … the whole bounty-jumping fraternity were thrown into consternation by his raid upon them.

Baker at first represented himself as the agent of an interior county, and in that capacity he bought up a large number of forged enlistment papers and became acquainted with the men who had them for sale and with the manner of preparing them. … Finally, when he understood the whole business, he laid his plans and made an immense number of arrests, but before he had more than fairly gotten under way with his work the assassination of Mr. Lincoln occurred, and he was recalled to Washington to take a part in the search that was being made for Booth and his companions. …

Among the noted characters whose acquaintance I made at this period was Jim Fisk. I had heard a great deal about him and had a strong desire to see him. Hearing that he was to dine with certain parties at Delmonico’s, I hired a handsome turnout, and, dressing myself very elegantly, went there with a couple of friends.

On entering the dining-hall, I inquired of the waiter whether Mr. Fisk was in the room. He replied that he had just come in and pointed him out to me. I went with my friends to the table next to his, for I was anxious to have a good look at him and to hear him talk.

Fisk was one of the finest-looking men I ever saw. He had a very handsome head and a large, noble eye, and he was as pleasant and affable in his manners as he was attractive in his personal appearance. I was greatly taken with him at first sight and became inspired with a very ardent desire to make his acquaintance.

He glanced over at my little party with a smile, as much as to say, “I wonder who you are?” We were ready to leave before he was, but I said to my friends, “Let us wait a little. I am expecting someone,” my object being to find an opportunity to exchange words with Fisk. At length, I saw that he was through his dinner, and so said, “I do not believe my friend is coming, perhaps we had better not wait any longer.” We then walked slowly towards the door, and I lingered as long as I could at the cashier’s desk, paying for my dinner. Fisk passed by me, and as I and my companions went out, he was standing in the doorway, conversing with someone. When stepping into the carriage, I purposely dropped my handkerchief and had the satisfaction of seeing him come forward and pick it up. He handed it to me with a smile, and made a very courteous bow in return for my rather profuse expressions of thanks.

Fisk afterwards recognized me a number of times when I met him driving in the Park, and twice, when I went to see him on business, he complied with my requests without the least hesitation. One of my interviews with him was when I was on a begging expedition for the Soldiers’ Aid Society. He gave me three hundred dollars, of which I gave twenty-five dollars to the society and the balance to the Southern Relief Fund. My second call was to ask for a pass for some poor soldiers. He granted it immediately without asking any questions and did not have any idea that the soldiers were escaped Confederate prisoners who were trying to get through to Canada.

Fisk may have been profligate in his life, and, from a certain standpoint, may have been a bad man. He had some truly noble qualities, however, and it is no wonder that he had so many warm personal friends. …

Shortly after my interview with Col. Baker at the Astor House and my consequent withdrawal from all connection with the bounty and substitute brokerage business, I was requested to make a journey to the West for the purpose of procuring some information which my associates deemed of importance.

A number of the Confederate agents were maturing another grand scheme for the release of the prisoners and, I think, had some idea of organizing them into an army for the purpose of an attack in the Federal rear.

The Johnson’s Island failure had so completely discouraged me that I had no faith in any schemes of this kind, although my profound sympathy for the poor prisoners induced me to attempt anything in my power in their behalf. I thought that, even if I could not procure their release, I at least might do something to aid them and to promote their comfort. I therefore accepted the mission confided to me without hesitation and once more turned my face westward.

My first stopping-place was Dayton, Ohio. There, in accordance with my understanding with those who had sent me, I dressed myself as a poor girl and began to look for a situation to do housework. I was rather a novice at this business but thought that I was not too old to learn. …

I was not very long in obtaining a situation in a family of Union proclivities, and … I discovered that there were a number of “Copperheads” in the city and learned the names of some of the most prominent of them. I also picked up much other useful information that might otherwise have been unattainable.

Before I had been in the house three days, the bad temper of its mistress got the better of me, and, concluding that it would be impossible for me to endure her insolence any longer without unpleasant consequences to both of us, I resolved to leave.

This woman had a vile temper, and it seemed to me that she did nothing but scold and find fault from morning till night. As her treatment of me was undoubtedly exactly what she accorded to every young woman she took into her employ, I wondered how she ever managed to keep a servant. I am sure that had I been under the necessity of earning my bread and butter by doing housework I never could have endured such a temperament, and I felt sentiments of sincerest pity for poor girls who are compelled to put up with the insolence and bad tempers of people of this kind.

Having made up my mind to leave, I commenced looking about me for another situation and very speedily found one to my liking in a Copperhead family.

My arrangements being made, the next time the madam undertook to be saucy to me, I answered her in her own fashion, and in a few moments we were engaged in a furious quarrel which I doubt not would have appeared amusing enough, and ridiculous enough, to any impartial looker-on. Finally, I said, with all the dignity I could command, “Madam, I will leave your house this instant, for you shall never have the satisfaction of saying that you discharged a Cuban from your employ.”

“Why, are you a Cuban?” she said, calming down somewhat.

I then began to speak Spanish to her, and at this unexpected development she put on the most puzzled expression imaginable.

Without paying any more attention to her I went out, and engaging a man to take my trunk, began to prepare for my departure. When my trunk, with the Cuban express card on it, came downstairs, I pointed it out to her, and she opened her eyes considerably. She now began to be a trifle more gracious in her manner … making a rather awkward apology for her behavior, saying that she did not mean anything, and that I must not mind her being a little hasty tempered, and requested me to reconsider my determination to leave.

I told her that there was no use saying anything on that point, as I had already made an engagement elsewhere. She inquired where, and I said, with so and so around the corner, mentioning the names of the persons.

“Why,” said she, opening her eyes and throwing up her hands in horror, “you are not surely going with them! Don’t you know that they are rebels?”

“Well, suppose they are — they are as good as other people if they behave themselves. We have plenty of rebels in Cuba.”

Seeing that it was impossible to restrain me from going, she offered to pay me for the time I had been in her employ but, with a rather contemptuous wave of my hand, I told her she might keep it, or, if she wished, give it to some charitable object, as I was not in need of it, and without more words with her, walked out of the house and betook myself to my new quarters.

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