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

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.

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.


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.

Loreta’s Civil War: Say that I am a Yankee

Velazquez makes contact with the Confederate prisoners of war in the Union prison and tells them to be ready to launch a massive breakout.

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 43: Velazquez makes contact with the Confederate prisoners of war in the Union prison and tells them to be ready to launch a massive breakout.


At Parkersburg, I met Gen. Kelley again and had a talk with him in which he laughingly suggested that I seemed to be in as much of a hurry to go West as I had been to go East the last time he saw me.

I remarked that in wartimes the enemy had a way of putting in appearances at various points of the compass, and that we had to go for him wherever he happened to be, if we didn’t want him to come to us. I also hinted, with a little maliciousness, that perhaps the reason why the war had lasted so long was because so many of our generals, instead of going after the rebels wherever they were to be found, insisted on waiting for them to come to places where it would be most convenient to fight them.

The general said there was some truth in that and that if all the generals were as smart about doing what they had to do as I seemed to be, the rebels would have been whipped long ago. It is pleasant to have commendation even from those we are fighting against, and I felt flattered at the general’s good opinion of me, although I knew that he was really not aware what good cause he had to commend my smartness. I wondered what he would say about me if he should suddenly discover what kind of an errand I was then really on. … I parted from the general, with Cincinnati as my next objective point, with a full expectation that ere long he would hear of me, or at least of my work, in a way that would astonish him.

After leaving Cincinnati en route for Sandusky, I was introduced by the conductor to a lieutenant who had in charge twenty-seven Confederate prisoners. These he was taking to Sandusky to be placed on Johnson’s Island, and I, consequently, thought that he might be an advantageous person to know, and that if I could manage to get into his good graces I might in some way advance the interests of the scheme I was engaged in. …

This officer was a rather flashy young man who evidently thought that he cut a very dashing figure in his uniform and whose mind was given rather to reflection on his own importance than to the acquisition of useful knowledge. He was not, however, without a certain amount of good sense, and he made a far from disagreeable traveling companion, for we speedily got tolerably well acquainted, and he not only was very attentive but he entertained me not a little by his conversation.

Not knowing what use I might have for him, I tried to be as cordial as possible, and long before we reached Sandusky we were on the best of terms. I did not find out a great deal from him that was worth knowing, for the reason, perhaps, that he did not know anything. He, however, permitted me to have a talk with the prisoners, whom I questioned as to what commands they belonged to, when they were captured, and other matters, and gave them each a dollar apiece out of Col. Baker’s money. Beyond asking them questions, I did not say a great deal to them, for I could not know how far they were to be trusted but I looked much more than I said, and several of the more intelligent among them exchanged significant glances with me, which intimated that they understood that I had a purpose in view in cultivating the acquaintance of the lieutenant so assiduously and was disposed to befriend them by any means in my power.

As to the lieutenant, he took such a decided fancy to me and was so excessively gallant that he insisted upon paying all my incidental expenses along the road. To this I could not, under the circumstances, permit myself to make any objections, but I was unable to avoid wondering whether it was his own cash or that of Uncle Sam’s he was so very free with. That, however, was no concern of mine, and it would have been even more impolite for me to have asked him the question than to have declined to permit him to pay my bills.

It was midnight when we reached Sandusky. The lieutenant, attentive to the last, put me in the hotel coach and, requesting me to keep an eye on his satchel, he excused himself for a few minutes until he could dispose of his prisoners. I do not know what he did with them but while I was waiting for him, I was also wishing heartily that they would manage to give him the slip and escape. Before a great while, however, he made his appearance again and jumped in the coach. We then drove to the hotel, where he registered my name and procured me a room. After seeing me safely installed in my quarters he said goodnight and expressed a hope that he would have the pleasure of escorting me to breakfast in the morning.

When I awoke the next morning I went to the window, and, drawing the blinds, looked out upon the lake, seeing in the distance what I supposed to be Johnson’s Island. This little piece of ground, rising off there so serenely and beautifully from the bosom of the lake, was to be the scene of my next great effort in behalf of the Confederacy — an effort that, if crowned with success, would bring me more credit and renown and would do more to promote the success of the cause than all the fighting and campaigning I had done.

On it were thousands of brave Confederates, who were sighing for their homes in the sunny South, sighing to be once more on the battlefield fighting for Southern independence, and, all unconscious that the moment was approaching when one good blow rightly struck would not only put an end to their irksome captivity but would go far to secure all that they had taken up arms for, all that they had suffered for on the battlefield and in the prisons of the enemy. It was a great responsibility that rested upon me, this preparing the way for the grand attack which was to transfer the seat of war to these beautiful lake shores, that was to effect the release of these prisoners, and that was, perhaps, to end the war, and I trembled to think that, perchance by some trifling slip or mistake, the whole scheme might miscarry and come to nothing.

When I was dressed, I rang the bell for the chambermaid to take my card to the lieutenant to let him know that I was ready for breakfast. When the woman came, I asked her if that was Johnson’s Island, where the rebel prisoners were kept. She replied that it was, and that she wished they were away from there. I asked her why, and she said she was afraid they would break loose some time and burn the town. I told her I guessed there was no danger of anything of that kind happening, as there ought to be soldiers enough to guard them. She did not appear to be at all sure upon this point but seemed to think that a general stampede of the prisoners was a very likely thing to happen. I was of about the same opinion, although I did not tell her so, but followed her downstairs to the drawing room, where I found my lieutenant waiting to take me in to breakfast.

During the progress of the meal the lieutenant said that he would have to go over to the island with his prisoners, but that he would be back about eleven o’clock, when, if I would permit him, he would get a team and we would take a drive. I thanked him but declined on the plea that my engagements would not permit of my accepting his kind invitation, although I might be able to do so at some future time. He said he was sorry but that he was afraid he would not be able to permit himself the enjoyment of my company much longer, as it would be necessary for him to return the next day, at the latest. I professed to be sorry but was not very much so, for I wanted to get rid of him, having come to the conclusion that he was not likely to be of much more use to me, while if he pursued me with his attentions he might prove a serious impediment to the proper execution of my plans.

So soon as he was well out of sight, I went to the telegraph office and sent dispatches to the Confederate agents at Detroit and Buffalo, announcing my arrival, and received their responses. This duty performed, I started for the boat that was to carry me over to the island.

While crossing to the prison camp, where so many of my comrades were confined, my mind was filled with a thousand suppositions as to what might happen. The least accident might bring the whole great scheme to nothing, and I felt a nervousness and a dread of consequences at the idea of undertaking the task before me that I had never experienced when facing the enemy on the battlefield. So far as any personal danger was concerned, I was no more sensible of fear than I was when the bullets were flying thick and fast around me but it was a terrible sensation, that of feeling that the fate of a magnificent campaign was in my hands and that upon my good management would depend whether it could ever be inaugurated or not. The sensation was such as a general might feel when making the first movement in a great battle upon which the fate of a nation depended. I did not lose anything of my coolness or my resolution but I could not help being oppressed, in some degree, with the weight of my responsibility and could not help wondering whether I would succeed in doing, in good style, what I had been assigned to do, or if, after I had finished my part of the work, my associates would have the skill and courage to do theirs.

On arriving at the island, I showed my letter from Baker to the commanding officer and explained to him that I was searching for a rebel spy who was supposed to be engaged, or to have been engaged, in some plots which the authorities at Washington were desirous to learn the particulars of. My credentials were recognized as correct, and I was accordingly admitted … into the enclosure and permitted to speak freely to the prisoners.

My greatest fear now was that some of the Confederates would recognize me and would say or do something incautiously that would lead to my detection. I was known to a good many in the Confederate service, both officers and men, as a woman, and to a great many more as a man, and there was no telling but that someone among the prisoners might be heedless enough to claim acquaintance with me and thus spoil everything.

Glancing around the enclosure, however, I could see no signs of recognition on any of the faces of the prisoners, although a number of them were gazing curiously at me, and after a bit I began to breathe a little freer and to be able to inspect the men rather more closely, with a view of picking out a suitable one to communicate with.

At length, I spied a young officer whom I had known slightly when I was figuring as Lt. Harry T. Buford, and who I knew to be a particularly bright, intelligent fellow. I concluded, therefore, to speak to him, and calling him to me, asked him a few immaterial questions until we had walked away out of earshot of the others.

When we were where no one could overhear us, I said, “I am a Confederate and have got in here under false colors. I have something important to say to you.”

“I hope you have some good news for us.”

“Yes, it is good news, at least I hope you will think it is, for it concerns your liberation.”

“Well, that is good, if it can be done, for we are mighty tired of this, I can tell you.”

“It will depend a great deal on yourselves whether anything can be done but if the prisoners will only co-operate in the right spirit, at the right moment, with our friends outside, not only will they secure their release, but they will be able to hit the Yankees a staggering blow.”

His eyes sparkled at this, and I saw that he was willing and eager to engage in almost any enterprise that promised to secure his liberation, and I was only fearful that in his excitement he would do something incautious that would interfere with the successful prosecution of our scheme.

I therefore said, “You must be very careful, keep cool, and, above all things, don’t give a hint as to who I am. Say that I am a Yankee, if anybody asks you, and pretend that this conversation was only about how you are treated and whether you do not wish that the war was over, whether you expect to be exchanged soon, and matters of that kind.”

“I will fix that all right. What is it that the boys outside are going to do for us?”

“I have a dispatch here which will tell you what are the arrangements, what the signals outside will be, and what you are to do when you see them. Give it to the party it is addressed to, and consider yourselves under his orders until your liberation is effected. When you are once outside of the prison you will find plenty to help you and will be able to effect some kind of an organization.”

“Well, don’t you want to see the party that the dispatch is for?”

“No, it won’t do for me to talk to too many, and it is better for a number of reasons, in order to avoid any suspicion, that I should not be seen in conversation with him.”

“Well, I’ll give the dispatch to him in any verbal message you may send.”

I then dropped on the ground a package containing eight hundred dollars and said, “There is some money — conceal it as quick as you can, and distribute it among the men as far as it will go.”

He thereupon sat down on a block of wood in front of me and commenced whittling a stick, while I stood close to him with my back to the guard, and with my skirts covering the package. Watching a favorable opportunity, when the guard was looking another way, he seized the package and slipped it into his boot and then went on whittling in as unconcerned a manner as possible.

I then told him that I would leave Sandusky the next day at the latest, and that with the delivery of the dispatch I held in my hand, which contained full and minute directions, my part of the business would be finished, and that the consummation of the scheme would depend upon himself and the others. I cautioned him to be exceedingly wary, and to take none of the prisoners into his confidence unless he was perfectly sure of their thorough reliability.

He promised to be discreet, and then wishing him goodbye and success, I shook hands with him, passing the dispatch as I did so.

The precious paper once in his possession, he started off, whistling and whittling as he went, while I hurriedly returned to the office, when I told the commander that I was unable to find the man I was looking for and thought that I would have to visit some of the other prison camps.

He said he was sorry and hoped that I would have better luck next time. “We then walked together towards the boat, conversing in general terms about the prisoners and the war. At the landing, we met the lieutenant, who seemed to be rather surprised to see me there. He exclaimed, “Why, have you been visiting the prisoners? If I had known that you wanted to see them, I would have escorted you over to the Island.”

I did not care to tell the young man that, under the circumstances, I preferred to dispense with his escort and so only said, “Oh, yes. I thought I would like to take a look at them, and I can tell you, some of those rebels are sharp, if they are backwoodsmen. If you don’t look out, they will be getting away from you someday.”

The officers both laughed, and the lieutenant said, “I guess not — they are always talking about doing that, but they never do it, we have them too fast.”

This was a point which I did not care to argue with him just then, so saying adieu to the commander of the prison, the lieutenant and I stepped aboard the boat and were soon on our way back to Sandusky.

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