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.
Read previous chapters of her incredible story here.
Part 54: As the Confederacy collapses and the Civil War comes to an end, Velazquez ponders what she has accomplished for herself and for the South.
After I had been gazing out of the window some little time, watching the crowds of people passing to and fro along the street, an elderly gentleman came up, and after addressing a few courteous words, asked if I was a resident of the city.
I replied that I had arrived only a few hours before from Columbus, Ohio, but that I was a Cuban.
“Ah, indeed,” said he, and, taking a seat beside me, he commenced a conversation by asking, “What do your people think of our war?”
“Oh, they think it is very bad but it is to be hoped that it is about over now.”
“What do you think of the assassination of the president?”
“That is much to be regretted but you know we Spaniards do not take such things quite so much to heart as some people.”
“It will be a bad thing for the South, and especially for some of the Southern leaders — they will be sure to hang Jeff Davis.”
I thought that it was catching before hanging but, concluding that perhaps it would be best not to put all my thoughts into words, I merely said, “I scarcely agree with you, sir. Why should one man die for the deeds of another?”
“Oh, those Southern leaders are all corrupt, and they sent Booth here with instructions to do this deed for the purpose of enabling them to carry out some of their schemes. They are a set of fiends, thieves, and cutthroats from beginning to end, and there is not an honest man among them.”
This excited my anger greatly but, considering that, under the circumstances, discretion was the better part of valor, I stifled my feelings and concluded to cultivate this old gentleman’s acquaintance further with the idea that perhaps I might be able to make use of him in the execution of any plans I might have for the future.
Taking out my watch, I found that it was half past three o’clock, so, excusing myself, I went to my room and put on my hat to go out. On coming downstairs again, I found my new acquaintance in the hall, near the ladies’ entrance. He asked me if I was going shopping, and on my replying that I merely proposed to go as far as the Executive Mansion, for the sake of a little exercise, he suggested that I ought to have an escort and volunteered to accompany me. I thought this rather an impudent proceeding, considering our very brief acquaintance, but not knowing what advantage he might be to me, I accepted his attentions with apparently the best possible grace.
Getting into a street car, we rode as far as the Park, opposite to the War Department. Taking a seat together under the trees, we entered into a conversation which convinced me that the old gentleman was a harmless eccentric who had become suddenly smitten with my charms. He had some very odd notions about politics, finance, and the like, but from such matters as these he ere long began to discourse upon my personal attractions and finally became quite tenderly demonstrative towards me. I believe the old gentleman would have asked me to marry him had I given him the least encouragement, but I was beginning to find him a nuisance and resolved to return to the hotel.
He persisted in going with me, and when, on reaching the hotel, I hastily and somewhat impatiently excused myself, for, looking at my watch, I saw that it was ten minutes past five o’clock, he asked whether he might escort me to supper. I said that he was very kind, and to get rid of him promised that he might have the pleasure of my company to the evening meal if he desired it. I then bounded upstairs, anxious to keep my appointment.
When I reached my room door it was locked, but in a moment more the key was turned, and on going in I found my Confederate officer waiting for me. He said that someone … had tried to get in. He had put his foot against the door to prevent it from being opened whereupon the person outside had worked at the lock for a while with a key. I replied that he need not be alarmed, as it was probably one of the chambermaids with clean towels, and that being unable to obtain admission she had left them on the knob of the door.
He told me that he would be compelled to leave the city at eleven o’clock, and, as he had several things to attend to, if I wanted to send anything by him it would be necessary for me to get it ready at once. I therefore seated myself to write, but, on a moment’s reflection, came to the conclusion that the risk was too great, as he was not unlikely to be captured, and determined to give him a verbal message.
After discussing the situation with as much fullness as we were able … I went to my trunk, and, getting an envelope, sealed twenty dollars in it, and handed it to him, as I knew that he must be short of money. He made some to do about taking it, but on my insisting, he put it in his pocket with an effusion of thanks and said farewell. I turned the gas in the hall down until I saw him out of sight and then prepared myself for my interview with Col. Baker.
On reaching the drawing room, I found there the old gentleman who had been so attentive during the afternoon, and who was apparently waiting for me rather impatiently. We had scarcely started a conversation, however, before Baker came in, with a friend of his from Baltimore. I excused myself with my aged admirer with very little ceremony and retired with Baker and his friend to the private parlor, where we could talk without being disturbed.
As we seated ourselves, Baker said to his friend, “This is one of the best little detectives in the country, but, unfortunately, she does not like the business.”
“Oh, the business does well enough,” I replied, “but I don’t like having bad luck in it.”
“We can’t always have good luck, you know,” said Baker, “but I have a job on hand now which I want you to undertake for me and which I think you can manage if you will do your best. If you succeed, you shall be paid handsomely.”
“Oh, colonel, you are not going to hold out the pay as an inducement for me to serve the country, are you?” I could not say “my country.”
“Oh, d–n the country, you don’t suppose we are going to work for it for nothing, do you? I want you to find this woman who is traveling and figuring as a Confederate agent. Some of my people have been on her track for a long time, but she is a slippery customer, and they have never been able to lay hands on her.”
I knew it was myself Baker meant, especially when he took out of his pocket a picture similar to the one the detective had shown me on the cars a number of months previous.
Baker continued. “Here is her picture. You can take it, for I am having some more struck off. I am going to capture her ladyship this time, dead certain, if she is in the country, as I believe she is.”
My sensations on hearing Baker utter these words cannot be described. What could make him so eager to capture me just at this particular moment? Could he possibly suspect me of having anything to do with the assassination plot? The very idea of such a thing made me sick, for I felt that, excited as everyone then was, an accusation of this kind was all but equivalent to a condemnation. I managed, however, to maintain my composure but inwardly resolved that the best thing I could do would be to leave the country at the earliest possible moment.
After discussing the method of procedure with regard to the search I was to institute for myself, I asked Baker what he thought the result of the trial of the prisoners accused of being implicated in the assassination plot would be.
“Oh,” said he, “they will all hang.”
“Now, I think that will be too bad. Even if Mrs. Surratt is proven to be guilty, they might commute her sentence. It will be a terrible thing to hang a woman, especially as she was not actually one of the assassins. Do you really think she is guilty?”
“No, but the affair was planned in her house, and she is in a good part responsible for it. I am very much in hope that a full confession from her will be obtained by her priest.”
“But, colonel, the evidence against her is all circumstantial, and surely it is not right or lawful to sentence her to death unless it is absolutely proven that she is guilty.”
“In times like this, it would never do to acquit her or to send her to prison, for the mob would take the law into their own hands. Besides, it is necessary to make an example.”
Baker’s friend here said, “I am glad that they got Booth.”
At this remark, I scanned Baker’s countenance closely. He smiled and said, “So am I. I intended to have his body, dead or alive, or a mighty good substitute for it, for no common criminal is worth the reward.”
This was a very queer expression, and it set me to thinking and to studying certain phases of Baker’s character more closely than I had ever done before.
The colonel and his friend then left. I was to have until nine o’clock the next morning to decide whether I would undertake the business he desired me to or not.
The next morning, before Baker came, I received my mail, and in it a letter from my brother, who expected to be in New York in a few days with his wife and child. He proposed that, as we were the sole remnants of our family, we should continue with each other in the future [and] … it would, perhaps, be best for us to go to Europe for a time, until things quieted down somewhat.
This letter decided me upon what course to pursue, and I determined to accept the commission from Baker, thinking by so doing I would more effectually prevent any of his detectives discovering my identity, while so soon as my brother and his family arrived, we would proceed across the Atlantic without further delay and remain there until the time should come when no one would have any object in troubling us.
The army of Joe Johnston, like that of Lee, had been surrendered, and it was evident to me that the war was practically at an end, although I thought it not impossible that it might be prolonged in a desultory manner for some time yet in the West and Southwest. I could plainly see, however, that further fighting would do no good and that the Confederate cause being lost, my mission in connection with it was at an end and my sole duty now was to consider my own welfare and that of my family.
All the bright dreams of four years ago had vanished into nothingness, and yet I could not regret having played the part I did. I loved the South and its people with a greater intensity than ever, while at the same time many of my prejudices against the North had been beaten down by my intercourse with its people during the past eighteen months. There were good and bad in both sections, and I believed that if the good men and women, both North and South, would now earnestly and patriotically unite in an endeavor to carry out the ideas of the founders of the government, they would, ere many years, be able to raise the nation to a pitch of greatness such as had yet been scarcely imagined.
As for my own experiences … they were sufficiently rich and varied in incident to satisfy all my ambitions. I had participated in bloody battles and sieges, and in the thickest of the danger had borne myself so valorously as to win the commendation of men who did not know what fear was, while, in addition to the campaigning I had gone through, my adventures as a spy and secret-service agent were not only of advantage to the cause I had espoused, but they had supplied me with exciting and absorbing work which had demanded the best exercise of all my faculties. I felt that I had reason to be proud of my war record and was the better satisfied with myself, as I knew that I had won the approbation of noble-minded men whose esteem was well worth winning.
When Col. Baker called, therefore, to hear my decision, I told him that I would undertake to do what he desired. He accordingly gave me my instructions, and I was astonished to find how much he knew of some of my movements. He and his men must have been on the point of capturing me many times, and they undoubtedly would have done so had I not had the wit to take the course I did in cultivating his acquaintance. With many self-congratulations at having been successful in escaping thus far … I started for New York on a search for myself ostensibly, but in reality to wait anxiously for the coming of my brother. …