VIENNA, Va., May 20, 2013 — All those familiar with Civil War history have heard the story of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, a Cuban immigrant from New Orleans, and one of the best known of the approximately 350 women who are said to have gone to war disguised as men. She is the woman who wrote her 600-page memoir, “A Woman in Battle” in 1876, and for the last 147 years others have been trying to convince readers to believe her story.
For those of you who have not heard of the lady, VOCES [CQ], the Latino wing of PBS, will present a program on her this Friday, May 24 called “Rebel.” (Check your local listings.)
Directed by Maria Agui Carter, “Rebel” premieres a special presentation on the life of Loreta Velazquez (born June 26, 1842), and by the end you may find your opinion about her veracity and activities changed. Or you may not.
The facts, scant as they are, are that the wealthy Cuban planter’s daughter came to New Orleans, following a rebellious relationship with her traditional family and her early marriage to an American soldier identified only as William.
Following the death of her three young children, the young woman switched grief for her new role as a soldier. After convincing her husband to fight for the Confederacy, she herself dressed as a man and enlisted in the Confederate Army.
Measured for uniforms by two different tailors in Memphis, Tenn., Loreta flattened her breasts with wire shields and braces, put on a man’s wig together complete with a fake mustache and beard and headed off to war as “Lt. Harry T. Buford.”
She assumed a masculine way of walking and smoking cigars, as well as learning to spit while padding her sleeves to make her look more muscular and thus completing her disguise.
By her account, Loreta then went to Arkansas, where she raised a battalion for the Arkansas Grays, a Confederate unit, claiming she raised 236 men in four days. She shipped them to Florida where her husband was in command, presenting the new recruits to her surprised spouse.
However, this second husband was killed a few days later while demonstrating a weapon to his troops.
This, however, was a temporary obstacle to her, so leaving “her men” to a friend, she took off for other military adventures, coming to Manassas for the first battle there. She soon tired of battle and borrowing some female clothing from a local farmer’s wife, she took off for Washington, DC, where she claimed to have met Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Simon Cameron.
It is there she would engage in her first spying episode on behalf of the South. Later, she was supposedly rewarded by being assigned to the detective corps.
From that point on, her highly embellished narrative simply falls apart as she fights at Balls Bluff, Fort Donelson and Shiloh. She cites the unidentified Confederate unit at Balls Bluff which had lost all of its officers, though history relates no CSA unit was there that comes even close to fitting the description, which raises doubts as to her other claims.
Most scholars have embraced the rationale that if one story is so lacking in authenticity, how can comparable exploits at other battle sites be accepted as factual?
Her fighting at Shiloh provides her biggest “triumph,” for it was there that she “discovered” again the Arkansas troops she had raised and joined them for the battle.
According to her account, she was wounded by a shell while burying the dead. The doctors then learned that she was a woman when they examined her.
In New Orleans, Loreta gave up her disguise idea and her uniform and headed for Richmond. There, Confederate authorities hired her as a spy, and she married Dr. Thomas DeCaulp, who died thereafter.
After the war’s end, she spent some time in Europe and the South, marrying again (Number 3, if you are keeping count) to a Major Wasson, and headed to Venezuela as an immigrant.
This husband died in Caracas, so she returned to America, had a baby in Salt Lake City, where she meets Brigham Young. She claimed she married again (Number 4) an unnamed younger gentleman in Nevada, after turning down a proposal from a sixty-year-old man.
The problems with her narrative came to life with her book of 1876, which was denounced as a work of pure fiction based on a minimum of fact. It happened into the hands of Lt. General Jubal A. Early a year later, who instantly discredited the book as full of “inconsistencies, absurdities, and impossibilities.”
While the PBS program comes backed by some fairly well known authorities, it fails to provide any substantive material to refute the longstanding criticism about her book’s content.
With authorities working on the film such as DeAnne Blanton of the U. S. Archives, noted historian Gary W. Gallagher, and others asserting her claims as true, what remains is that we do know she went to war disguised as a man and was in several locales during that time. Why all four or five of her husbands died, would make a better story. She apparently died around 1897. She had been living in the mining town of Austin, Nev. and she was buried in Calvary Cemetery there.
Her grave has been lost due to the deterioration of its wooden marker and the recycling of grave plots.
To paraphrase a very old song title, “Loreta, we hardly knew ye,” and that is sad. After this length of time, more real convincing facts should have been found. If they can be. The movie, however, is worth watching as much for what it has been unable to tell as for what it tells. But the questions go on.
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