Loreta Janeta Velazquez. a Cuban-born woman raised in New Orleans, was a woman Civil War soldier.
Much of what is known about Velazquez comes from her memoir The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velasquez, but many historians doubt the credibility of the memoir due to Velazquez’s grand stories, vague details and lack of evidence for her claims.
Born in Havana on June 26, 1842, Velazquez studied English at a boarding school in New Orleans before she eloped with a Texas army officer at the age of 14. She later had three children who died of fever in 1860.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Velazquez’s husband resigned from the United States military and joined the Confederate army. Inspired, Velazquez also decided to join the army as a soldier, as she describes in her memoir:
“As for me, I was perfectly wild on the subject of war; and although I didn’t tell my husband so, I was resolved to forsake him if he raised his sword against the South. I felt that now the great opportunity of my life had arrived, and my mind was busy night and day in planning schemes for making my name famous above that of any of the great heroines of history, not even excepting my favorite, Joan of Arc. Having decided to enter the Confederate service as a soldier, I desired, if possible, to obtain my husband’s consent, but he would not listen to anything I had to say on the subject; and all I could do was wait his departure for the seat of war, in order to put my plans into execution without his knowledge, as I felt that it would be useless to argue with him, although I was obstinately bent upon realizing the dream of my life, whether he approved of my course or not.”
Determined to obtain her husband’s permission, Velazquez proposed the idea of her becoming a solider to her husband multiple times.
Hoping to deter her, her husband even helped disguised her as a man and took her to a local bar so she could experience life as a man. Velazquez enjoyed the experience but her husband still refused to give permission.
Undeterred, she waited for her husband to go to war before she disguised herself as a man and walked into the nearest tailor shop to order two uniforms for herself.
Afterward, with the help of a friend, she cut off all her hair and visited a local bar where her friend introduced her to a group of men as Lieutenant Henry T. Buford.
Shortly after, Velazquez headed to Arkansas where she successfully recruited 236 men in four days, signed them up for the Confederate army and brought them to Pensacola, Florida where she presented them to her husband as her troops, according to her memoir:
“At Pensacola we were received by my husband, who came to meet us in response to a telegraphic dispatch I had sent him, signed by my nom de guerre. He had not the slightest idea who I was, and would not have recognized me had I not revealed myself…He was intensely astonished, and greatly grieved, to see me come marching into Pensacola at the head of a body of men in such a guise, and said, that although I had done nobly, he would not for the world have had me attempt such a thing. I told him, however that there was no use of discussing the matter, for I was determined to be a soldier , and then placed in his hands the muster-roll of my company, to show him how well I could do what I undertook.”
As soon as her unit was mustered in and trained, Velazquez headed home to New Orleans to purchase supplies. Shortly after she arrived, Velazquez received the news that her husband had been accidentally killed when a carbine exploded in his hand while training his troops.
Now widowed and determined to fight, Velazquez turned over command of her troops to another Lieutenant and went off to battle as an independent soldier.
She joined up with a regiment and allegedly fought in the Battle of Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff but quickly grew tired of camp life and went to Washington D.C., dressed as a woman, to gather intelligence for the Confederates. It was during this time that Velazquez claimed to have met Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Simon Cameron.
Velazquez later returned to the South where she was made an official member of the Detectives Corp. Her time as a spy was short lived as she soon resumed her old disguise as Lieutenant Henry T. Buford and fought in the Siege of Fort Donelson on February 11, 1862.
Velazquez was wounded in the foot during the battle and fled home to New Orleans to avoid discovery of her real identity. While in New Orleans in her male disguise, the Confederates arrested her on suspicion that she was a female Union spy but later released her and fined her for impersonating a man.
Velazquez then returned to Tennessee in search of another regiment to join. She stumbled upon her old regiment that she had recruited in Arkansas and fought with them in the Battle of Shiloh on April 6 and 7 in 1862.
Her true identity was discovered by an army doctor the following day when she was wounded in the side by an exploding shell while burying dead soldiers. With her cover blown, Velazquez returned to New Orleans and gave up her uniform for good. She spent the rest of the war working around the country as a Confederate spy.
It was during this time that she also remarried but her new husband died in a hospital shortly after the wedding. After the war ended, Velazquez married again and immigrated to Venezuela to live in a colony of former Confederates.
After her husband passed away, she moved back to the United States and traveled throughout the West. During this time she gave birth to a baby boy in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In 1876, published her memoirs, The Woman in Battle in order to support her son. The book received a mixed reaction from the public and critics who doubted much of its authenticity.
After publishing her memoir, Velazquez married again and allegedly moved to Nevada. The exact date of her death is unconfirmed but many historians believe she died in 1897.
“The Woman in Battle: The Civil War Narrative of Loreta Janeta Velazquez”; 1876
The Civil War Trust: Loreta Janeta Velazquez: http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/biographies/loreta-janeta-velazquez.html
The Official Homepage of the United States Army: Loreta Janeta Velazquez