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Velasquez, Loreta Janeta

Loreta Janeta Velasquez

Cuban-American Loreta Janeta Velasquez (1842-1897) gained renown after the publication of her memoirs, The Woman in Battle, which recounted her experiences as a spy and solider for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. Dressed as a man, Velasquez claimed to have been an active participant in the war; although much of her story has been questioned, modern scholars believe her memoirs contain at least some wholly truthful information.

Upbringing in the United States

Born in Havana, Cuba, on June 26, 1842, Loreta Janeta Velasquez was the youngest child of a wealthy family. Her father, a Spaniard, held an official post in Cuba, and her French-American mother was a daughter of a wealthy businessman. When Velasquez was two years old, her father inherited a cattle ranch in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and the family relocated there. However, the Mexican-American War erupted in 1846, forcing the family to move to St. Lucia in the British West Indies after Velasquez's father joined the Mexican army. The family ranch did not survive the war and the Velasquez family returned to Cuba.

Loreta Velasquez did not remain in Cuba for long. In 1849, she traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana, where she lived with an aunt and attended school. At the age of thirteen, Velasquez married a Texan army officer; although she remained at her aunt's home at first, she soon fled to be with her husband and became estranged from her family. Velasquez had learned to speak English while living in New Orleans and became familiar with military practices due to her husband's army status.

Began Career as a Soldier

Writing in Cubans in the Confederacy, Richard Hall observed that Velasquez had “life-long fantasies of being a second Joan of Arc and having adventures in male disguise.” Although these dreams had been ignored during Velasquez's early years of marriage, the death of her and her husband's three young children by 1860 changed her focus. Writing in The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velasquez, Velasquez commented that “my grief at their loss probably had a great influence in reviving my old notions about military glory, and of exciting anew my desires to win fame on the battle-field.” Velasquez decided to raise a battalion on her own and then present it to her husband for him to lead. In order to accomplish this, Velasquez perfected walking and speaking as though she were a man and ordered a special article of clothing that made her figure appear manly. After much practice and perfecting of the costume, Velasquez's illusion was complete. Her male disguise, including a false beard and mustache, passed without question.

Acting as “Lieutenant Harry T. Buford,” Velasquez was successful in her recruiting mission, returning with a group of new soldiers and fooling even her husband with her disguise. The soldiers Velasquez had recruited would serve in the Civil War in the first half of 1861. However, shortly after Velasquez's return to the training camp at which her husband was stationed in Pensacola, Florida, a personal tragedy struck; her husband died in a training camp accident, leaving Velasquez alone and grief-stricken. In The Woman in Battle, Velasquez stated that “I was now alone in the world, and more than ever disposed to take an active part in the war.”

Velasquez, accompanied by her African American servant Bob, traveled to Virginia to attempt to receive a commission in the Confederate Army. Although she received no immediate commission, Velasquez was told that an opportunity might arise; indeed, on July 18, 1861, Velasquez and Bob participated in a skirmish at Blackburn's Ford. Velasquez was now eager to show her talents by leading in a larger encounter.

Fought in Battle

The First Battle of Bull Run took place days later, on July 21, 1861, in Manassas, Virginia. This battle marked the first significant confrontation between the Union and Confederate armies. Many if not most of the soldiers on both sides of the battlefield believed that the war would be short and sure to bring victory to their own cause. However, the battle quickly turned difficult, disorderly, and confusing. During the battle, Velasquez fought under the command of General Barnard Bee, near the center of the Confederate line. Velasquez found the battle to be thrilling; in her memoirs, she said of the battlefield that “it was a sight never to be forgotten—one of those magnificent spectacles that cannot be imagined, and that no description, no matter how eloquent, can do justice to.” Ultimately, the Confederate army won the day.

Velasquez next participated in combat on October 21, 1861, at Ball's Bluff, Virginia. The carnage of this battle greatly affected Velasquez, and she determined to find other ways to contribute to the Confederate cause. Settling on becoming a spy, Velasquez obtained female clothing and temporarily set aside her guise as “Buford.” Traveling to Washington, D.C., Velasquez tried her hand as a spy. Writing in Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War, Richard Hall noted that Velasquez “found it disconcertingly easy to pry information from Union officers and officials, and yearned for an official appointment in the Confederate detective corps to show what she could do.” Again taking on male disguise, Velasquez traveled to seek an assignment from General Leonidas Polk.

Acted as Spy

Polk placed Velasquez, in her guise as Buford, into the detective corps; her duties were checking passes and military leave papers. She stayed at the assignment for only a few weeks, however, and in February 1862, Velasquez traveled to Tennessee, where she fought in the battle at Fort Donelson. When the fort fell to a siege led by Union General Ulysses S. Grant, she tasted military defeat for the first time. The experience disheartened her, although she managed to escape the fort for Nashville, where she recuperated from the battle. She briefly rejoined the detective corps, but left her position following an injury to her foot believing that a surgeon would discover her disguise during treatment.

Returning to New Orleans, Velasquez was in such a poor state that she was arrested twice: first on suspicion of being a spy, and second on suspicion of being a woman. She confessed to the latter charge and was fined and briefly imprisoned. After her release, she sought to leave New Orleans as quickly as possible. In male garb, she enlisted in a company commanded by Captain B. Moses and left with the company for Fort Pillow. Upon her arrival at the fort, Velasquez showed her credentials as an officer to the commander and relinquished her enlisted position. She traveled to meet the Army of East Tennessee. In April 1862, she fought at Shiloh, briefly commanding her original Arkansas company. The Confederate Army experienced another bitter defeat at Shiloh, and Velasquez was wounded while helping to bury the dead. Disillusioned and injured, Velasquez again returned to New Orleans.

In New Orleans, Velasquez resumed female clothing and began working as a spy. For some time, she managed to smuggled needed supplies to Confederate troops, but was eventually arrested. The charges could not be proved, but Velasquez feared for her safety and escaped the city. She reached Richmond, Virginia, only to be arrested on charges of being a woman again. During her imprisonment, she befriended the prison superintendent and with his support became an official part of the secret service. She carried out a few assignments before again being arrested for being a woman in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Returned to Civilian Life

By the summer of 1863 she had traveled to Atlanta. There, she received some letters from her family and learned that an army officer with whom she had had a romantic relationship after the death of her husband, Captain Thomas DeCaulp, was stationed near Spring Hill, Tennessee. Velasquez had seen DeCaulp at Shiloh, but having been in her disguise as Buford, he had been unaware of her identity; other than this, the couple had communicated only by letter for some time, but considered themselves engaged nonetheless. Velasquez began considering marrying DeCaulp and leaving her life as soldier and spy. She soon learned that DeCaulp was in an Atlanta hospital recovering from an illness; she went to him, confessed her secret to him, and soon they were married. The couple took a short honeymoon and DeCaulp died from a relapse of his illness just afterwards.

Unsurprisingly, Velasquez was upset by his death. Not wishing to return to life as a solider, she resumed her career as a spy for the remainder of the war. She appears to have been sanctioned by the Confederate secret service officials at Richmond. Often, Velasquez took on the identity of a “Mrs. Williams” or another widow in order to gain information. For a time, she served as a double agent in Colonel LaFayette Baker's Federal detective corps. She convinced Baker that she was working to weaken the Confederacy as part of his corps while in fact sabotaging the Union cause and doing all she could to strengthen the Confederate one. Ironically, toward the end of the war Baker assigned Velasquez to track down a particularly elusive and bothersome Confederate spy, not realizing that Velasquez herself was that elusive and bothersome spy. Finally, Velasquez began to fear detection and fled to Europe.

In 1866, Velasquez joined some other Confederates who moved to Venezuela, seeking to form a new Confederate colony there. Shortly before leaving for Venezuela, she married again to a Major Wasson; however, he died soon after their arrival in Venezuela. Velasquez then traveled through Cuba to the United States. She ventured to the American West, marrying her fourth husband in 1868 and having a son by him. The couple seems to have separated, but Velasquez retained custody of her son. By the 1870s, she and her son had settled in Texas, where she wrote her memoirs in order to raise money for their support. Very little is known about Velasquez's life after the period covered by her memoirs, but she seems to have died around 1897.

Velasquez's Reputation

Because practically all of the information regarding Velasquez's life comes from Velasquez herself—and much of that from her somewhat dramatic memoirs—an obvious question arises: how much of Velasquez's story is true? At least some parts of her story appear to be verified by objective evidence. Velasquez's imprisonment in Castle Thunder was reported in the contemporary Richmond Examiner. Official military records mentioned a female spy whose assignment in spring 1864 tallied exactly with that discussed by Velasquez in her memoirs. Several contemporary references have record of a woman traveling under the name “Alice Williams” or “Laura Williams” who had served in the Confederate Army under a likely variation of the name Lieutenant Harry T. Buford. An independent study of the Venezuelan Confederate colony appears to confirm Velasquez's account.

Hall noted in Cubans in the Confederacy, “exactly how many of the adventures she reports in her memoirs can be accepted as factual is more problematical.” Her frequent use of pseudonyms and the misleading information she provided to some contemporary figures serve to muddy the waters regarding her actual movements and activities. In addition, her memoirs were written quickly and presumably from memory over a decade after the events they discuss, certainly leading to at least some factual misrepresentation, if not outright errors. In Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War, Elizabeth Young observed that “Velazquez was censured from the start on … textual inauthenticity.” Over the years, many have argued that Velasquez's career was simply too sensational to have been true. Only in the past few decades have some scholars begun to reexamine Velasquez's story, declaring it likely that at least parts of it were accurate. Despite the continuing debate over Velasquez's precise contributions to the Confederate cause, it seems unquestionable that her place in history is assured.

Books

Blanton, DeAnne and Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War, Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

Hall, Richard, Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War, Paragon House, 1993.

Leonard, Elizabeth D., All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, Norton & Co., 1999.

Tucker, Philip Thomas, ed. Cubans in the Confederacy, McFarland & Co., 2002.

Velasquez, Loreta Janeta, The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velasquez, Dustin, Gilman & Co, 1876.

Young, Elizabeth, Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War, University of Chicago Press, 1999.

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