Dressed in corsets and crinolines, she sits before a mirror, shaking her hair loose as she takes scissors in her hand. Lock by lock, her long brown tresses fall around her skirt. Raised as a Southern belle, she soon will be on a battlefield wearing cavalry boots and the uniform of a Confederate officer, kicking her horse forward as muskets spit fire.
These scenes are being shot for Rebel, an upcoming documentary by filmmaker Maria Agui Carter, who came to New Orleans this summer to dramatize segments of her biography of Loreta Janeta Velazquez. According to Velazquez's memoir, first published in 1876, at age 19 she disguised herself as a man to fight in the Civil War, seeing combat as a Confederate cavalry officer at Bull Run and Shiloh. She also became a spy and a double agent, working under a number of aliases. Born in Havana in 1842, she was raised in antebellum New Orleans before setting out on her remarkable odyssey through the Civil War, a story that until recently was all but lost to history.
Velazquez herself wrote about it all in The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford Confederate States Army. Her life story runs counter to the history of the Civil War as we know it -- which is why she remained in the margins until being rediscovered recently by a new generation of historians.
"Five years ago nobody had heard of Loreta Velazquez, now suddenly she's hot," says Carter, a native of Ecuador who spent the past academic year working on Rebel as a Rockefeller Fellow at Tulane University's Institute for Cuban and Caribbean Studies. "Her story itself is fascinating, but I'm interested in the bigger parts of the picture. The actual history of the Civil War was much more complicated than white men fighting over issues of black and white."
Reissued this year by the University of New Mexico Press, Velazquez's book weaves a sometimes-fantastic narrative while debunking many romantic myths about the Old South. She married multiple times, paints unflattering portraits of Southern men, describes how Southern women threw themselves at her when she was disguised as a man, and reveals her participation in wartime swindles, drug running, and currency smuggling. She also decries the futility of war. (The Woman in Battle is available on-line at http://docsouth.unc.edu/velazquez/ velazquez.html).
For Carter, the story of Velazquez demonstrates the ways in which history can be rewritten and contradictory figures conveniently forgotten. Carter notes that some contemporary historians estimate that 400 women dressed as men to fight on both sides in the Civil War. Many historians believe that 15,000 Hispanics fought on both sides, while thousands of American Indians and up to 60,000 African Americans served in the Confederacy.
Like these mostly forgotten numbers, Velazquez remains largely unknown in New Orleans. Pat Ricci, director of the Confederate Museum, says she's never heard of her. Dan Brown, director of Jean Lafitte National Historic Park's walking tours in the French Quarter, also didn't recognize her name, noting that park tours focus on the War of 1812. "We do, however, have a woman who posed as a man and fought for the Union -- she's buried at Chalmette National Cemetery," says Brown, referring to Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who, as Private Lyons Wakeman, served in the 153rd New York Volunteer Infantry and died here in 1864 during a yellow fever epidemic. (Wakeman's experience came to light a decade ago when one of her descendants began studying a bundle of Civil War letters stored in an attic and realized that "Lyons" was actually a woman.)
Tulane history professor Lawrence Powell also admits he hadn't heard of the cross-dressing Confederate -- at least, not until Carter contacted him to serve as an advisor for Rebel. Powell notes that for traditional Southerners, the war still exemplifies Southern identity and white manhood. But over the past decade scholars have increasingly delved into the social history of the era. Nearly 15 years after Ken Burns' documentary series vaulted the Civil War back into the forefront of national consciousness -- and sent legions of weekend reenactors dressed in blue and gray onto national battlefields -- the conflict still has the power to divide along contemporary fault lines. (See sidebar, "Reenacting Loreta.")
"The Civil War continues to resonate with issues of race that remain with us, which of course also raises questions of gender," Powell says. "Loreta Velazquez could be seen as a metaphor for broader aspects of American history that in the past haven't been studied carefully."
Admittedly, Velazquez's story isn't easy to pin down. "By her own account she was a master at dissembling and lying and continued a form of masquerade in her book," Carter says. "But most scholars today see a basic line of truth running through her memoir beyond her embellishments."
THE WOMAN IN BATTLE offers a story as adventurous, tragic and colorful as any Hollywood script. The daughter of a French-American mother and Spanish father, Velazquez recalls a childhood of playing at being heroic men and fantasizing about being another Joan of Arc. Her father served as a Mexican officer in the Mexican-American War, losing a large family estate in Texas because of the conflict.
At age 8, Velazquez was sent to live with an aunt in New Orleans. At 14, she eloped with "William," a Texan officer in the U.S. Army. (Her memoir offers no full name for her first husband.) Her family disowned her for a number of years, though she later received a large inheritance from her father. "Although she lived in an America swept by anti-Hispanic sentiment, coming as she did from a Spanish tradition, Loreta Velazquez imagined a wider realm of possibilities for herself than was possible for an Anglo-American woman," Carter says. "She could receive an inheritance and hold her own property in her own name, even after marriage."
Velazquez lived happily with her husband on a series of Army posts. Then, in St. Louis at the outbreak of the Civil War, she lost her third child during birth, and two older children in an epidemic. When William resigned his Army commission to join the Confederacy, she broached the idea of following him into battle disguised as a man. He adamantly opposed her plan. "As for me," Velazquez writes, "I was perfectly wild on the subject of war."
To discourage her, William let Velazquez disguise herself in one of his uniforms and follow him into a bar full of men, hoping that the vulgarity of the men would dissuade her. It had the opposite effect. When two officers she knew failed to recognize her, Velazquez realized that her ruse could work.
William went off to war in April 1861, convinced that he had changed his wife's mind. Velazquez traveled to Memphis, where she cut her hair, bought a fake mustache and dressed in padded uniforms to become Lt. Harry T. Buford. In Arkansas, she used her father's inheritance to recruit and equip more than 200 volunteers. As Buford, she led them to Pensacola, Fla., where William was encamped while organizing troops. He was shocked when she revealed her identity -- but agreed to take command of her volunteers.
Still in uniform, Velazquez returned to New Orleans for supplies. "I lost all fear of being found out, and learned to act, talk and almost to think as a man," she writes. "But the padding was very uncomfortable so I went to an old French army tailor and had him make for me a half a dozen fine wire-net shields. I wore these next to my skin and they proved very satisfactory in concealing my true form."
Then a terrible message arrived -- William was killed during a drill when his rifle exploded in his hands. Grief-stricken, Velazquez left her Arkansas volunteers and headed north -- as Buford -- to find her own destiny on the battlefield. In time, she wearied of camp life and changed back to women's clothes to begin work as a spy behind Union lines. She gathered intelligence by calling on her husband's old friends, who were fighting on both sides of the war. At one point, she writes, she charmed Union officers in Washington, D.C., and met Abraham Lincoln.
Velazquez returned to her first disguise and, back in New Orleans recovering from a battlefield wound, she was arrested for dressing as a man. She spent time in other Confederate jails for the same offense. Here, her account is backed up by newspapers of the day. News reports in Virginia describe the arrest of a woman in Richmond posing as a Confederate officer named Lt. Buford. Papers elsewhere, including The New York Herald Tribune, published articles about a "Lady Lieutenant" serving in the Confederate army. Other supporting documents include official Confederate records of a request for an officer's commission from an H.T. Buford, dated July 27, 1863. There is also a pay receipt from the U.S. government for work as a spy issued to an Alice Williams, believed to be one of Velazquez's aliases.
In her memoir, Velazquez describes fighting for the last time at Shiloh, temporarily taking command of her Arkansas volunteers when their commander was killed. Yet she had become disillusioned with combat. "Real war was far different from my romantic notions of heroism," she writes. "All in me revolted at the carnage of war."
BACK IN NEW ORLEANS to convalesce, Velazquez gave up her male disguise when the city fell under Union occupation in May 1862. "I felt particularly that the time was now come for me to make a display of my talents in another character than that of a warrior," she writes, "and the arrival of the fleet in front of the city found me in the anxious and angry crowd on the levee, not inelegantly attired in the appropriate garments of my sex -- garments that I had not worn for so long that they felt strangely unfamiliar, although I was not altogether displeased at having a fair opportunity to figure once more as a woman, if only for variety sake.
"As a woman I knew that I would be able to observe the enemies movements, and ferret out their plans in a signally advantageous manner; and, confident that my cunning and skill would enable me to perform an important work, I was really anxious to see the enemy occupy the city, in order that I might try conclusions with them, having ample confidence that I would prove myself a match for the smartest Yankee of them all."
For the rest of the war, Velazquez served in the Confederate secret service as a spy and courier, using a number of female aliases and again posing as a man. According to her memoir, she also ran the federal blockade to Cuba, crossed into Canada to support the Copperheads (a faction of Northerners that supported the South's war efforts), attempted to organize a rebellion of Confederate prisoners of war in Ohio and Indiana, participated in draft-dodging swindles in New York City and bond frauds in Washington, and smuggled Confederate money out of occupied New Orleans in a currency-changing enterprise. She also smuggled drugs. "Drugs of all kinds were very scarce within the Confederate lines, and consequently brought enormous prices; so that any one who could manage to smuggle them past the Federal outposts was certain of reaping a handsome profit," she writes.
Near the end of the war, she writes, she traveled to Europe as a courier for the Confederate cause and arrived back in New York City on the day Lee surrendered.
After the war, Velazquez tried her hand at a number of ventures, including working as an agent that promoted emigration to Venezuela to former Confederates. She returned to New Orleans once again to pursue the enterprise, a visit noted by The New Orleans Daily Picayune and two other city papers. On March 29, 1866, The Daily True Delta reported her arrival: "We are honored by a call this morning from Lieut. H.T. Buford, of the late Confederate States Army, under which name [Velazquez] achieved some deeds of daring during the late war. Of course this gallant soldier-ess had dropped the garb militaire, in which she once did such excellence service in the guise of the South; and now appears attired as the accomplished lady, which she most unquestionably is. Few women have had such an eventful life. This distinguished lady is now stopping at the St. James Hotel. We sincerely hope that her visit to New Orleans will be a pleasant one."
Velazquez married and was widowed two more times and was living in Texas raising a young son when her memoir was first published. Then she vanished from history. A broadside publicizing her memoir offered testimony from men who served with Lt. Buford, vouching for the valor and integrity of Loreta Velazquez. An editor for the Southern Historical Association (SHA) reviewed the book favorably. While he wrote that parts seemed to be embellished, he also noted that he contacted several of the men quoted in the broadside who confirmed that they had in fact known Velazquez during the war.
But two years later, The Woman in Battle fell into the hands of Jubal Early, a former Confederate general who had become head of the SHA. He began a letter campaign denouncing the book as a hoax, calling Velazquez a fraud and a "camp follower" -- a euphemism for a prostitute.
"As head of the Southern Historical Association, Jubal Early became the main spokesman for the legacy of the Lost Cause and the enshrinement of Robert E. Lee," says Carter. "It's doubtful he gave Loreta Velazquez a fair consideration."
In response to Early, Velazquez wrote two letters defending her memoir, admitting that some details were inaccurate but maintaining that her story was essentially true. Generations of historians, however, would quote Early as the authority on Velazquez.
TELLING VELAZQUEZ'S FORGOTTEN STORY has become a passion for Carter, who worked for 12 years as a producer and director for the public TV station WGBH in Boston before forming her own production company. Her previous work for PBS includes The Devil's Music, a documentary about efforts to suppress jazz in the 1920s, and a documentary on Mark Twain. Working with an elusive subject and very little visual documentation, Carter decided to cast actress Romi Diaz as Velazquez for dramatic reenactments and local actors for scenes shot in New Orleans. Alex Vlacos, a Louisiana native who was cinematographer for the 1993 drama Ruby in Paradise, is Carter's director of photography. A grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is helping her finish the project.
"We're visualizing in creative ways, including recreations that will allow us to draw viewers into scenes rather than relying on historic photographs and shots of empty battlefields," says Carter, who hopes Rebel will air on PBS in 2005. "I'm interested in finding fresh approaches to making a historical documentary, particularly a film that itself explores historical storytelling and the creation of a narrative."
Carter is working with a trove of archival material she has uncovered, including letters, diaries, broadsheets, newspapers and photographs that offer a vivid depiction of New Orleans -- in particular its Hispanic community -- in the 19th century. "People assume that all the Cubans in New Orleans disappeared after the French retook possession of the colony in 1800, but that's not true," says Carter. "Contemporary guidebooks say Spanish was never spoken here, that there were no Spanish newspapers, when in fact this was a very cosmopolitan place where Latin American businessmen, diplomats, exiles, intellectuals and literary figures lived or passed through."
Cuba had a particularly close connection because prominent anti-abolitionist Southerners supported Cuban independence while plotting to annex the Spanish colony as a slave state. A number of Confederate officers and politicians, including Jubal Early, fled to the island at the end of the Civil War.
The line between truth and fiction in Velazquez's wartime adventures remains murky. "Certain parts are obviously fictitious, and she wrote in her introduction that she was writing the book for the money so she could support herself and her young son," says archivist Deanne Blanton, author of They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. "She seems to have made some of her story more exciting than it was to sell books, but she certainly isn't the first person to do that with a memoir."
Blanton estimates her own research has corroborated about 50 percent of the memoir. "A lot of historians want to write her off as a complete fraud, but that's not the case -- the basic facts are in the historical record," Blanton says. "Loreta Velazquez was a real person who served in the Confederate army and secret service."
Other researchers have been more critical. In "Heroine or Hoaxer?" a 1999 article in Civil War Times Illustrated, historian Sylvia Hoffert writes that Velazquez's war memoir was "certainly more bizarre than most, and at times she tended to stretch her credibility by claiming too much." Specific judgments are difficult to make, Hoffert notes, because The Woman in Battle contains very little factual information. Employing literary conventions of the time that protected privacy, Velazquez often used a first initial followed by a blank to fill in for a last name. Some critics have pointed out factual errors, such as names and dates, though defenders point out that her account was written from memory 10 years after the fact. Her trail in official documents becomes difficult to trace once she marriedd; during the war, she often purposely hid her identity. "Yet her book in some cases contains just enough information to justify contentions that she could have done some of the things that she claimed," writes Hoffert, a professor of women's studies and history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Carter is structuring her film as a detective story. In it, she searches for the truth about Velazquez, comparing the memoir with the historical record. For the project, she spent five years researching Velazquez, even hiring two genealogists who attempted to trace her family tree in Cuba. Carter studied 19th century city directories and found the French Quarter addresses for Velazquez's aunt's house and "fine goods" shop. In Washington, D.C., Carter discovered military records for Confederate soldiers she believes are Velazquez's brother and second husband. She has corroborated other obscure details in the memoir, such as a one-armed warden at a Confederate prison and weather conditions during particular battles.
Still, Carter admits that the wartime saga of Loreta Velazquez is an elusive tale. War stories are usually about heroes and, occasionally, heroines. But as an ethnic woman and gender-bending Confederate whose family owned slaves, Velazquez will likely continue to be viewed less than favorably from all sides. "People have told me flat out, I don't care what you have to say -- I believe what I believe and that's all I want to know," Carter says.
- Donn Young
- Actress Romi Diaz portrays Loreta Janeta Velazquez in dramatic reenactments in the documentary Rebel i>.
- Donn Young
- Telling Velazquez's forgotten story has become a passion for filmmaker Maria Carter (pictured, with producer Calvin Lindsay Jr.).