Reenacting Loreta

Bill Sasser


Among recent books exploring the stories of women who posed as Civil War soldiers is They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, co-authored by Deanne Blanton and Lauren Cook Burgess. The book covers Velazquez's history, as well as that of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman/Private Lyons Wakeman.

Blanton is a senior military archivist at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., while Burgess is best known for winning a federal discrimination lawsuit she filed against the National Park Service in 1993 after being barred from portraying a Confederate soldier at a commemoration of the Battle of Antietam. Stopped by a park ranger as she left a women's bathroom, Burgess was told that women in uniform were not allowed because Park Service policy called for strict historical accuracy. Burgess, however, had documentation that two women disguised as men had fought in the real Battle of Antietam in 1862.

The National Park Service has since embraced diversity in the ranks of reenactors, even allowing park ranger Joyce Henry to portray Loreta Velazquez as Lt. H.T. Buford at Petersburg National Battlefield.

For Rebel, Maria Carter interviewed Henry, Burgess and other reenactors, including a group called the 37th Texas Calvary, whose ranks include Hispanics, blacks, Jews and American Indians. The group's commander, Michael D. Kelly of Pascagoula, Miss., says he has received death threats from both the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers and has been declared an "enemy" by the neo-Confederate Southern Heritage Foundation.

"On the one hand, conservative Southern heritage groups would have you believe that the Confederacy was all Anglo-Celtic Christians," says Kelley, who in 2002 organized a demonstration by a group of Confederate reenactors in Biloxi, Miss., to protest a Ku Klux Klan march and its use of Confederate emblems. "On the other, I've written letters to national and state leaders of the NAACP trying to start a dialogue, but we don't seem to fit into their agenda. Our only interest is historical accuracy."

Kelley's demonstration in Biloxi against the Klan, which followed a referendum in the city on whether to publicly display the Confederate flag (the measure passed with 57 percent of the vote), was condemned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. At the rally, however, other anti-Klan protestors turned on Kelley and his fellow reenactors. Bob Harrison, an African American who holds the rank of sergeant in the Texas 37th Calvary, was singled out by anti-Klan hecklers.

"I'm interested in seeing that the whole story is told, that the same due be given to black Confederates as to black soldiers who fought for the Union," says Harrison, a librarian in Norfolk, Va. "Like in the American Revolution, people of color fought on both sides of the War Between the States, but sometimes it's hard to take an objective view of history."

Velazquez's tale is in the center of this new battle. "A figure like Loreta Velazquez shows that there's been a casual rewriting of history since the Civil War, and this revisionist retelling ignores the fact that the social environment was much more complex than we've been lead to believe," says Kelley.

Kirk Lyons, a lawyer in Black Mountain, N.C., who heads the Southern Legal Resource Center -- a free legal service to clients who claim discrimination for being barred from displaying Confederate symbols in workplaces or schools -- argues that blacks rarely served in combat and only in large numbers at the very end of the war. Lyons challenges claims that 400 women fought in the conflict and has similar doubts about Velazquez.

"I think her claims were highly exaggerated and not credible," Lyons says. "She's the darling of women who want to be cross-dressers at reenactments and play with the boys, but remember that P.T. Barnum was a 19th century phenomenon, not a 20th century one." Blanton says that as with the Civil War itself, Velazquez can mean different things to different people. "We would like to think of the Civil War as a straightforward story, but it's a messy war with faults on both sides, and to this day historians still fight about what it was all about."

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