Rebel Soldier, Spy, or Swindler

Loreta Velázquez, aka Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, recorded her adventures in a 600-page book, The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velázquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, Confederate States Army. Her book weaves a fantastic story of deception and danger. Is it fact or fiction? Was she a rebel soldier, a spy, or swindler?

black and white side by side images of Loreta Juneta Velazquez on the left  as Confederate soldier Harry T. Buford and on the right as herself.

Early Life

Born in Havana, Cuba on June 26, 1842, her father was a wealthy Cuban official and her mother was French American. Loreta was the youngest of their six children.

Her father resigned his position in Cuba when she was two and moved the family to Texas, which was part of the republic of Mexico. In 1846, the Mexican-American war began. Her father shipped the family to the West Indies, joined the Mexican military, and fought against the Americans. The United States won the war in 1848. The treaty between the two countries cede the Velázquez land to the U.S. 

Loreta’s father moved the family to Puerto de Palmas in Mexico. He made a fortune in the sugar, tobacco, and coffee trades there. 


Tutored by an English governess, Loreta was sent to live with her aunt and study in New Orleans. There she learned all the skills expected of a young woman of her class. She wanted more. She loved stories of heroism and dreamed of being a grand hero like Joan of Arc. 


Her father held a deep resentment toward the United States after the Mexican-American war. This animosity grew to estrangement when fourteen-year-old Loreta avoided a “marriage of convenience” by eloping with John Williams, a United States Army soldier from Texas. Initially, she continued to live with her aunt in New Orleans. After she and her aunt quarreled, Loreta joined her husband as he moved from post to post. 

She and her husband had three children who died in infancy. Loreta’s desire for a life of glory and heroism grew. 

The Civil War

In her book, Loreta claims her husband resigned his U.S. Army commission and joined the Confederate Army. Loreta wanted to dress as a man and enlist. She tried to convince her husband to help her. He included her, disguised as a male, on a guys-night-out, certain their behavior would dissuade her. She didn’t change her mind. When he wouldn’t help her enlist, she waited for him to leave for the front.

After he left, Loreta got two uniforms, became Harry T. Buford and moved to Arkansas. In four days, she recruited more than 200 men, then presented them to her husband in Pensacola, Florida as her command. Her accomplishment impressed her husband enough he let her stay with him in disguise.


Her husband died in an accident a short while later. Rather than stay in Pensacola, Loreta traveled with some of her husband’s friends to Virginia. The First Battle of Bull Run was her first combat experience. A few months later, she also fought at the Battle at Ball’s Bluff. Her Confederate friends inflicted so much violence on the retreating Union soldiers it horrified her. 


Later, she gave up her disguise and made her way to Washington, D.C. She knew no one would suspect a woman of being a Confederate spy and found her late husband’s former Army friend. Through him, she learned military secrets that she passed on to the Confederate Army.

Black and white image of a woman in a bustle dress, standing beside a cloth covered table, reading a document, while holding a broom is she a rebel soldier, spy, or swindler.

Later she fought at the siege of Fort Donelson in Tennessee until the surrender. She received a wound in the battle, but she kept her true identity hidden. 

She went to New Orleans, where the authorities arrested her as a suspected Union spy. After they released her, she enlisted to get away from the city. After the battle at Shiloh, she helped bury the dead and a stray shell hit her. An army doctor examined her and discovered she was a woman. 


After the war, Loreta reconnected with one of her brothers and toured Europe and South America with him and his family. 

Sometime later, she moved back to the United States. She married two more times and gave birth to a son. The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velázquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, Confederate States Army was published in 1876. Loreta claimed she wrote her memoirs to support herself and her son. 

Book cover the The reprint of The Woman in Battle has the effect of two identical covers torn on an angle and revealing the top half to be cream and brown with a central red seal and the bottom half being a green and gold cover with a gold and green seal.

Truth or Fiction

Soon after its publication, “former Confederate General Jubal Early denounced the book as an obvious fiction.” (Note: I could not discover whether he was supposed to have been her commander.) To date, they have found no historical records to confirm Loreta’s story. One reference cites a newspaper report that mentions a Lieutenant Bensford arrested and discovered to be a woman who gave her name as Alice Williams, an alias attributed to Loreta. 

Even the death of Loreta Janeta Velázquez remains a mystery. Some claim she died in 1923. Historian Richard Hall states her death is unknown. William C. Davis claims Loreta was not Cuban or a Confederate soldier, but was a thief, a swindler, a con artist, and a prostitute. He says she died as Loretta J. Beard on January 26, 1923 at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane, Washington, D.C. 

Rebel Soldier, Spy or Swindler

We know from various diaries and records that many women joined their husbands and brothers on the battlefield during the Civil War. Medical exams to enter the military were brief and incomplete. Many soldiers were young, with high-pitched voices and smooth cheeks. It’s possible there were many women on the battlefield who escaped detection. Was Loreta Janeta Velázquez one of them? Was she a rebel soldier, spy, or swindler, or all three? We may never know. 

Do you think former Confederate General Jubal Early could have denied Loreta’s story to save himself from the shame of never knowing a woman served under him? 


NY History


KCPT PBS Learning Media

Image Credits

Top image by Jeremiah Rea of Philadelphia, Engraver, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Second image Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Third image Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wife, Mother, Patriot, and Revolutionary War Spy

She was a wife, mother, patriot, and Revolutionary War spy. The only female in George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring (aka Setauket Spy Ring), Anna Smith Strong, had an ingenious way to send messages under the noses of the British… her laundry.

Photograph of long johns and a t-shirt hanging on a clothes line. Anna Smith Strong, Revolutionary War Spy, used her laundry to send messages

The British Take New York City

The American Revolutionary War had been raging for six months. In late August 1776 under General William Howe, a force of 30,000 British Regulars, 10 ships of line, 20 frigates, and 170 transports engaged George Washington’s troops at the Battle of Brooklyn.  

The British outflanked George Washington’s Continental Army. But General Howe did not storm the redoubts at Brooklyn Heights. That allowed Washington and his troops to retreat to Manhattan by boat.

The Americans suffered 1,000 casualties to the British loss of only 400 men.

On September 15th, the British occupied New York City. This gave the British control of the Hudson River. The river split the rebellious colonies in half geographically. 

Shortly after that British authorities caught Nathan Hale. They caught Hale on his way back to his regiment after gathering information behind the British lines. They hanged Hale in New York City, a warning for all spies.

The Continental Army’s Secret Service

In mid-1778, General George Washington appointed twenty-four-year-old Major Benjamin Tallmadge as the head of the Continental Army’s secret service.

Tallmadge, from Setauket on Long Island, was to establish a permanent spy network. The spies would work behind enemy lines. He started with two of his trustworthy childhood friends, the farmer Abraham Woodhull and Caleb Brewster. 

Tallmadge established an elaborate system of riders and couriers. They used aliases, a coded dictionary and invisible ink to pass on messages. All but one member of the Spy Ring was born and raised in Setauket.

Map of New York City and Long Island with explanations of movements by the Culper Spy Ring.
Spy Map image originally found on per TinEye

The Spies

Using the code name, Samuel Culper Sr., Woodhull ran the day-to-day operations on Long Island. He evaluated reports and determined and created dispatches to be taken to Washington. Sometimes he traveled back and forth to New York. There, he would observe British maneuvers and collect information.

Brewster would boat from Connecticut across the Devil’s Belt (Long Island Sound). His job was to retrieve the Spy Ring’s messages for Tallmadge. Brewster hid in one of six coves along the shore of Long Island to avoid detection by the British frigates that patrolled the Sound.

Wife, Mother, Patriot, and Revolutionary War Spy

Born on April 14, 1740, to a family of Tories (British supporters) Anna Smith Strong married Judge Selah Strong III. Anna and her husband were Patriots. They had nine children.

Strong’s Neck, their manor home in Setauket, and her husband’s political position made them a target of the British. Woodhull was their neighbor. 

The British arrested her husband for corresponding with the enemy. They held him on the British prison ship Jersey in New York harbor. Conditions on the ship nearly killed him. Anna’s Tory relatives bribed the British to parole him. He and their children went to Connecticut and stayed there for the rest of the war.

Anna stayed alone on Strong’s Neck to prevent looting and damage to their home. And because Woodhull needed her.

In plain sight of British soldiers, she hung her laundry out to dry. She hung up a black petticoat and up to six white handkerchiefs. The petticoat signaled Woodhull that Brewster had arrived. The number of handkerchiefs identified in which cove Brewster hid.


In 1939, they found a trunk of old letters in Robert Townsend’s family home. Historian Morton Pennypacker noticed Townsend’s handwriting match handwriting in some letters to George Washington. Eventually Pennypacker learned about the Culper Spy Ring and identified Anna, among others.

Many women were Revolutionary War Heroes. The British underestimated Anna Smith Strong, wife, mother, patriot, and Revolutionary War spy. By doing her laundry in plain sight, Anna and the Culper Spy Ring helped win the war against the British. The British never broke her code or any of the Ring’s codes. And they never caught even one member of the Culper Spy Ring.

Real-life Villain or Scapegoat

On October 15, 1917 Mata Hari died, executed by firing squad for being a German spy. Her story of excesses, seduction and espionage has captured the imaginations of people for more than 100 years. She became a symbol and to this day her story fascinates. But was she a real-life villain or scapegoat?

Image of Mata Hari in costume, her life was full of excesses, seduction, and betrayal but was she a real-life villain or scapegoat?

Early Life

Born in Leeuwarden, Netherlands on August 7, 1876, she was the eldest daughter of prosperous hatter, Adam Zelle, and Antje van der Meulen. She learned early that she could get what she wanted by pleasing men. Her doting father gave her extravagant gifts. 

Her dark, exotic looks made her stand out amongst her peers. A schoolmate compared her to and orchid amongst dandelions (blond Dutch children).

When Margaretha was thirteen, her father abandoned the family for another woman. Her mother passed away two years later. At fourteen, she was sent to a Teacher’s School in Sneek. She was expelled at sixteen for having an affair with the married headmaster of the school. This time she went to live with her uncle in The Hague. The city brimmed full of colonial officials who had served in the Dutch Indies (Indonesia).


At eighteen, she answered a newspaper advertisement. Captain Rudolf MacLeod wanted to meet, and marry, “a girl of pleasant character.” Margaretha knew that officers in the Indies lived in large houses with many servants. Engaged six days after they met, they married in July 1895. She was nineteen. He was thirty.  

But she never saw the large house and servants. MacLeod owed a lot of money. He also was an alcoholic, abusive, and had many extramarital affairs. 

The Dutch Indies

They travelled to the Dutch Indies with their infant son in 1897. While on the ship, Margaretha learned MacLeod gave her syphilis. A disease, of nearly epidemic proportions among the Dutch colonial soldiers. The disease had no known cure at the time. Treatments contained mercury compounds. Toxic compounds they believed would cure syphilis. 

In the Dutch Indies, MacLeod continued his bad behavior. Margaretha’s beauty and flirtatious ways gained attention from the other soldiers and the ire of her husband. She gave birth to a daughter, Louise Jeanne,  in 1898.

A Child’s Death

In 1899, McLeod got a promotion to garrison commander in another part of the Dutch Indies. He left his wife and children to look for a home there. During this time, both their children fell ill, probably from congenital syphilis. When MacLeod returned home, he took the children to the base doctor. The doctor treated them with the mercury compound. Some reports say he overdosed the children. Margaretha’s two-year-old son, Norman-John, died. Her daughter survived but her marriage did not. They returned to the Netherlands in 1902 and separated. Eventually they divorced.

A New Life

Some sources say Margaretha studied Indonesian dance while in the Dutch Indies during a separation from MacLeod. Other sources say she had never had formal dance instruction. Regardless, she reinvented herself. 

‘I’m tired of fighting life and I want one of two things: either Nonnie lives with me and I behave like a decent mother, or I’m going to enjoy the beautiful life being offered to me here. I know that that life ends in tragedy – but I’m over that.’

Mata Hari

She moved to Paris in 1903. She created a personality, a stage name, Mata Hari. Translated the name meant “eye of the dawn.”

Mata Hari’s Success

In 1905 Mata Hari made her first appearance with a performance in the Musée Guimet, an Asian art museum in Paris. Her scant, exotic clothing, sensual moves, and her dance “stories” gained her instant fame. 

She avoided indecent exposure charges by claiming that her dances were sacred temple dances from the Indies. During performances, she explained, in French, Dutch, English, German, and Malay: “My dance is a sacred poem . . . One must always translate the three stages that correspond to the divine attributes of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—creation, fecundity, destruction.”

Her dances sold out all over Europe. Aristocrats, diplomats, top military officers, and many wealthy men gave her lavish gifts. She lived an outrageous lifestyle of plenty and glamor while French families were doing without basics and sending their men to die in the war. 

Courtesan and Spy

As she aged and new, younger dancers became more popular than she, dance wasn’t as lucrative. But she had plenty of lovers. She became a courtesan. 

Her travels as a courtesan took her to The Hague in the fall of 1915. There, the honorary German consul of Amsterdam offered her 20,000 francs to spy for Germany. She accepted the money. She considered it repayment for her property the Germans had seized at the start of the war. 


On her way back to France at a British port, an intelligence officer questioned all the passengers. While the officer found nothing to incriminate Mata Hari, he noted that because of her wealth, beauty, and language skills, she was not above suspicion and should not be allowed to return to the U. K.

When she returned to Paris, agents of the newly formed Deuxième Bureau (counterespionage unit) of the Ministry of War shadowed her, listened to her conversations, read her mail, and kept a log of everyone she met. They found no evidence of her gathering or passing information to the Germans.

A Matter of Love

In the meantime, Mata Hari had fallen in love with a Russian captain who fought for the French. Exposed to phosgene gas (mustard gas), he lost the sight in one eye and in danger of going blind. Still, she happily accepted his proposal of marriage. But he was stationed near Vittel. She went to a lover who worked for the War Department (and secretly for the Deuxième Bureau.) She asked him for a safe-passage to Vittel so she could “take the waters” for her health and visit the Russian.

A Double Agent

Hallaure sent her to a house where agents of the Deuxième Bureau waited. The agents told her she could visit her captain if she agreed to spy for France. They promised to pay her a million francs. That was enough money to support her and the Russian after they married. 

Georges Ladoux, head of the Deuxième Bureau, met with Mata Hari several times. He never asked her for specific information nor gave her a specific man to seduce nor gave her a secure means of communicating with him. She sent him a letter by regular post, requesting an advance to buy clothes appropriate for seducing important men. 

First Confession

Instructed by Ladoux, Mata Hari went to Spain and boarded a ship bound for the Netherlands. Once again, she a British intelligence officer questioned her when they landed at a British port. They found nothing incriminating, but she vaguely resembled a German agent. They held her until they could confirm her identity. Desperate to get released, Mata Hari confessed that she was a spy for the French. The British reached out to Ladoux who, according to their notes, would be happy if they found proof that she worked for the Germans. France needed a real-life villain, preferably a foreigner. She fit the bill.

After her release, she enchanted a German diplomat.  She gave him stale newspaper reports and gossip to entice him to tell her about a planned landing in Morocco. She wrote Ladoux, hoping for her payments, and asked for further instructions.

Second Confession

She also had a relationship with Col. Joseph Denvignes from the French legation. He flew into a jealous rage when he saw her with other men. She attempted to calm his jealousy by explaining that she was an agent for the French and about the Moroccan landing. He asked her to get more information. But if she was a real-life villain, she wasn’t very good. Her questions made the Germans suspicious.  She wrote a long letter to Ladoux, explaining what she’d learned. She asked Denvignes to deliver the letter to Ladoux. Ladoux later claimed he never received it.

Her German lover sent a coded message that identified Mata Hari as a spy. He used a code he knew the French had broken. 


When she returned to Paris Ladoux refused to see her. He claimed he had never received her letter. He continued to refuse to see her and hadn’t paid her. By late January 1917, she had to move to increasingly cheaper hotels. 

They arrested Mata Hari on February 13, 1917. Her interrogator was a hard man who hated “immoral” women like Mata Hari. He placed her in one of Paris’s worst prisons. She stayed in isolation without access to medical treatments, clean clothes, soap, or money for food. They denied her regular access to her attorney. Her attorney was a former lover who had no experience with military trials. 

Her Trial and Death

The prosecution aimed to prove that Mata Hari was a real-life villain. They claimed that she caused the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers. No one gave any evidence of how she did this, nor an explanation of how she could do this.

During her trial, Ladoux claimed to have intercepted messages between Madrid and Berlin that identified Mata Hari as a spy. No one else saw the original messages. Inexplicably, the original messages vanished before her trial. The charges against her were vague. The prosecution did not offer a single piece of information that she passed to the Germans. They presented plenty of evidence of her “immoral” lifestyle. 

Her lawyer’s defense offered the opinions of her lovers. They convicted her on all eight counts and sentenced to death by firing squad. Her attorney filed appeals and a request for a pardon. All were denied.

They took her from her cell before dawn on October 15, 1917. She refused a blindfold, stood before the stake, and calmly faced her executioners. 

The Myth

French newspapers vilified her. Myths around her became “fact.” To the French she was a real-life villain. She symbolized the dangerous woman, the seductress, the double agent, the spy. 

Several days after her death, they arrested Ledoux on charges of espionage. Eventually he was cleared of all charges. 

France sealed Mata Hari’s trial records for 100 years.

In 1930, Germany exculpated Mata Hari. 

At some point, Mata Hari told her servant to destroy all her possessions after her execution. The servant didn’t do it. In 1930, researchers in Hollywood planning a film about Mata Hari received two scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings, playbills, and calling cards. 

In 1984, American journalist Russel Warren Howe opened her records. They only allowed him to take notes and photograph some of her letters. He wrote a book, Mata Hari—the True Story. He says the French needed a foreign scapegoat so they framed Mata Hari. http

The exhibition, Mata Hari, the myth and the maiden, displayed the largest collection of Mata Hari memorabilia  in the Museum of Friesland in Leeuwarden from 14 October 2017 to 2 April 2018.

Was Mata Hari a real-life villain? She certain had a life of loss, of excesses, seduction, and betrayal. She agreed to be a double agent. There’s no doubt about that. But did she actually pass relevant information to the Germans?

Was she a real-life villain or a scapegoat? Personally, I think she was an opportunist with a vivid imagination. She may have been a narcissist. Certainly, she lived a life of excesses, seduction, and betrayal. But I think she would like the larger-than-life drama and mythology of her story today.