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?
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.
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.
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?
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