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Life Story: Loreta Janeta Velázquez (1842–ca. 1897)
Soldier and Spy
The story of a Latinx Confederate soldier and spy.
According to Loreta Janeta Velázquez, she was born on June 26, 1842, in Havana, Cuba. She claimed her father was a Spanish government official in Cuba and her mother was the daughter of a French naval officer and a wealthy American merchant. Loreta was their sixth and last child.
When Loreta was two years old, her father resigned his position in Cuba and moved his family to a large estate in Texas. At that time, Texas was part of the republic of Mexico. Shortly after they arrived, the Mexican-American War broke out. Her father joined the Mexican military and fought against the U.S. invasion. He sent his family to the West Indies for safety. Their property was destroyed in the course of the war, and their land was ceded to the United States as part of the treaty that ended the war. Loreta’s father refused to live under U.S. rule, so he moved his family to Puerto de Palmas in Mexico, where he made a fortune off of the sugar, tobacco, and coffee trades.
From a young age, Loreta was tutored by an English governess. In 1849, she was sent to live and study with an aunt in New Orleans. Eventually, she joined a school run by the Sisters of Charity, where she learned all the elegant skills a young woman of her class was expected to master. But Loreta dreamed of a grander life. She hoped someday to follow in the footsteps of her hero, Joan of Arc.
Loreta’s family arranged for her to marry a respectable young man, but this did not fit in with her dreams of future glory. On April 5, 1856, Loreta took her first step toward achieving her independence by eloping with a U.S. army officer called William. She was only 14 years old. Her father was furious with her choice and cut off contact with her.
In the first four years of her marriage, Loreta followed her husband as he traveled to different army posts in the West. She learned all about military life during this time. Loreta gave birth to three children, all of whom died in infancy. This terrible loss reignited Loreta’s desire to pursue a life of glory. When the Civil War began, she convinced her husband to resign his position in the U.S. Army and join the Confederate Army.
We may never know how much of Loreta’s story is true, but it stands as a fascinating account of the possibilities of women soldiers in the American Civil War.
Loreta planned to disguise herself as a man and enlist in the Confederate Army with her husband. But William would not let her, so she waited until after he left for the front to make her move. Loreta ordered two Confederate uniforms and changed her name to Henry T. Buford. She recruited 236 men in Arkansas and marched them to Pensacola, Florida, where she presented the men to her husband and revealed herself. William was shocked but impressed at what she had accomplished, and agreed to let her stay with him in disguise.
Shortly after her arrival in Pensacola, William was killed in an accident. Loreta was a widow. Rather than stay with her recruits, Loreta decided to travel with some of her husband’s friends to Virginia. She had her first combat experience at the First Battle of Bull Run. A few months later, Loreta was horrified by the cruel violence her Confederate friends inflicted on the retreating Union soldiers at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. War was not the glorious enterprise she had learned about in books. Yet she resolved to continue to fight.
Loreta donned women’s clothing and made her way to Washington, D.C., where she spied for the Confederacy. Loreta understood that as a woman she would not be a suspect, and she used this to her advantage. She contacted a Union officer friend of her late husband, and through him, she learned a number of military secrets that she passed along to the Confederate Army. She also claimed that she met the Secretary of War and President Abraham Lincoln.
After the war, Loreta reconnected with her brother and toured Europe and South America with his family. When she returned to the United States, she moved West, where she sought to build a life and fortune. She married two more times and gave birth to a son. In 1876, she published her autobiography, The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry J. Buford, Confederate States Army. She claimed that she was publishing her story not to profit from the war but to support herself and her child.
Loreta’s life story has been the subject of debate since the year her book was published. Some were awed by her accomplishments, while others immediately dismissed the entire book as a work of fiction. Some historians point to the accurate details of the war in her narrative as proof it is true. Detractors point to the immediate denials made by Confederate officers, including General Jubal Early. We may never know how much of Loreta’s story is true, but it stands as a fascinating account of the possibilities of women soldiers in the American Civil War.
Some sources date Loreta Janeta Velázquez’s death to around 1897, while others indicate that she died in 1923. It is unclear from the historical record which of these dates is accurate.
- ceded: Gave up.
- Confederate: Relating to the group of states that seceded from the United States before the Civil War in order to preserve slavery.
- Mexican-American War: Conflict fought between Mexico and the United States from 1846–1848. It began when the United States annexed Texas.
- Sisters of Charity: A community of Catholic nuns.
- Union: The name for the states that remained a part of the United States during the Civil War.
- How did Loreta contribute to the Confederate war effort?
- Why did Loreta dress as a man when she wanted to fight and a woman when she wanted to spy? What does this reveal about nineteenth-century gender expectations?
- Does the veracity of this account matter? Is there value in Loreta’s story even if some of it is exaggerated or untrue?
- Ask students to consider how the publication of this autobiography fits into the larger Lost Cause mythology that was built around the American Civil War after the war. Learn more in the Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow curriculum guide from the New-York Historical Society.
- Use this life story as a starting point for students to research how Cuba and other Caribbean and Central American nations participated in the American Civil War.
- Teach this life story together with the resources Women Soldiers and Changing the Rules of War to demonstrate how Loreta’s story is rooted in the real experiences of women during the American Civil War.
- For an in-depth lesson about the lives of Confederate women during the war, combine this life story wit