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Not a Real Man

By Tech. Sgt. Phillip E. Copeland, USAF
National Guard Bureau

WASHINGTON, March 7, 2001 – The Confederate soldiers appeared to have defeated their Union opponents at the Battle of Shiloh. Confederate Lt. Harry Buford, a handsome, scrappy officer, anticipated a glorious victory for his army. But all that exuberance was to be short-lived.

The next day, April 7, 1862, a retrenched, reinforced Union army miraculously rebounded and crushed the South decisively. Rather than feeling the expected flush of victory, surviving Southern soldiers felt lucky they had escaped the battlefield with their lives.

After the dust of war settled, Buford and some fellow soldiers revisited the Tennessee battlefield. They witnessed the horrible aftermath: dead men and horses, body parts and broken wagons littered the grounds. The aftermath consumed over 23,000 men either dead, wounded or missing from both sides. The soldiers knew war was not to end anytime soon.

As Buford rode along the battleground, he was suddenly thrown off his horse and struck the ground forcefully. A soldier helped the shaken lieutenant up. Buford remounted and rode back to camp with an extreme pain in his hand and arm. Enduring the pain until he could no longer avoid medical care, the agonized lieutenant sent for a surgeon.

The doctor examined Buford and began to suspect something amiss. Only then did the lieutenant reluctantly disclose the truth. His name wasn't Buford, and he wasn't a man, but a woman who'd been masquerading so well that she'd fooled her commanding officer -- her husband!

Loreta J. Velazquez was born June 26, 1842, in Havana, Cuba, of a Spanish father and French-American mother. Her family inherited an estate in Texas, but did have a chance to move in before the Mexican-American War began. Her father served in the Mexican army as an officer. After Mexico's defeat, he abandoned his estate rather than become a Texan and U.S. citizen.

While living in Puerto de Palmas, Cuba, the Velasquezes hired an English governess to tutor their young daughter. The girl would later live with her aunt in New Orleans and become accomplished in the English language.

Throughout her childhood, Loreta was inspired by the story of Joan of Arc. She dreamed of being a war hero and had a growing obsession to be a man. As a child, she would dress as her male role models and heroes, such as Columbus and Capt. James Cook.

On April 5, 1856, Loreta married a U.S. Army officer whom she referred to only as "William" in her memoirs. Her family disowned her. She was a dutiful wife and mother, but after the deaths of her three children, her grief revived her childhood notions of pursuing battle.

William reluctantly resigned his commission from the U.S. Army and hesitantly joined the Confederate army at the wishes of Loreta and his father. Meanwhile, Loreta continued to possess this burning desire for a war to happen and a stronger inclination to dress as a soldier engaging battle.

William tried to discourage Loreta by allowing her to disguise herself in one of his Confederate uniforms and accompanying him in a local bar full of men. William assumed that once Loreta saw how vulgar men acted in the absence of women, she would not be so inclined to pursue her desire. While at the bar, two dear male friends of the couple came up to greet them. They did not recognize Loreta. This boosted her confidence of her new male identity.

On April 8, 1861, William went off to war thinking Loreta had changed her mind about battle. However, the moment he was gone, she pursued her dream of war.

With the help of a good tailor, wire body shields and loose undergarments, a handsomely dressed Confederate soldier stood in the mirror ready for a gallant new life. All evidence of a beautiful, slender woman vanished. Now, the aspirations of a child influenced by Joan of Arc were to be realized.

Loreta neatly packed a trunkful of Confederate officer uniforms. On the lid of the trunk were the shiny letters of her new name -- "Lieutenant H.T. Buford, C.S.A."

She swore a male friend to secrecy and with his help fine- tuned her act -- the appearance and mannerisms of a male Confederate officer ready for combat. After that careful preparation, her plan was to recruit a battalion and present it to her unsuspecting husband for his command.

At her own research and expense, Loreta recruited a battalion of men in the name of the state of Virginia. She established a regiment and a chain of command beneath her that included two subordinate officers, a sergeant and a corporal. A friend in Memphis provided transportation for her troops and helped prepare them for war.

Buford and the recruits met up with William in Pensacola. He didn't recognize his disguised wife. In confidence, she revealed herself to her profoundly astonished and aggrieved husband. William knew she would just try somewhere else if he sent her packing. He took command of Buford's troops and started to train them.

Loreta, as Lieutenant Buford, went off to New Orleans to get supplies. While there, a terrible message arrived. The commander was dead, killed when a weapon exploded in his hands during training. The unfortunate death of her husband left Loreta alone in the war ahead -- and motivated even more by the secret fact she was a widow.

From the skirmish at Blackburn's Ford on July 21, 1861, until the autumn of 1863, Loreta Velazquez pursued war as both a male Army officer and female spy. Few knew the truth about either role.

As Lieutenant Buford, Loreta and her fellow soldiers took part in such hard-fought battles as Bull Run, Ball's Bluff, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh. Although her charade was discovered other times, it seems Buford would simply vanish or be "reassigned."

Buford would take leaves between battles. Loreta used those times to doff the uniform for dresses and go into enemy territory to spy as a social butterfly. She would later write of the time she met President Lincoln, saying she greatly admired the man, but not his politics.

After two and a half years of faithful service, Lieutenant Buford retired from duty. The story about Loreta's disguise had become too well known. She kept up the fight from the autumn of 1863 until the end of the war as Madame Velazquez, full-time Confederate spy. Loreta gathered information in the north and passed it to the south. No Union opponent ever saw through her deception.

While many women on both sides of the war served as spies, Loreta Velazquez is the only one known to have served disguised as a man at the same time and for so long. Soldiers who served beside Buford attested to the lieutenant's valor, integrity, ability and conduct becoming a gentlemanly army officer. Madame Loreta J. Velazquez was not a real man, but a real woman.

For those who want to read about this story in much greater detail, visit http://docsouth.unc.edu/velazquez/velazquez.html.

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