This Cuban woman toiled as a man in the Civil War. So why has no one heard of her?
By Johnny Diaz, Globe Staff.
Loreta Janeta Velazquez sounded like a mythical figure: a Cuban-born woman raised in New Orleans, where she masqueraded as a male soldier and fought in the Civil War. With a fake mustache, beard, and a soldier’s uniform, the Latina enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861 as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, without her husband’s knowledge.
“When I heard about Loreta, I was like, ` Why would a Cuban woman join the Confederacy? What is a Velazquez doing in 19th – century America?’ ” says Maria Agui Carter , a filmmaker and former producer for WGBH-TV (Channel 2).
That intrigue led Carter on a historical and personal journey into the life of this un- Southern belle.
Carter learned that Velazquez didn’t just fight as a soldier in the historic battles of Bull Run and Shiloh, but posed as a spy after she was wounded during service. Velazquez chronicled her adventures as a soldier in a 600-page memoir called “The Woman in Battle: The Civil War Narrative of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Cuban Woman and Confederate Soldier.” The book, brought back into print three years ago, features rare images of Velazquez as both a woman and a man.
Velazquez’s colorful unsung life had the makings of a good documentary film, Carter thought. And so “Rebel” was born.
Carter, who runs her production company, Iguana Films, in the basement of her Newton home, spent the past four years researching Velazquez’s life with fellowships at Harvard and Tulane universities. With funding from PBS and other grants, she and her crew shot reenactment s in New Orleans’s French Quarter and are shooting the last batch of scenes in Waltham, Milton, and Concord.
Carter hopes to have the project done for a PBS airing next spring.
“This is not just a great adventure story. It’s also a story about the politics of how you remember history,” Carter says during an interview at Lincoln Street Coffee in Newton Highlands. “It’s a way to examine why you have this absence of this woman and so many other Latinas in history. It’s a detective story. Who was she?”
Velazquez was born in 1842 near Havana, the daughter of a Spanish government official working in Cuba. In her early teens, she was sent to school in New Orleans, where she was educated in English, Spanish, and French. She eventually eloped with an officer in the US Army in 1856. They married and had three children, all of whom died young.
She talked her husband into renouncing his commission and joining the Confederate army, something she wanted to do herself instead of staying home. She paid a tailor to make her a soldier’s uniform, donned a man’s wig and a fake mustache and beard, and transformed herself into Buford .
Some scholars have described Velazquez as a complex yet daring woman who seemed ahead of her time. “A woman labors under some disadvantages in an attempt to fight her own way in the world, and at the same time, from the mere fact that she is a woman, she can often do things that a man cannot,” Velazquez wrote in her memoirs.
Wearing her disguise, Velazquez fought at the battles of Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff , and at the siege of Fort Donelson . She continued fighting after her husband was killed and after she was arrested as a Union spy. Velazquez also fought at the Battle of Shiloh– alongside her new fiance, who did not recognize her in disguise.
She managed to fool other officers and soldiers because she was fair-skinned, walked with a masculine gait, smoked cigars, and padded her coat to pass as more muscular, according to the National Archives and Records Administration.
“ Loreta’s story was an unbelievable story, because it’s not what proper women did at that time,” says Sabrina Aviles of Roslindale, coproducer of “Rebel.” “She was also a Latina, a Cubana who spoke Spanish!”
Ten years after the war, Velazquez detailed her experience in her autobiography. At the time, Army generals and critics dismissed her story, calling it a hoax or good fiction, a debate that continues today, though it has been well documented that many women dressed as men so they could fight in the war.
“The idea that the Southern men were really women in disguise resonated quite painfully with the entire defeat of the South,” says Jesse Aleman , a professor of English at the University of New Mexico who uses Velazquez’s book to teach 19th-century American literature.
But some historians and academics believe she was the real thing because of her attention to details on the battle field and documentation of her military service under her male alias.
“She just has this fluid identity,” says Aleman, who wrote an introduction to the new edition of Velazquez’s autobiography. “Folks either want to claim she did participate in the war or that she is a complete hoax. What this book tells us about her is her play on identity, that a Cuban can cross as a Confederate, that a woman can cross as a man, that a Southerner can pass as a Northerner. She makes us ask what it means to be Hispanic in the 19th century.”
Reflecting Latino life, past and present, has been one of Carter’s central themes in her documentaries. When she worked for WGBH in Boston, Carter produced the “La Plaza” series, which highlighted Latino culture to mainstream audiences. It was her interest in Latino historical figures that led her to delve into Velazquez’s life.
“Loreta is one of many names that don’t show up in our history,” says Carter, 43, who was born in Ecuador and graduated from Harvard in 1987.
About 10,000 Hispanics fought in the Civil War, and Hispanic women, dressed as men, were represented in the ranks, with Velazquez being the most famous, according to a 2002 article in Army Magazine.
“This is an incredible woman we have never heard of,” Carter says. “I want people to say `Why haven’t we heard of this woman, and why hasn’t history included her?’ ”
Calvin Lindsay Jr. of Randolph, who runs Cambridge’s municipal TV station and worked with Carter at WGBH, was impressed enough by Velazquez’s story to volunteer his time as the head producer of “Rebel.”
“It’s a voice that we may not normally hear,” Lindsay said. “We have this woman, who was Cuban, fighting for the Confederate side. Here is a story that talks about race and sexuality, many of the issues the country still hasn’t wrapped itself around.”