After having written and published more than 50 books, it’s pretty safe to say William C. Davis has done a lot of research.
But, he said, to him, that’s one of the best parts of being an author. So he was ready for the research challenge his latest book presented him with: taking on a minor Civil War icon.
Earlier this month, Southern Illinois UNiversity Press released Inventing Loreta Velasquez: Confederate Soldier Impersonator, Media Celebrity, and Con Artist. Velasquez, born around 1842, claimed she dressed as a man to fight for the Confederacy and later became a Confederate spy in the North. Her 1876 memoir, 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, is one of only two written by women soldiers posing as men.
The book, which focuses on the story of the Civil-War-era woman Loretta Velasquez, highlights the controversy surrounding the validity of many of Velasquez’s claims. In Davis’s opinion, her work is more fiction than fact. “She knew how to manipulate the press,” he said.
While Davis said there was no way to state she never posed as a male soldier, her words often contradicted themselves. Even the spelling of her name, he said, is inconsistent within her memoir. While often spelled “Velazquez” within the text of her book, the spelling changes to “Velasquez” for the portraits in the memoir. Although he said she most often referred to herself as “Velasquez,” many variant spellings exist.
“[She was] kind of a Kardashian,” he said. “She was out to get her name in the papers.”
According to Davis, he is not alone in his argument. Shortly after the publication of her work, some historians began to doubt the accuracy of her accounts. Later, others also looked into accounts she told newspapers, he added.
“She would go to the town and call on the newspaper. [What she said] was a little too good to be true,” he arged, adding that one of the times she was identified, she appeared to purposefully draw attention to herself.
Velasquez personally publicized and took orders for her work, he added.
Some historians argue at least some truth to Velasquez’s story, and some groups—such as feminist ones—have adopted her as a heroine of the Civil War. Davis said he believes that, in addition to a few sightings of her with the male troops, this is largely because of the small size of the collection about women fighting in the war. Removing Velasquez would eliminate a large portion of the available material, he added.
Davis began his in-depth approach to Velasquez’s story after doing some preliminary research on women posing as men during the war. Although mostly unsuccessful, many women disguised themselves to look like their male counterparts and attempted to join both the Confederate and the Union armies.
When he began to look further into her story, he said he predicted his book would ignite some debate.
“The discussion needs to be held,” he said—although he thinks any discussion will largely be confined to academic circles. Because of the controversial aspect of his subject and well as the lack of readily available resources, Davis said it was incumbent on him to spend extra time focusing on research.
Since a young age, Davis has enjoyed learning the history of southern America. Like many families, he explained, his had been divided by the war. Growing up in Missouri, he remembered hearing their stories.
Since then, he has served as the editor-in-chief of Civil War Times magazine. He taught history at Virginia Tech and served as the executive director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies before retiring in 2013.
Over the years, he has received numerous awards, including the Fletcher Pratt Award—presented annually to the author or editor of the best non-fiction Civil War book from that year—the Jules Landry Award—a yearly award given to an author who demonstrates outstanding achievement in the firld of southern studies—and the Richard Nelson Current Award—an achievement award given to individuals for their contributions to the spirit of Abraham Lincoln.
But, he said, he always finds more to learn, and it’s this quest for information that will likely lead him to his next book topic.
“I’ll be working on one book and see something for another book,” he said. “[I enjoy] getting that eureka moment—finding something someone has overlooked.”