Woman Who Claimed to Dress as a Soldier “A Con Artist” and Kardashian, Says Jack Davis

jack-davisby ECW Correspondent Amelia Kibbe

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.

davis_velasquez-coverWhile 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.”

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4 Responses to Woman Who Claimed to Dress as a Soldier “A Con Artist” and Kardashian, Says Jack Davis

  1. lets hear it for the women in battle says:

    this is simply inaccurate “Although mostly unsuccessful, many women disguised themselves to look like their male counterparts and attempted to join both the Confederate and the Union armies.”

    the women were not mostly unsuccessful – this is misogynist fantasy

    • jim morgan says:

      Why is it inaccurate? Do you have any evidence that “this is misogynist fantasy?”

      As to Velasquez specifically, her story is demonstrably false and always has been. Jack Davis is spot on in his criticisms of her.

      • lets hear it for the women in battle says:

        To have asked the question about whether I have evidence shows that you have not investigated the historical sources …

        Leaving aside Velasquez as a special case … William C Davis is a poor historian when he claims that women who disguised themselves a soldiers were unsuccessful. Firstly official sources such as the National Archives provide clear evidence of the period that women did serve within the armies. Some women after leaving the army actually tried to claim back pay. Far from being exposed before they joined the army and were issued arms or somehow just hanging around the camp in improvised uniforms – which is what William C Davis clearly states in public interviews – written and digital audio – and publicity around his book on Velazquez, official records show that the women in question often served without any question of their gender being an issue for years or months prior. In many cases if a woman was thrown out of one unit she would simply search around and find another unit that was willing to accept new recruits with few questions asked and little physical examination. Often the women were outed by extreme events after otherwise acceotable service – e.g. when wounded, or when giving birth. A number of enlisted men in the Union army surprised their officers and pards by having babies when on campaign. Not all of them were discovered. Rosetta Wakeman of the Union Army (mentioned below in another comment) for example was buried in a military cemetery in New Orleans under her masculine alias and it was only 130 years later that it became public knowledge that Pvt Lyons Wakeman was Pvt Rosetta Wakeman. The official burial party at Gettysburg reported finding a fully armed and accoutered confederate soldier, (and letters of the period mention at least two other female Confederates at the battle … one amongst the wounded left on the field after Pickett’s Charge) and forensic evidence has revealed that a union army soldier buried at Shiloh was a woman.

        Not only did they serve, but they fell for their respective causes and countries and even spent time in prison camps. Captured as a serving member of the Union army Florena Budwin survived the hellhole of Andersonville, and was amongst the prisoners then transferred to Florence Stockade by the Confederates where she died in January 1865 of pneumonia. She was wearing a very worn and tattered Union uniform. During her illness her real gender was discovered and local women offered her new clothing and personal effects and extra food to make her more comfortable. Given the lack of supplies in the south at that date, these gifts were truly generous. She is now buried under her female name alongside her fellow prisoners from the Florence Stockade. She is reputedly the first burial under a female name in a US Military cemetery – other women being buried under their masculine aliases.

        His comment in the Velasquez book that Vivandieres were purely ceremonial and stayed behind when the troops went into action is not borne out by the records of actual women serving under fire as Vivandieres and who were decorated for their bravery. Again we have a professional historian ignoring the actual historical record and we have an academic press publishing a book which ignores and contradicts historical evidence.

        Why do modern people – including reenactors, SCV members and roundtable attendees find it so difficult to accept something that is on the historical record and apparently intrigued rather enraged people back in 1861-1865 … this is surely modern mythologies and stereotypes of gender coming into play.

        On the whole we know somewhat less about Confederate female soldiers because of the records being less complete, with pension records often meaning that soldiers had to prove service many years after the war (when women may have returned to their female roles) and there being perhaps strong conventions in the mid 20th century about gender roles in some southern states that has erased these brave women from history,.

  2. Carrie Ellsworth says:

    A great new Year resolution; via inspiration from you, to refresh the knowledge of the history of ladies in the military as a tribute to them. For grgranddad Francis Walkman and cousin Lyons Walkman aka Sarah Rosetta Wakemzan, 153ed New York. Red River campaign.

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