he autobiography of Loreta Velazquez, which purported to tell the story of her years fighting as a Confederate soldier and spy, appeared in 1876 to critical obloquoy.
Velazquez found her autobiography reviled for her critique of American manhood. Perhaps this was because of the many passages in her book in which she described the superiority of her own performance of masculinity to that of the soldiers with whom she fought, both in battle and in romance. The woman in battle Velazquez described was a reproach to the male soldiers for their lack of presumedly masculine qualities like courage and ambition. Velazquez places herself in the ranks of female warriors, whose genealogy she traces all the way back to the Biblical Deborah. Her interest in warfare seems to be tied up both with her love of cross-dressing and with her desire for fame: “many a time has my soul burned with a desire to emulate [Joan of Arc’s] deeds of valor, to make for myself a name which, like hers, would be enrolled in gold among the women who had the courage to fight like men—ay, better than most men—for a great cause”(37). Unfortunately, she was publishing in an era in which the armed woman had become domesticated, and in which the adventuresome, independent, somewhat sexually ambiguous female warrior had gone out of fashion.
Like many other female soldiers’ autobiographies from this period, the authenticity of Velazquez’s has been hotly debated. Most famously, former Confederate General Jubal Early angrily dismissed the book in 1878, claiming that Velazquez was “a mere pretender.” However, researcher Richard Hall has confirmed many details of her story, and Jesse Alemán, in his recent edition of The Woman in Battle, finds conflicting evidence, finally noting that “Velazquez’s very existence, as with the narrative attributed to her, rests somewhere in between history and story.”[i]
Other memoirists of the time claimed to fight in order to support men, or, at the very least, because they were so patriotic that they could overcome their distaste at cross-dressing. By contrast, Velazquez foregrounds her aggressiveness, her competitive nature, her love of cross-dressing for its own sake: “I was especially haunted by the idea of being a man; and the more I thought upon the subject, the more I was disposed to murmur at Providence for having created me a woman…it was frequently my habit, after all in the house had retired to bed at night, to dress myself in my cousin’s clothes, and to promenade by the hour before the mirror, practising the gait of a man, and admiring the figure I made in masculine raiment”(42).
“I was especially haunted by the idea of being a man; and the more I thought upon the subject, the more I was disposed to murmur at Providence for having created me a woman...
Velazquez takes no trouble to present herself as either virtuous or victimized: she coolly describes the way she plotted successfully to steal a schoolmate’s lover, and avoid a marriage her parents had arranged for her. When her husband goes to war, she determines to carry out her lifelong desire to cross-dress as a soldier and accompany him into battle. He assists her in cross-dressing to go out on the town for a night, simply so she can see “the least pleasing features of masculine life”(53). Velazquez’s competitive nature asserts itself immediately as she surveys herself in the mirror: “I was immensely pleased with the figure I cut, and fancied that I made quite as good-looking a man as my husband”(53). When she dons a uniform for the first time, “I was ready to start on my campaign with as stout a heart as ever beat in the breast of a soldier”(69). She never represents herself as coy or dithering; rather, she seems to swagger through the pages of her memoir.
Velazquez refuses to engage in much ideological posturing. Rather, she tells us that “I longed for a war to break out”(49). And, although she pretends to agree with her husband when he tells her how dissatisfied he was with her performance as a cigar-smoking barroom habitué, “I waited impatiently for him to leave, intending to give him a genuine surprise when next we met, and to show him that his wife was as good a soldier as he, and was bent upon doing as much or more for the cause which both had at heart”(56). Her competitiveness resurfaces both on the battlefield and in a contest for the affections of women. She is far from romantic in her entanglements with women, and writes that “I began to pride myself as much on being a successful ladies’ man as upon being a valiant soldier.” She even competes with her military comrades to see who can attract most women.
Her love of warfare only grows as she gains experience on the battlefield: “the skirmishes that I had thus far engaged only seemed to whet my appetite for fighting”(99). But when she reaches the battle of Bull Run, “The supreme moment of my life had arrived, and all the glorious aspirations of my romantic girlhood were on the point of realization”(100). And, she boasts, “no man on the field that day fought with more energy or determination than the warrior who figured as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford”(105). Unlike most female soldiers who went on to write about their experiences, Velazquez neither downplayed her violence nor expressed any regret about taking her place on the battlefield. Rather, she viewed her combat as an existential experience and a test of her personal valor.
Velazquez’s autobiography, fascinating though it was, met with a cool reception. In reaching back to an older model of the warrior woman, she offended those like Confederate General Jubal Early, who after the war became the first president of the Southern Historical Association, and who attacked Velazquez as being “no true type of a Southern woman,” and complained that “the women she describes are not fair specimens of the pure devoted women who followed with their prayers the armies of the Confederate States through all their struggles and trials.”[ii] Velazquez failed to fit any of the models of the female soldier: she was neither especially patriotic, like Edmonds, nor was she acting out of love for a man (she barely mentions two of her four husbands during the course of her memoir). She reveled in her drag, in seducing women, in her successful masculinity: she was a swaggering cross-dresser.
She may have been a century or so ahead of her time. But for readers today, The Woman in Battlemakes for suspenseful, thought-provoking and entertaining reading.