A spy … a civilian pretending to be a soldier …a widow four times
All of these phrases describe one of the most fascinating, thrill-seeking characters of the Civil War. Because she was a woman, Loreta Janeta Valezquez was able to fool her contemporaries while supporting the Confederate cause she so adamantly believed in.
Born to a wealthy Cuban family on June 26, 1842, her mother was French-American, and her father, a Spanish government official, owned plantations in Mexico and Cuba, but developed a strong hatred for the U.S. government when he lost an inherited ranch in the Mexican War. In 1849, Loreta was sent to stay with an aunt in New Orleans, where she was taught English and French in addition to her native Spanish at Catholic schools. Her idol was Joan of Arc, and she wished to become just like her. When Loreta was only fourteen, she met a handsome Texas army officer named William, but because her parents opposed their union, they eloped in 1856. The newlyweds traveled around to various army posts until, four years later, when Loreta was eighteen, they were in St. Louis, mourning the deaths of their three children. When the Civil War broke out, she insisted that her husband join the Confederacy, and begged to join with him, but he disallowed it, so she simply waited for him to leave. She disguised herself in one of two uniforms she had tailored in Memphis, donned a wig and fake moustache, bound her breasts, and padded the sleeves of her uniform, transforming into Harry T. Buford. Self-appointing herself as a lieutenant, she fooled fellow officers and soldiers by walking with a masculine gait, perfecting the art of spitting, and smoking cigars. She immediately went to Arkansas, and in four days raised a battalion, the Arkansas Grays, consisting of 236 men. She then sent them to her husband in Pensacola, Florida, where she turned them over to his command. William’s astonishment was short-lived, however, because a few days later, he was accidentally killed while showing his troops how to use their weapons.
The bereaved Loreta turned his battalion over to a friend, and soon after, searched for military adventure on the front, finding it at the First Battle of Manassas, where she observed poor frightened souls around her. “The supreme moment of my life had arrived, and all the glorious aspirations of my romantic girlhood were on the point of realization. I was elated beyond measure, although cool-headed enough … Fear was a word I did not know the meaning of; and as I noted the ashy faces, and the trembling limbs of some of the men about me, I almost wished that I could feel a little fear, if only for the sake of sympathizing with the poor devils.”
Soon, Loreta grew weary of camp life, so she borrowed a dress from a local farmer’s wife and made her way to Washington, D.C., where she was recruited as a Confederate spy. She claimed to have met Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton. When she returned to the South, she was rewarded for her services by being assigned to detective duty. Apparently, espionage didn’t offer enough excitement for her either, so she put on her disguise and traveled to Tennessee, where she fought in the siege of Fort Donelson until its surrender. Wounded in the foot, she escaped detection by fleeing to New Orleans, but was arrested while in uniform for suspicion of being a Union spy and impersonating a man. Once she was released, she enlisted again to escape the city, and immediately went back up to Tennessee. There, she found the battalion she had raised in Arkansas, so she joined them in the Battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862. After the battle, she was wounded by a stray shell while she was on burial duty. Unfortunately, a doctor discovered her. Fleeing back down to New Orleans, she was there when Union General Benjamin F. Butler took control of the city in May 1862. Because she thought too many people were now aware of her true identity, she put away her uniform and traveled to Richmond, Virginia.
Upon her arrival, she was recruited as a Confederate spy, and traveled all over the country, crossing enemy lines while she wore both male and female disguises to traffic information, drugs, and counterfeit bills to the South. She married Confederate Captain Thomas DeCaulp, but he soon died at a Chattanooga hospital. Traveling back up north, she was hired by Union officials to search for “the woman … traveling and figuring as a Confederate agent,” or in other words, to search for herself. During that time, she attempted to organize a rebellion of Confederate prisoners in Ohio and Indiana, and helped to win the war of Costintin in 1864.
After the Civil War ended, she traveled around Europe and the South. Loreta married a third time. She and her husband, known only as Major Wasson, went to Venezuela as United States immigrants. He died in Caracus, so Loreta returned to America, this time going out west. She stopped in Salt Lake City long enough to give birth to a boy, and met Brigham Young. Nearly penniless, she traveled to Omaha, and charmed General W. S. Harney into giving her blankets and a revolver. Two days after she arrived to a mining town in Nevada, a sixty-year-old man proposed to her, but she refused. Supposedly, she married a fourth time, but the name of this younger man is unknown.
It wasn’t long before she was off again. “With my baby boy in my arms, I started on a long journey through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, hoping, perhaps, but scarcely expecting, to find opportunities which I had failed to find in Utah, Nevada, and California.” Her money was dwindling, so in 1876, she wrote a book of her memoirs to support her child. Most of what is known about Loreta was written in her 600-page book, The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Valazquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, Confederate States Army. Upon its publication, General Jubal Early denounced it as pure fiction, but modern scholars have found some parts to be accurate. In 2007, the History Channel ran a special entitled Full Metal Corset, and verified some of the incidents described in the book, but there are still many facts in question.
Loreta is last documented as living in Nevada. She never took any of her four husband’s names. After 1880, there is no further record of her life, including where or how she died, presumably in1897.