Luther left us first light Friday morning
Little Dan and Becky waved goodbye
They're gonna have to share the weight together
Idle hands will see a good farm slowly die*
Over 150 years ago there was a war. With each hard fact, or myth, of this war, I've been lassoed in by its battlefields, generals, soldiers, and reason for fighting. It's as if it has beckoned me to come closer, to seek, to listen. The landscape and every individual of this era has a tale that needs to be told - that still grabs at open ears to be heard, to be understood, and never to be forgotten. One such story has ruffled my feathers; the life story of Lieutenant Harry Buford. Her real name, yes, her real name is Loreta Janeta Velázquez, a crossdresser. It's The Civil War, Battle of Shiloh, Hardin County, Tennessee, the year, 1862.
The Civil War
Loreta Janeta Velázquez was one of 400 to 750 women that crossdressed, took up arms, and fought next to fellow male soldiers. When I learned she fought for the Confederacy I was flabbergasted. A Cuban-born Latina fighting for The South? I instantly disliked her. So much so, I stayed up till 3AM trying to discover as much about her as possible. One can lose sleep over an illusory enemy.
Can you imagine being a crossdresser in The South in the 1800s, long before "Don't ask, don't tell," and joining the military? It's not the crossdressing that has me bothered, by no means. I'm liberal and encourage true self-expression/identity. The crossdressing allowed the women not to be held back by any "labels" placed them by society. It was a self-created ticket to participate in a war, a cause, that they would die for.
But Velázquez was unlike the other female soldiers. She was like many social media gals of today - seeking fame and status, by any means that she could conjure it up. In her mind, wanting fame was a good enough reason to go to war. The past four months I've been on a mental battlefield with Loreta, duking it out, trying to undress the crossdresser, hoping to find some substance.
Loreta Janeta Velázquez
She was a woman, a Latina. And just like that, hearing those two labels: woman, Latina - I bombarded Loreta Janeta Velázquez with every preconceived notion of what those labels should and should not entail for her life. I didn't think the usual, "You're a girl! You can't go to war. You're too weak to carry a gun!" I was still stuck on the fact that she was on the Confederate side. Luckily, she left behind a 600 page memoir that gave me some insight into her (ir)rational thinking and decisions.
Her father worked for the Spanish government and owned plantations in Cuba and Mexico. During the Mexican-American war, he lost home, horse, and hierarchy to the Americans, sending him back to his native land, where his riches remained intact. He cursed and despised The Yankees. Perhaps this sentiment helped mold his Rebel daughter.
Loreta considered herself an aristocrat and was educated in Louisiana. She desired fame, to go down in history, like her idol Joan of Arc. The Civil War provided the perfect arena to go after her dream.
In her writings she boasts of being able to fool fellowmen that she, too, was a man; she was elated when young women flirted with her and even egged them on; she could write verbatim about compliments and flirtatious conversations. She could bring to life the detail of her uniform from the fabric to the color. But when it comes to the actual war, the killing on the battlefield, or her stance on slavery, or the position of The South, or the consequences of the abolitionist or the secessionist no matter who won the war, it all becomes vague, disconnected. This is where I begin to question her and her story.
Gone to Shiloh
For the Union
Shoulder to shoulder
Side by side
Gone to Shiloh
Hope springs eternal
When flags and bullets start to fly*
Prior to heading to Shiloh, my boyfriend and I went to Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis to visit my favorite Civil War historian/author, Shelby Foote. We found Foote's plot, a humble flat marker, where someone had placed two shiny pennies, heads up - Abraham Lincoln's head up - the President that saw us through The Civil War. Such a simple gesture, yet it expressed everything of 150 years ago and of today. Also resting among Foote are sprawling burials of young Confederate soldiers and generals. A deep respect for all those in the war, North and South, overcame me.
Unlike Arlington Cemetery where headstones stand in stark-white perfect symmetry, some grave-sites at Elmwood look like broken rocks haphazardly casted onto the earth, to cover quickly the chaos and catastrophe of the dead. But the common denominator of Arlington and Elmwood is that headstone, after headstone, after headstone marks a person that lived, that fought, and that was killed. It's a quiet, and blaring, display of so much loss of life for a country whose average young citizen doesn't care to know the basic facts of the this war.
"Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War... The Civil war defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things." - Shelby Foote
The following day we drove to Shiloh. A curator dressed in war attire provided an outdoor demonstration of what a soldier would encounter at the two-day Battle of Shiloh. I love listening to others speak of the Civil War, as the person's delivery is usually full of reverence, compassion, and understanding. This curator was no exception. He said, "Ask yourself, if you had been one of those young men, 16 to 18 years old, the first time you heard 100 or 1000 muskets firing, what would you do? Then they start firing those canons."
It took 20 seconds to load a musket. And that's if it's done perfectly, without dropping any component, while being shot at, and while others are being shot next to you. It's fair to think that many were killed before successfully loading their weapon. For many of the soldiers, the only thing they ever aimed at before were jack rabbits and squirrels - animals that can't shoot back. The soldiers were young, naïve, hastily trained. They were starving, exhausted from traversing through the Spring rain and mud.
Shiloh, the thick forest, is vast and beautiful. The hardwood trees and loblolly pines stand as eerily deep rooted as the Confederate State's beliefs of that day, and as delicate as the soldiers that were slaughtered beneath them. I told my boyfriend I wished they'd allow camping for a few nights on the land. I wanted to listen to the night wind navigating through and conversing with the trees, each telling it's own version of events of April 1862.
April's come and the air smells fresh with rain
They watched his shadow fade around the bend
He's headed for a different kind of thunder
And the stunned surprise in the eyes of dying men*
It is the detail of the battle that I longed to read from Velazquez's female point of view on the frontline. But she fails to deliver. She brags about sneaking into the Union camp and hearing that Union backup would arrive in the morning. This was a key factor for The Union in winning this battle. She states she didn't tell her commander out of fear of getting in trouble for leaving camp. I simply don't believe her story. Knowing the enemy plan and informing the Confederate generals would have gained her the praise and the notoriety she sought. Instead, she goes into detail again of how she kept fooling the soldiers as she played her part as a man. Was she that narcissistic that she was unfazed by the brutality of the battle? Perhaps she hid? Perhaps she wasn't there at all? Perhaps she gives just enough facts, with some sideline participation or observation, enough to fool us and confuse us.
The old black rooster sang him down that dirt road
His step seemed bold, his manner fancy-free
I pray we see him alive and well in the fall here
Than that God-forsaken place in Tennessee*
After the battle, she stuck around to help bury the fallen when she was struck by a stray shell. A physician came to aide her, were her identity was discovered. Velazquez had fought in a previous battle where her gender had been uncovered, as well. It did not hinder her then, but Shiloh became her last fight. She traded in her uniform and became a Confederate spy. And then... a double agent. Loyalty was not her forté, but audacity was.
Gone to Shiloh
For the Union
Shoulder to shoulder
Side by side
Gone to Shiloh
Men stand united
When flags and bullets start to fly
After all of this
If we should prevail
Heaven help the South
When Sherman comes their way*
Velazquez was the Civil War's Forrest Gump - she claims to have met everyone, from Lincoln to Brigham Young, and claims to have been involved in every major event of the time. After the war, Velázaquez traveled West. She had a baby and then without any further revolution, masquerade, or grandiose claims, she led a quiet life. Some claim her death is unknown, while others mark her death as January 1923, in a psychiatric facility.
Many scholars refute her story in part or in whole, from meeting Lincoln, to being in battle, and even to being from a prominent Cuban family. My problem with Valázquez's story is how self-serving it is. It casts a shadow over true warrior, crossdressing women, like Jennie Hodgers and Frances Clayton. Her story diverts from those women who fought in this war out of loyalty to The Union or The Confederacy, or to their husband or brother with whom they wanted to fight side by side. It's offensive to the 620,000 soldiers that died, who left behind the little they had, who had not joined the war to seek fame. Her story intrudes on The Civil War - the story of home, our home, The United States of America.
150 years later Velázaquez is getting what she wants. We are talking about her, books are being written about her, we are trying to figure her out. I realize that I was bothered by her because I want to pigeon-hole her. I want to resolve the mysterious jigsaw. I want concrete facts. I wanted her to be different.
She has won this battle between me and her, as I've accepted the enigma she is. Perhaps a small part of me was looking for one Latina hero. I'll keep looking. I do give Velazquez credit for practicing what I preach: don't live by labels. She didn't live outside the box, she had no box. She lived a label-free life. What freedom! And there's no arguing, she led a damn good salacious life... or lie.
*"Gone to Shiloh"- Lyrics by Bernie Taupin Music by Elton John (c) Universal Music Publishing Group. Listen to Elton John, Leon Russell & Neil Young's collaboration of this tune, click here.
Side note: Bernie Taupin is a Civil War buff. One of my dreams would be to walk the Battlefield of Shiloh and chat about the Civil War with him. Like Velázquez, I, too, can dream!