Meet one of the most controversial women of the 19th century – Loreta Velazquez . She challenged gender, social and ethnic boundaries during the Civil War. But who was she? Did she really exist or is her story one of the greatest hoaxes of her time?
She was known by many names including Mary Ann Keith, Ann Williams, and Lauretta Williams. By all accounts, her real name was Loreta Janeta Velazquez. She was born into an aristocratic Cuban family in Havana in 1842. According to The Cuban History, her father was a Spanish government official who owned plantations in Mexico and Cuba.
As a young girl, Loreta developed an admiration and obsession with Joan of Arc. She desired to do great things and make a name for herself as a woman of courage who would fight for a great cause, just as Joan of Arc had done. Joan dressed as man to lead French forces against their enemies. Loreta said she equated being able to do “great things” with being a man and dressing as a man.
In 1849, at the age of 7, Loreta was sent her to live with family in New Orleans for her education. At the time, the Mexican war had just ended. Mexicans had been portrayed as barbaric people and that racism extended to most Latinos. That meant it was hard for Loretta to fit in. She struggled against so stereotypes which led her to pass herself off as a darker skin white woman. It worked well and she felt she could fit in, for a while. But at the core of Loreta’s existence, she was a rebel who didn’t naturally fit in with what society and her family wanted her to be.
Over the following decades, Loreta would make moves and take risks that have been questioned and even denied to this day. Including claims that she was a soldier and then a spy during the Civil War.
Loreta published a memoir detailing her life. You can read it here. Her book and life story fascinated Maria Agui Carter, a documentary filmmaker. Carter’s documentary Rebel is a must watch if you’d like to learn more about Loreta’s life and activism during and after the Civil War..
One of Loretta’s most notable quotes from her memoir speaks to her drive and desire to be who she wanted to be in life, not who others expected her to be:
“What a woman may do if only she dares. And dares to do greatly.”
Women Soldiers of the Civil War by DeeAnne Blanton
Loreta Janeta Velázquez, “Lieutenant Harry Buford”, US Confederate army. (Havana). The Cuban History. 2 September 2014
Defense Department article about Loreta Velazquez
Read Loreta Velazquez’s Memoir “Woman in Battle”, free of charge
Rebel Documentary Website
Maria Agui Carter interview with Diane Mack
Southern Man “Southern Man”, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution