The Mystery Woman of Shiloh  

Posted by Tony Hays in , ,

Sometimes called the “Gettysburg” of the western theater, the battle at Shiloh certainly held enough human drama and tragedy to merit the title. Stories of heroism and cowardice, fortune and disaster, abound. But perhaps the strangest tale of Shiloh is that of a young lieutenant named Harry T. Buford who allegedly appeared on the field at Shiloh Meeting House just after the first shots rang out. While many students of the Civil War assess Buford’s tale as more a pack of lies than a recitation of facts, it’s simply too good not to include.

Harry T. Buford was a lieutenant without a unit at the time of the battle of Shiloh. According to Buford’s own story, he arrived at Monterey, in the edge of McNairy County, late in the evening on April 5th just as rain began to fall in earnest. Taking refuge with some of the troops quartered there, he opted to wait out the rain before pushing on to the main body of the troops. The shower ended by 3 a.m., and with a jolt of brandy, he was off again towards General Hardee’s headquarters in the vicinity of Shiloh Meeting House. As he records the meeting:

"I found the general stationed near Shiloh Church, and rode up and saluted him just as he was mounting his horse. Showing him my pass, I said that I wanted to have a hand in this affair. Hardee looked at the pass, and replied, 'All right; fall in, and we'll see what can be done for you.'"

Buford was in the forefront of the Confederate assault on the Union camps, taking the opportunity to eat a little something more than the brandy and coffee he’d had earlier at Monterey.

In obedience to Hardee's command, I fell in with his men, and we advanced briskly upon the enemy's camp. It was a complete surprise in every respect. Many of the enemy were only half dressed, and were obliged to snatch up the first weapons that came to hand as the Confederates rushed out of the woods upon them. The contest was brief and decisive, and in a few moments such of the enemy as escaped the deadly volleys which we poured into them were scampering away as fast as their legs could carry them. We took possession of their camp, with all its equipage, almost without resistance, and I thought that this was an excellent good beginning of the day's work, especially as I had the pleasure of eating a capital hot breakfast, which had been prepared for some Federal officer. I enjoyed it immensely, for I was decidedly hungry after my early morning march, the cup of coffee tendered by my soldier friend not having proved as satisfactory as something more substantial might have done.

A full meal in his belly, Buford encountered Hardee again, and the general, pleased with the morning’s work was in a “high, good humor.” He asked Buford what could be done for him, to which Buford answered that he wanted in the thick of the fighting.
Earlier in his career, Buford had recruited a company of infantry in Arkansas and by sheer chance he spotted them moving towards the fighting. With Hardee’s permission, the young lieutenant approached the captain commanding the company who greeted him with great affection, something that pleased Buford a little too much.
Now, as Shakespeare would say, here’s the rub. The captain – Thomas C. De Caulp – was actually Buford’s fiancé, although De Caulp wasn’t aware of it at the time. War, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. Lieutenant Harry T. Buford was, in reality, a young Cuban woman dressed as a Confederate officer and as full of fire as Albert Sidney Johnston himself.
Born Loreta Janeta Velazquez in Havanna, Cuba in 1842, she was the daughter of a diplomat and the granddaughter of a famous painter. In 1876, she wrote her memoirs A Woman in War, and although it reads like a penny novel and has a Forrest Gump feel to it, it’s a fascinating tale nonetheless, maybe even the greatest folktale of Shiloh. Its basics are worth repeating here.
While a teenager, her father sent her to New Orleans for schooling, and there she fell in love with and married a young U.S. Army officer. At the outbreak of the war, she persuaded her husband, a Texan, to side with the Confederacy. The husband, who had served under Johnston in Utah, was amenable and soon was commissioned as a captain and dispatched to Pensacola, Florida.
Loreta, whose heroine was Joan of Arc, was imbued with a passion of her own. She had a uniform specially made, and ordered some sort of apparatus, designed to conceal her feminine physique. With that, she ordered a trunk labeled in the name of Harry T. Buford, and became a Confederate lieutenant.
Lieutenant Harry T. Buford and Loreta Janeta Velazquez. Source: A Woman in War

Traveling to Arkansas, she moved in with a family named Giles, whose daughter Sadie promptly fell in love with the dashing Lieutenant Buford. While there Loreta/Harry recruited an infantry company, including Sadie’s two brothers, and hustled them off to Pensacola where she turned them over to her husband. That accomplished, Loreta/Harry sought other ways to serve the Confederacy.
Over the course of the next months, if you believe her account, she participated in the battles of Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff, and Ft. Donelson, and also met President Lincoln. Her first husband had died, and she had begun a correspondence with his second-in-command Thomas De Caulp, a flirtation that eventually resulted in their engagement.
During a sojourn in New Orleans, her true gender was discovered, and she took off with the authorities hot on her trail. Finding herself in Memphis shortly after the fall of Fort Donelson, she was alerted to the impending battle at Shiloh. Which brings us to her meeting with Hardee at Shiloh Meeting House and her encounter with her fiance.
Velazquez/Buford joined the company commanded by her fiancé De Caulp and fought with them through a long, hot day, during the course of which, she assumed at least partial command of the company. In her words:

We had not been long engaged before the second lieutenant of the company fell. I immediately stepped into his place, and assumed the command of his men. This action was greeted by a hearty cheer from the entire company, all the veterans of which, of course, knew me, and I took the greeting as an evidence that they were glad to see their original commander with them once more, and evidently anxious to do a full share of the heavy job of work that was to be done before the field could be ours. This cheer from the men was an immense inspiration to me; and the knowledge that not my lover only, but the company which I had myself recruited, and thousands of others of the brave boys of our Southern army were watching my actions approvingly, encouraged me to dare everything, and to shrink from nothing to render myself deserving of their praises.

But wasn’t she afraid of what might happen to her beloved? Strangely enough, no.

It may be thought that, even if I felt no fear for myself, as a woman I should have had some tremors when beholding my lover advancing into the thick of a desperate fight, at the head of his men. The idea of fear, either on his or on my own account, however, never occurred to me at the time, although, on reflecting over the matter afterwards, it struck me that some slight emotion of that kind would perhaps have been proper under the circumstances. We cannot think of everything at once, however; and just at that time I was intent only on defeating the enemy before me, and proving myself a good fighter in the eyes of Captain De Caulp and his command. As for him, I desired for his sake, even more ardently than on my own account, that the occasion should be a glorious one, and I had a strange delight in following him into the thickest of the mêlée, and in watching with what undaunted spirit he bore himself throughout the long and sternly fought battle.

They fought on during the day, in heroic fashion, according to Velazquez/Buford.

"Our assaults upon the enemy were made with irresistible fury, and we rushed through their lines, literally mowing them down like grain before the mowing machine. It was grander fighting than I had ever witnessed before, surpassing even the great sortie at Fort Donelson in desperateness and inspirational qualities. The bullets whistled through the air thick and fast, cutting the trees, and making the branches snap and fly, splintering the fence rails, striking the wagons, or sending some poor soldier suddenly to the earth. A corporal who was by my side was shot through the heart by a Minie ball. He fell heavily against me, and all my clothing was reddened by his blood. His only words were, "Damn the Yankees! they have killed me." He was a very handsome young man, only about twenty two years of age, and his death perfectly infuriated me, as it did his other comrades."

As the sun set, the Arkansas boys with Buford/Velazquez among their ranks considered it a day well spent. But Johnston was dead and Beauregard declined to push the assault. Most soldiers were inclined to get a little sleep after such a hellish day. But not Buford/Velazquez. She decided that a little reconnaissance was in order. So, accordingly, she made her way to Pittsburgh Landing to assess the situation.

"I could not resist the temptation of making an effort to find out for myself exactly what the situation within the enemy's lines really was, and was willing to run all the risks of being caught and shot as a spy, rather than to endure the suspense of a long night of uncertainty.

"My station was with the advanced picket line, I having persuaded the captain to post me in a manner most favorable for carrying out my designs. I did not dare to tell him all I proposed to do, for fear that he would consider it his duty to prevent me, but gave him to understand that I intended, under cover of the darkness, to creep up as close as I could, with safety, to the Federal lines, with a view of trying to find out something concerning their movements. He hesitated somewhat at even permitting me to do this much without the knowledge of the colonel, but finally gave a tacit consent. I also refrained from telling my full design to my immediate companion of the picket station, and made up a story about my intentions, which I thought would keep him quiet, and also promised to give him a drink of good whiskey when I got back if he would mind his own business and not attempt to interfere with me."

Arriving at the landing, she discovered what she assumed would be the case – utter chaos. The Yankees were packing the terrain around the landing like so many sardines in a can.

"The Federals were crowding about the Landing in utter disorder, and were without any means of crossing the river. They were completely in a trap, and so evidently keenly appreciated the fact, that the capture of the entire army ought to have been an easy matter. One more grand charge along the entire line, in the same brilliant fashion that we had opened the battle, and every officer and man on this side of the river would either have been slain or taken prisoner, while we would have gained possession of the Landing, and have prevented any of the expected reinforcements from crossing."

Seeing the turmoil at Pittsburgh Landing, Buford/Velazquez was convinced that a nighttime strike against the Yankees was essential to victory. With that realization, she started her treacherous return trip to the safety of Confederate lines, but an odd incident happened along the way.

"While surveying, from my post of observation in the bushes, the movements of the routed Federal troops at the Landing, a small boat, with two officers in it, passed up the river. As it drew near the place where I was concealed, I recognized one of the officers as General Grant, and the other one I knew by his uniform to be a general. Grant I had seen at Fort Donelson, and I had met with pictures of him in some of the illustrated papers, so that I had no trouble in knowing him in spite of the darkness. The boat passed so close to me that I could occasionally catch a word or two of the conversation that was passing between the Federal commander and his associate, although, owing to the splashing of the oars, and the other noises, I could not detect what they were talking about.

"My heart began to beat violently when I saw Grant, and my hand instinctively grasped my revolver. Both he, and the officer with him, were completely at my mercy, for they were within easy pistol shot, and my first impulse was to kill them, and run the risk of all possible consequences to myself. I did even go so far as to take a good aim, and in a second more, had I been a little firmer nerved, the great Federal general, and the future President of the United States, would have finished his career."

And, so, with one well-placed pistol shot, Buford/Velazquez could have changed destiny. But, she didn’t. She returned to her fiancé and tried to convince him to go to his colonel and then to Beauregard to urge an immediate assault. De Caulp balked and history played itself out. Buford/Velazquez later claimed to have been wounded while on an expedition with the 11th Louisiana Infantry to bury their dead in the Shiloh vicinity.

She claimed to have continued serving the Confederacy both as a man and as a woman. Later in the war, De Caulp died, but not before the couple was wed in a touching bedside ceremony. During the postwar years, she married for a third time. In 1876, she published her memoirs.

Is there any truth to Buford/Velazquez’s story? A little. Loreta Janeta Velazquez was a real woman, born in Havanna, Cuba on 26 June 1842. She is known to have frequented Baxter County, Arkansas about the time of the war, and was married at one time to a man named Roach, who was probably her last husband.

Her reminiscences of the war are general enough to have been gleaned from published accounts. She doesn’t always provide names for her closest associates, and when she does they prove very difficult to track down. She offers only her first husband’s given name and no surname. A Confederate officer named Thomas DeKalb did exist, but rather than dying battle, he deserted. No trace of Philip Hastings, a Confederate lieutenant with whom she claimed to have been friends has yet been found. And Lieutenant Harry T. Buford rates not one mention in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, although that, in and of itself, disproves nothing of her story. There are tantalizing clues in wartime newspapers that mention someone quite like Velazquez.

That women dressed as soldiers and fought is indisputable. Malinda Blalock served as an infantryman in a North Carolina regiment just to stay near her husband, Keith. It was only after Keith was wounded that Malinda revealed her true gender to their commanding officer. Albert D.J. Cashier served throughout the entire war and later lived in a soldier’s home. By some estimates, 750 women enlisted in the Union army alone.

I’ve dubbed Loreta Velazquez as the “mystery woman” of the battle at Shiloh, but perhaps the true mystery woman first came to light in 1934. A grave was discovered on the edge of the park that year, containing the remains of nine Union soldiers. When the bones were examined forensically, it was revealed that one of the nine was a woman, and from the placement of a musket ball in the grave, it appears that the woman was killed in battle, one of the thousands of casualties at Shiloh.

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 11, 2010 at 8:47 AM and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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