contributed by Shaun Bennett.
While most of the people who work and learn at North Carolina State University are familiar with both the venerable D. H. Hill library and the shiny new Hunt library, there are hidden gems in the library collections which can be found in a slightly less well-known location: Special Collections. At the very end of the East Wing of D. H. Hill is a wood-paneled reading room, overlooked by a green and brown onyx desk. Within the vaults of this area are contained the rarest, oldest, and in many cases most unique pieces of the library collection.
This post focuses on one tome in the collection, the highly unusual and somewhat contentious The Woman in Battle by Loreta Janeta Velazquez. The Woman in Battle is the only account we have of the exploits of Ms. Velazquez, who according to her own writings disguised herself as a Confederate soldier during the Civil War and carried out a series of daring exploits.
Velazquez was born in Cuba, but migrated to the United States before the outbreak of the Civil War, settling with her fiancé in Texas. Velazquez, according to her book, followed her fiancé into the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, signing up as Henry T. Buford, with the self-appointed rank of lieutenant. She recruited over two hundred men and joined her husband in Pensacola, Florida, where her fiancé died shortly thereafter in a training accident.
After her fiancé’s death, she fought in the First Battle of Bull Run, and her book claims that she later acted as a spy for the Confederacy, and supposedly met Abraham Lincoln. She then fought at Shiloh, was wounded and discovered to be a woman, then began spying for the Confederacy again, eventually attempting to start a prison riot of Confederate prisoners of war in Ohio and Indiana.
What makes this book truly intriguing is the air of mystery which surrounds it: this is the only account we have of Velazquez’s adventures, lending a certain degree of suspicion to the narrative. The debate still continues today, but our copy here at NC State has some unique aspects. Within the front cover of the book is pasted a letter, written by Loreta Velazquez herself, to Colonel William L. Rosset of the Confederate Army, along with his reply. The text reads as follows, and is dated January 22nd 1877:
Col. Wm. L. Roset,
How I’d be pleased to see you if convenient upon receipt – of this note – having not had the pleasure of seeing you since 1862 at Richmond. You will be some what surprised.
Madam L. J. Velazquez
The Colonel’s reply:
I must say that I have not the slightest recollection of ever having seen the “Lieutenant” before and it is at least possible, if I had, I would not have forgotten it.
William L. Roset
Does this note help solve the mystery of Ms. Velazquez? Likely not, as it could be seen as evidence for either conclusion: Velazquez’s letter to Rosset could be seen as her seeking proof for what she knows to be true, but Rosset’s denial of her letter is evidence against her narrative.
Students of history, the curious-minded, or anyone interested in navigating the treacherous waters of the unreliable narrator are welcome to come to NC State’s Special Collections to view this book, among many others.