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Loreta’s Civil War: Concealing my true form

May 31, 2016

KS14

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart will share edited excerpts from the extraordinary memoir of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who chronicled her adventures throughout the Civil War — either as herself, as a Confederate spy, or in disguise as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. She fought and led men in terrible battles, fell in love, bore and lost children, and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, ultimately fulfilling her childhood dream of a rich and adventurous life.

You can read the entire 1876 memoir online here. Learn more about Velazquez (and the incredible documentary film Maria Agui Carter made about her) here.

Part 6: Velazquez offers a detailed explanation of how she transformed her appearance from a Southern lady into a Confederate officer.

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On the 8th of April my husband started for Richmond, apparently under the impression that, as I had said nothing for several days about accompanying him, I had abandoned all notion of doing so. He ought to have known me better, and to have been assured that a woman of my obstinate temper was not to be prevented by mere argument from carrying out a pet scheme which promised such glorious results as the one we had been discussing.

My husband’s farewell kisses were scarcely dry upon my lips, when I made haste to attire myself in one of his suits, and to otherwise disguise myself as a man. … The first thing to be done before I made any attempt to play a masculine role at all prominently in public was, of course, to get some properly fitting clothing. … I had, however, some time before taken notice of a small tailor’s shop on a retired street not very far from the hotel, the presiding genius of which was a not very brilliant-looking German, and I thought perhaps I might run the gantlet of his scrutiny without much fear of detection. … I accordingly went to this German tailor, and ordered two uniform suits, for which I agreed to pay him eighty-five dollars each. As he took my measure he eyed me pretty close, and seemed to imagine that something was not quite right. I was dreadfully afraid he would discover me to be a woman, but resolved, if he did, that I would endeavor to silence him with a handsome bribe for a few days, until he got my suits done and I could leave the city. …

“Ah,” said the tailor, looking at me rather sharply, “what you want to go to war for? You is too young for the fightin,’ isn’t you? What your mammy say to that, eh?”

I replied, with as careless an air as I could possibly assume, that I was twenty-two years of age, and was a graduate of West Point, following up this information with other fictitious statements which it somewhat staggered me to utter, and which, if he had been a trifle sharper, he would have had some difficulty in crediting. …

My coats were heavily padded in the back and under the arms to the hips, until I reached New Orleans. This served to disguise my shape; but the padding was very uncomfortable, and I soon made up my mind that it would never do for a permanent arrangement. So soon as I got to New Orleans, I went to an old French army tailor in Barrack Street, who I knew was very skillful, and who understood how to mind his own business by not bothering himself too much about other people’s affairs, and had him make for me half a dozen fine wire net shields. These I wore next to my skin, and they proved very satisfactory in concealing my true form, and in giving me something of the shape of a man, while they were by no means uncomfortable. Over the shields I wore an undershirt of silk or lisle thread, which fitted close, and which was held in place by straps across the chest and shoulders, similar to the shoulder-braces sometimes worn by men. A great many officers in the Confederate army have seen the impressions of these straps through my shirt when I have had my coat off, and have supposed them to be shoulder-braces. These undershirts could be rolled up into the small compass of a collar-box.

Around the waist of each of the undershirts was a band, with eyelet-holes arranged for the purpose of making the waistbands of my pantaloons stand out to the proper number of inches. A woman’s waist, as a general thing, is tapering, and her hips very large in comparison with those of a man, so that if I had undertaken to wear pantaloons without some such contrivance, they would have drawn in at the waist and revealed my true form. With such underwear as I used, any woman who can disguise her features can readily pass for a man and deceive the closest observers. So many men have weak and feminine voices that, provided the clothing is properly constructed and put on right, and the disguise in other respects is well arranged, a woman with even a very high-pitched voice need have very little to fear on that score. …

There were several points about my disguise which were strictly my own invention, and which, for certain good and sufficient reasons, I do not care to give to the public. These added greatly to its efficiency. Indeed, after I had once become accustomed to male attire, and to appearing before anybody and everybody in it, I lost all fear of being found out, and learned to act, talk, and almost to think as a man. Many a time, when in camp, I have gone to sleep when from fifty to sixty officers have been lying close together, wrapped in their blankets, and have had no more fear of detection than I had of drinking a glass of water.

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