Tuesday, April 10, 2012

These women put their lives on the line

Loreta Janeta Velasquez was a determined woman. Born in Cuba, she enlisted in the Confederate army in 1861 -- without her husband's knowledge.

After being discharged after the Bull Run, Ball's Bluff and Fort Donelson campaigns, she decided to try once again to serve in a male guise. At 20, she was wounded at Shiloh, before being discovered and slipping into the espionage world.

Joyce Henry, an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, portrayed Velazquez, aka "Lt. Henry Buford", at a talk last week at Shiloh National Military Park.

No one knows for sure how many women served in the ranks. Estimates range from about 250 to more than a 1,000, a tiny percentage of the ranks. It was strictly prohibited -- but that didn't stop women from trying.

"They stepped into a realm we cannot even imagine," said Henry (right). "They merit recognition we give to all veterans."

Their motives were similar to the men with whom they served: A paying job, patriotism and adventure.

Some of the more well-known soldiers are Albert Cashier (Jenny Hodgers), Sarah Edmonds (Franklin T. Thompson) and Frances Clayton. They served along young men or boys, whose voices weren't always much deeper. Women who feared being detected sometimes moved to another unit. Some women wore special corsets. Physical exams at enlistment were cursory, at best.

According to Henry, Americans in the mid-19th century assumed only men who wear pants and dress as a soldier.

"The social and cultural stigma about what women could do blinded them to what was in front of them," said Henry.

The discovery of a woman's true gender almost always came after a wound or death.

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