The signature image for "REBEL" is a composite of two portraits of
Loreta Velazquez passing as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, soldier and spy
of the American Civil War, played by actress Romi Dias.
Photo by Gerard Gaskin, graphic work by Hayley Parker.
I’ll be tuning in Friday night for the airing of an intriguing PBS documentary, Rebel, about the life of Loreta Velazquez. A Cuban immigrant who came to New Orleans as a young girl, Velazquez reputedly disguised herself as a man, took the name Harry T. Buford, and saw action as a Confederate soldier in a number of campaigns. If her published reminisces are to be believed, she was also wounded on multiple occasions – once at Shiloh -- and served as a double-agent for both the Union and the Confederacy.
Her story – relayed in her 1876 memoir, The Woman in Battle, The Civil War Narrative of Loreta Velazquez, Cuban Woman and Confederate Soldier – is so incredible, historians for the most part have dismissed it as fictionalized, or exaggerated. More recent scholarship on the participation of women in the Civil War, however, has corroborated parts of Velazquez’s account, and makes revisiting her narrative especially tantalizing. The book is partially previewed on Google books, and the University of Wisconsin Press released a paperback in 2003 that is still in print.
Most interesting to me are the other ways in which Velazquez was a “rebel” – her book was scandalous for the time, denounced by Jubal Early as pure fabrication. Her version of events failed to adhere to the “Moonlight and Magnolias” construction of Lost Cause apologists, who sought to disassociate slavery from secession and war. Worse, she called into question the gentility of Southern women and the heroism of the Southern soldier. The fact that Jubal Early later engaged in a letter writing campaign to discredit Velazquez’s account suggests to me that she was cutting close to the bone in a way that Reconstruction-era former Confederates could not tolerate.
Even if some of her story is made up, or cannot be confirmed, it’s a story worth telling. According to the filmmaker, Maria Agui Carter, Velazquez was one of only two Latina authors published in the United States in the 19th century. Said Carter in a blogged interview, “Her voice sounded so modern—here was a Victorian-era woman who made no apologies about breaking every gender, social, and ethnic boundary. There was something about her maverick nature and her constant reinvention that seemed quintessentially American to me."
Suffice it to say, if this program were airing on the History Channel, it would probably not bear watching. The dramatization alone would make it painful to behold. But PBS typically does a top notch job, and for this work Carter enlisted a host of venerable historians to weigh in -- people like Gary Gallagher at the University of Virginia, and DeAnne Blanton, the senior military archivist at the National Archives, as well numerous authorities on Latino Studies, Chicano Literature, and women in the war.