If even half of her controversial autobiography is true, then Loreta Janeta Velázquez led one of the most fascinating lives of the nineteenth century. She’s the subject of Rebel, a new documentary airing Friday, May 24 to open this season of Voces on PBS.
According to her 1876 book The Woman in Battle, Loreta was born in Cuba in 1842 to a prominent Spanish official. Sent to New Orleans as a young girl, she displayed a rebellious personality from a young age, dressing in boys’ clothes and eloping with an army officer at the age of fourteen. Deciding to see something of combat, she was one of hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War. Calling herself Harry T. Buford, she experienced some of the war’s most famous battles, including 1st Bull Run, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh. After her exploits as a soldier, she took up spying, enjoying a remarkable career as a double agent.
That, at least, is the story she told in her memoir. How much of it is true has been a subject of debate ever since its publication. Jubal Early, who met her in Virginia after the book’s publication, denounced her as a fraud. Some historians have likewise found her claims hard to swallow, although researchers have found enough documentation to verify a few parts of her story.
Rebel doesn’t spend much time separating fact from fiction. Instead, it focuses on the outline of her story as she told it herself, using it to examine the role of Hispanics in Civil War America, gender in the nineteenth century, and contested historical memories. The concern here isn’t really whether her account is true, but why its accuracy was a matter of such concern to her contemporaries. The program suggests that her autobiography offered a challenge to the society in which she lived, not only because she stretched the truth but also because of who she was—a Hispanic woman involved in the business of war and espionage who was determined to go public with her exploits. It’s a fascinating story, and I enjoyed watching it.