The Civil War is layered with stories, and Loreta Janeta Velazquez figures into a seldom-told one.
Velazquez was one of an estimated 1,000 women who disguised themselves as men and became soldiers in that battle 150 years ago.
“I must learn to act, talk, almost think like a man,” she says through a narrator in the new documentary “Rebel” airing this week on WLPB.
What drove Velazquez to embark on this secret life is a tragedy in itself.
As a young girl, Velazquez’s father, a wealthy Cuban planter, sent her from their native Cuba to live in New Orleans with an aunt and become a refined lady. She married young, against her family’s wishes, to an American soldier only known as William. Living in St. Louis, the couple were raising two daughters, with another baby on the way. That infant died shortly after birth. The two young girls later died of “the fever.” The final blow came when William was killed in an accident. Velazquez was devastated and alone. It was then that she transformed herself into Harry T. Buford and joined the Confederate troops, fighting at the First Bull Run and Shiloh.
“There was horror in battle, but I was bent on showing that I was as good as any other man,” she says in the documentary.
“I think one thing that attracted them to disguise their identity and go to war is they were able to earn money and they didn’t want the choices that were available to them during that period,” “Rebel” director Maria Agul Carter said. “In the case of Loreta, I think she had something of a death wish, and I think she was looking for something to consume her. She decided (she) was going to be part of something bigger than (herself) and go in a completely different direction.”
Technically no longer a wife or a mother, Velazquez was “fighting for her sense of identity,” says one of the several historians interviewed in the documentary.
Along with these interviews, “Rebel” fills in its story with old photographs, maps and newspaper clippings. It also leans heavily on the words of “A Woman in Battle,” the 600-page memoir Velazquez penned in 1875. The book relates how her deception was eventually discovered, and she became a spy for the Confederacy and a double-agent for the Union Army.
Confederate historians claimed the book was a hoax.
“One reason that almost no one has heard this story is it had been actively erased from historical records,” Carter said. “So to me this story of this one Latina soldier of the American Civil War is partly a metaphor about the ways we tell our national stories of American history and the way that certain groups can get marginalized and forgotten in the national narrative.”
Carter discovered Velazquez’s book in the Harvard University Library. She began working seriously on the documentary in 2000 after she discovered newly recovered documents and newspaper articles that established that the story was true with some embellishment. Part of her research was done at Tulane University where she was a visiting scholar, an LPB news release said.
Velazquez is buried in an unknown grave. Her book remains in print.