“Rebel”… the story of Loreta Valasquez comes to PBS

Posted on May 23, 2013 by

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Click the image above for a preview of "Rebel"

Click the image above for a preview of “Rebel”

The measure of a good historical video production is found in key features. In my opinion, two of the most important are effective storytelling and accurate (at least better than that which we sometimes find in historic-based movies) history. As part of the PBS Voices series, Rebel… the tale of Loreta Velazquez, who authored (?) The Woman in Battle… provides a little of both.

As a form of entertainment, I enjoyed the program. It offers a good blending of visuals (stills and portrayals) and music… and, as the story of a woman who donned the uniform of a Confederate soldiers… no, better yet, the story of a Cuban-born woman who did this… the program is quite unique. It moves the watcher away from the basic, standard-issue story of the American Civil War.

As a piece based on history, I found myself comparing the story in the program to the actual story as told by Velazquez. Perhaps that’s just me. I simply couldn’t watch it sitting still. The storytelling kept my attention, but the history… or perhaps the “doubting Thomas” in me, regarding the history… served as a distraction. But, before I get ahead of myself, a few of the particulars…

Don’t sit down to watch this thinking that it’s just the story of a woman who opts to wear a uniform and fight in the Civil War as a man. It’s more than that. The story begins with Velazquez’s youth… from her birth to a well-off family in Cuba, to her being sent, in 1849, to New Orleans for “refinement”. The story even tackles, to some degree, the story of the struggles of Hispanics in New Orleans society. In the wake of the Mexican War, the time proved challenging for Hispanics, even in a diverse New Orleans. As the program points out, many Hispanics would “empty purses” in order to prove some measure of connection to nobility, and therefore improved their status from Hispanic to Espanol.

Velazquez doesn’t stay the course on which her parents had hoped, however. Meeting a white Texan, she falls in love, and marries in 1857 (very much against her father’s wishes, he having hoped that she would marry a culturally-equal Cuban). Still, what appears to have been a relatively happy life, in the first few years of marriage, turned more painful… first with the death of children, and then, after the war opened, the death of her husband (then, a Confederate officer) in an accident. Without revealing too much of the story… all of this eventually leads Valasquez cutting her hair, donning a gray uniform, and beginning her service for the Confederacy.

After many adventures (that, much to my surprise, were left out of the program), Valasquez ends-up as a “turn-coat”, serving as a double-agent… apparently attributable to her disillusionment with the Confederacy―profiteering and lack of “purity of cause” seem to stand out the most.

Valasquez, it is said in the program, spent years reinventing herself, yet, not until 1875 did her book hit the market… a book not necessarily well-received by Southerners. As one of her greatest critics, Jubal Early was convinced that such a story was of one who “never had the adventures therein narrated”.

I understand why she immediately becomes a target for those who voraciously defended the Lost Cause narrative, yet, I also feel her story is questioned, even in this program. Why, for example, were particular details left out? There is no mention, for example, of her experiences immediately after her first fight at First Manassas (the name she used, and the unit in which we served remains unknown… by the way), when she left the battlefield for a while, and weaved her way into Washington, D.C., where she spied for the Confederacy, and even claimed to have met President Lincoln and Simon Cameron. There is also no mention of her assignment to the “detective corps” and involvement with Fort Donelson until the surrender. No mention of her service at Shiloh. No mention… of quite a lot that appeared in her book.

While it might be argued that every detail was not necessary for the program, why were elements of her first-person narrative neglected? Is it merely a matter of producers only including that which could be corroborated? Did I mention, there is no record of a Harry T. Buford (one of Valasquez’s aliases while in gray) in any unit in the Confederate army? Yes, I attempted to find her in the rosters.

Ultimately, the closing of the program suggests that all of the historical points, true or not, are not the most important aspect of Valasquez’s story. Rather, it is that the mere presence of the book that is most important.

I encourage those who are intrigued by the mystique of Valasquez’s story to watch and judge for themselves.

Rebel premiers on PBS, on Friday, May 24, at 10 p.m.

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