Television review

Cross-dressing Cuban woman who fought for Confederacy a rebel in more ways than one

She was an enigma wrapped in a riddle surrounded by an iron corset. Loreta Janeta Velazquez fought in the American Civil War as man, spied — perhaps for both sides — as a woman, and was denounced as one of the great literary hoaxers of the 19th century after she wrote a book about it. And a century after being erased from U.S. history, she’s back in a PBS documentary.

Rebel, airing Friday as an episode of the Latin history and culture series Voces, is the second television documentary in recent years involving the elusive Velazquez. She was one of several women who fought in the Civil War featured in the History Channel’s 2007 Full Metal Corset.

Rebel brings her into sharper focus, which paradoxically shows how little we really know about her. Born in Cuba, dispatched to New Orleans to learn to be a lady by a father determined to rub out her tomboy streak, Velazquez infuriated her relatives by marrying an American soldier rather than the Cuban aristocrat favored by her father.

For a time, she played the conventional roles of wife and mother. But in 1861, when she was just 20, outbreak of fever killed her three children and her husband, a Texan who had joined the Southern rebels when the Civil War broke out. And the now rootless Velazquez returned her tomboy ways and then some.

She strapped down her figure with a metal corset, donned a uniform and enlisted in the Confederate army. Two years later, when her ruse was discovered, the Confederates made her a spy. She eventually turned up in Baltimore, working for the Union’s intelligence forces. To which government she was really loyal is abundantly unclear.

In 1876, more than a decade after the war’s end, Velazquez published a 600-page account of her war exploits. It caused a sensation, not only for its scandalous gender-bending but its disputation of the Civil War as a heroic experience.

The Southern troops alongside whom she fought were not chivalrous but seedy, Velazquez wrote: “Self-seeking is more common than patriotism. And in camp, a spirit of petty jealousy is even more common than it is at a girls boarding school.”

And the leadership of both sides was dominated by war profiteers. “War corrupts, and few are innocent,” she declared. “May my words convey what war really is, such that good people will hesitate to solve anything with war again.”

Her revisionist view triggered furious denunciations by the Confederate veterans who might otherwise have verified Velazquez’s account. Her book was denounced as a hoax and largely forgotten — as was Velazquez, despite some minor notoriety years later as a firebrand advocate of Cuban independence from Spain. The date and manner of her death are lost to history, and we don’t even know where she was buried.

The earlier documentary Full Metal Corset focused on the practical measures Velazquez took to conceal her gender while serving in the army. Rebel spends some time on that. (Including one historian’s description of the “medical exam” administered to new recruits: “You had two feet, you could walk.”) But its title is clearly intended to describe more than Velazquez’s military affiliation: Ecuadorean-American writer-director Maria Agui Carter regards her as a feminist pioneer who disregarded conventional gender roles.

While that’s doubtless accurate in many respects, Carter’s admiration for her subject sometimes clouds her vision. Rebel argues, correctly, that modern researchers have found documents and contemporary newspaper accounts that prove Velazquez’s book was not a hoax, at least in its broad outline. But it fails to mention some of the book’s more fanciful tales (secret meetings between Velazquez and Abraham Lincoln, for instance) that fuel skepticism about it.

Carter does confront the most serious barrier to the elevation of Velazquez as a champion of personal freedom: the fact that she was fighting for the cause of slavery. She even brought a personal slave named Bob with her into battle, where he helped keep the secret of her gender. As one of the historians interviewed for Rebel puts it, both pointedly and poignantly: “She is trying to expand her own boundaries of the possible, while enslaving another human being.”

Read more Glenn Garvin: On TV stories from the Miami Herald

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