Part I: "Rebel:" Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Civil War soldier and spy

When filmmaker María Agui Carter first came across the 1876 memoir of a Latina woman who fought in the Civil War, she recognized "a voice that sounded so modern" and was compelled to make a film about this maverick. We asked Agui Carter a few questions about her film and the woman "who made no apologies about breaking every gender, social, and ethnic boundary." See REBEL at the museum on March 28, 2013.

 

Loreta Velazquez' first battle experience was at Bull Run. Photo by Geoffrey Luck.
Loreta Velazquez' first battle experience was at Bull Run. Photo by Geoffrey Luck.

Can you tell us a little bit about Loreta Janeta Velazquez and her story?
When the American Civil War broke out, Velazquez, a Cuban immigrant who grew up in New Orleans, disguised herself as a man to fight as a Confederate soldier, then spied as a double agent for the Union. Contemporary research shows she was one of about a thousand women soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

How did you first find out about Loreta Janeta Velazquez? What drew you to her story and made you think it needed to be shared?

I first came across the story of Loreta Velazquez, in her memoir The Woman in Battle, over a decade ago. She is one of only two Latina authors published in the U.S. in the 19th century. 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. I wanted to know more about this rebel. It was striking to me that this Latina woman was fighting in a war that we think of as about race in terms of Black and White. Where did Latinos fit in all this, and why did she feel the need to hide not only her gender but also her race?

 

The preview for REBEL can also be viewed here

Why did historians think she was a hoax?
Older articles analyzing the book concluded she was likely a hoax, or based on a composite character—it seemed like such an impossible story. Even today, there continues to be a lot of inaccurate or incomplete information about her floating around, especially on the internet, and I’m hoping my film will spark interest in her real story and provoke additional research. An article popularly cited about Velazquez is "Heroine or Hoaxer" written in the 1970s by the excellent scholar Sylvia Hoffert that, based on the information available about Velazquez at the time, assumes her story is probably fictional.

But there has been so much more research on women soldiers of the Civil War since that article was published. When I read the series titled "Women Soldiers of the American Civil War" in Prologue magazine, by a Senior Military Archivist at the National Archives named Deanne Blanton, that included new information about Loreta Velazquez, my interest was again piqued. I visited the archives and Deanne showed me the records about Velazquez and about many other women Civil War soldiers. I wondered why her remarkable story continued to be dismissed. What I found out is what led me to make this film.

Velazquez had not only been forgotten, she had been erased. So REBEL is not only the exploration of the life of one tremendously exciting woman, it is a film about the politics of national memory. In a heterogeneous society with many histories and communities, how do we as a nation choose what to remember? How do we choose what to forget?

 

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.
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.

What do you think motivated Velazquez to adopt an alias and fight in battles? Why would a teenager from New Orleans do such a thing?

On the eve of the American Civil War Velazquez' life had been turned inside out. As a child, she had tomboy fantasies of being a Joan of Arc, but as a teen she had fallen in love and married a soldier, made a home, and had children. She was 18 in 1861, and had just experienced the loss of her entire family—I will let you watch the film to find out what happened.

María Agui Carter is Writer, Director and Producer of REBEL, which runs 75 minutes. Check local PBS listings to watch it on television on May 24. Read Part II of this blog post.

Posted at 7:30 am EDT in Civil War 150,Women's History

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