In 1876 Loreta Janeta Velazquez penned a 600-page memoir, The Woman In Battle, about serving as a Confederate soldier during the Civil War. Documentary filmmaker María Agui Carter became so intrigued with the historical evidence surrounding Velazquez’s account that she spent 10 years researching Velazquez’s story. The result is a dramatic one-hour film, Rebel, that narrates Velazquez’s amazing life, from her childhood in Cuba to her marriage to an American soldier to her service as a soldier and double agent during the war. To learn more about screenings of the film or to purchase a DVD, go to rebeldocumentary.com.
How did you come to know of Loreta Velazquez?
I had come across her in articles and on the Internet, but she was mostly viewed as a hoax or a fictional character. Then I came across a set of articles on women soldiers by DeAnne Blanton, a senior military archivist at the National Archives. She wrote about Loreta as a real person, and Loreta was particularly fascinating to me because she had written a memoir. We could hear about her experience in her own words, and because she was a Cuban woman, an immigrant fighting in the Civil War.
How did you blend her history with narrative filmmaking?
Originally I thought I would make an archival-based film. I found tons of material about the communities of the time, the Cuban community in New Orleans, but not a lot of photographs. So my first quandary was I was deeply, deeply interested in the story, but how to make a film when there was only one purported photo of her? By then I was so fascinated that I decided to jump right in and create dramatic scenes based on her memoir. As an artist I was interpreting this memoir of her as closely as I could, according to all of the readings and advice from historians of material culture. I used people who could tell me about accuracy of the times, and what the expectation of women would have been, even how photographs were composed, what the conventions were for those Civil War photographs. I also created my own Civil War family photos, like an album. You see that throughout the film, images of her and her family; those are imagined. Women and minorities were not always deemed worthy of archiving. We’re not fully documented in the archival record, so does that mean we should not tell those stories in film, which is the most powerful medium we have for telling stories?
Have people challenged the film’s accuracy?
The point of the film is to make people think critically about historical storytelling and to say historical storytelling is interpretation, and you need to understand who is telling that story and what their interpretation is. The film says history is complex and some things are unknowable, and here’s what we know about this woman. Here’s what we found out, and what we think about why she’s been erased. And see what conclusions you draw from that.
Has Velazquez’s combat experience been verified?
She talks about Fort Donelson, about being wounded at Shiloh, about being in the First Battle of Bull Run, and about Ball’s Bluff. But you won’t find her in regimental histories, and you won’t find any of the other thousand women who have gone to war as soldiers. You do find them another way. When doctors discover the dead bodies in the battleground. You find them in letters by soldiers written to others. You find them in newspapers, you find them because they were discovered and arrested. I can’t verify Loreta’s service from regimental histories, but I can verify from arrest reports that she’s wandering around in uniform and injured.
Talk about Jubal Early’s attack on her memoir.
I was so fascinated because she’s a tiny figure to Jubal Early. He destroyed much larger reputations than hers. Think of General [James] Longstreet. He was a hero after the Civil War, but by the time Jubal Early was done with him, he was a pariah throughout the South. Early was a powerful figure in terms of the creation of the memory of Southern history: He was the head of the Southern Historical Association. For her to dare to say anything that didn’t conform to what was considered acceptable history, which she was writing during the period of Reconstruction, that’s pretty bold for her to be talking about the corruption of wartime society, for her to be talking about Confederate soldiers as not as being perfect and honorable gentlemen. She’s kind of airing dirty laundry, talking about the corruption of wartime society. That’s anathema if you’re Jubal Early.
After the war Early became the spokesman for the Louisiana lottery, which never paid out. He and one other person were paid huge sums of money every year to be the spokesmen, and to say the Louisiana lottery was on the up and up. He had a yearly stipend and the rest of the year to do whatever he wanted. And what he wanted to do was craft the history of the South, post–Civil War. He had the leisure to do that. He had a very old-fashioned view.
Were you surprised to learn Velazquez owned a slave during the war?
What’s fascinating to me is that people generally don’t portray the Confederate armies as they were, and of course they used a huge amount of slave labor. The laundresses, the ditch-diggers, or the burial crews, or the highest number of nurses taking care of people were black. We don’t see this portrayed in film very often. Officers did often bring slaves. For Loreta that was a very useful thing. She comes from a plantation family in Cuba, so that would have been a natural thing for her. The interesting thing to me is that her thinking about slavery changes over time, and she doesn’t explain why she deliberately doesn’t chase after her slave after he crosses to the wrong side. It’s written kind of tongue in cheek, and she doesn’t talk about slavery in her book.
I think that over time her thinking evolved. That’s what is fascinating. She enters the war, but she doesn’t end in the same place. She’s very disappointed in the corruption, that war wreaks havoc on people, the injustice of war, her own spying activities. By the end, her character has grown.
What influenced her to choose this path?
She was familiar with Joan of Arc and other women heroines. She talks about all these women, including Catalina de Erauso, a Spanish nun who ended up being a Spanish conquistador. Throughout history there have been these amazing women, but they have been erased.
What do you want viewers to take away from this film?
I hope a new generation of women feels empowered by watching a film like this and seeing that here’s this woman born 150 years ago who refused to sit in the little boxes created for her gender and her ethnicity. She said I want to reinvent myself; I won’t necessarily color within the lines. Because being a woman or Hispanic does not limit me in any way. One of the things that is most moving to me when I’ve shown this as a work in progress at colleges is almost every time some young woman waits until everybody is gone and says, with tears in her eyes, why didn’t I know about this woman growing up? That’s who I made this film for.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.