“O Say Can You See?” is a blog produced by the National Museum of American History (NMAH). The blog takes readers behind the scenes at the museum, sharing insights and information about our exhibitions, events, collections, research projects, and more. Readers are encouraged to use the comment area to dialogue with us about the work of the museum. Originally published as three blogs in May 2013 at:
Can you tell us a little bit about 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 of the American 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 US 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?
Why did historians think she was a hoax?
Older articles analyzing the book concluded 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 peaked. 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 heterogenous society with many histories and communities, how do we as a nation choose what to remember? How do we choose what to forget?
Why was Loreta Velazquez considered dangerous?
Velazquez did not write a self-effacing novel in the language women were expected to speak at the time. She wrote about her personal aspiration to make a difference in the public world, as opposed to the private world of the home where women were supposed to remain. She wrote of her sexuality at a time when even walking in the street unchaperoned made a woman “suspect.” So she did not conform to the social codes of the time and her book encouraged other women to imagine transgressing also, at a time postwar when returning male veterans wanted women to go back to the home and hearth.
But Loreta Velazquez committed a much greater sin than that. Her book was published in 1876, during Reconstruction – a period during which the South was still reeling from wartime losses and trying to create a myth of the “Lost Cause” to justify the Confederacy and help romanticize them as heroes. The Woman In Battle was ostensibly a Confederate’s memoir but it did not conform to the Lost Cause interpretation of the Confederate cause.
In 1878, Confederate General Jubal A. Early, who would become a leading force in creating that Lost Cause myth, came across her book, two years after its publication, and was outraged by it. He had been one of Lee’s inner circle as a Confederate General in the battlefield. Post-war Early used his pen to fight a new battle over the interpretation of the Southern role in the Civil War. Early came from one of the great slaveholding families of the South although he did not own slaves personally. In his Civil War memoir Early contends that the Civil War was not about slavery but state’s rights. He had a paternalistic view of slavery, and felt blacks had been better off as slaves. “The condition of domestic slavery as it existed in the south, had not only resulted in the great improvement of the physical condition of the negro race, but had furnished a class of labourers as happy and contented as any in the world, perhaps even more so,” he wrote.
The same year Velazquez’ book came out, 1876, Early took control of the Southern Historical Society, or SHS, but did not set his sights against her yet. The Southern Historical Society’s own magazine reviewed her memoir shortly after it was published, and the writer for the Historical Society actually went so far as to check up on some of the Velazquez supporters who vouched for her. He concluded she had been a soldier although she had exaggerated her adventures. Early did not really turn his attention to her memoir until 1878.
Velazquez’ book painted the dark side of the Confederacy, portraying loose Southern ladies, petty, braggart unheroic soldiers, and the corruption of wartime society. This was not the kind of veteran’s story Early wanted out there. More seriously, he correctly pointed out many errors in her dates and her descriptions. Clearly she had fabricated and mixed up some of her story, written ten years after the war. After speaking with her and noting she did not have an accent as he expected, he declared she could not be a “Spanish lady.” Of course, having grown up in the US since 7, she would not have had a Spanish accent at all. Early began a letter writing campaign against Velazquez.
Early would become one of the main arbitrers of how the war would be remembered. He was so powerful that he easily discredited her publicly. His attacks have often colored subsequent interpretations of her work.
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.
Do you think her contributions made a difference? What role did she play? How did she change history?
Velazquez did not change the course of history the way a General might have done. But that does not mean her experience was any less meaningful then or today. More important than her soldiering or spying during the war, is the book she wrote about her experience. Her story voices the disquiet women of the time felt being restricted to the home and barred from public life. The moment she published her memoir that voice moved into the public sphere.
Velazquez’ book is about reinvention, about choosing your own path regardless of what society expects you to do. It is a book that argues that our lives are not pre-determined by our race or our gender– that those are cultural constructs that do not define us.
Are there other key things you hope people take away from this film?
My film uses Velazquez’ book to introduce audiences to the Latin history of New Orleans and the South, and reminds us that there has been a historical and cultural exchange between Cuba, Mexico, and New Orleans that goes back for centuries. Cuba was deeply aligned with the South pre-Civil War through cultural and trade connections. That is particularly interesting today, post –Katrina as thousands of Latinos have poured in and settled in the city to do the challenging work of rebuilding it. Throughout the South, there has been triple digit growth in the Latino populations, and a huge corresponding increase in hate crimes against them. They are seen as outsiders and interlopers, and we know little of the history of Latinos in the South. This film begins to convey some of that history. There is much more to tell.
What was challenging about making this documentary? Are there many things we still don’t know about Velazquez?
Tracing women’s lives, and Latina women’s lives, can be a challenge in this period. These are groups that have not always been deemed worthy of documenting or archiving. Women would take on their husband’s name and disappear into his story, and Velazquez married multiple times. She was also hiding her identity as a soldier and later as a spy. So she was deliberately covering her tracks. We have not located an obituary for her. We don’t know where she was buried. We don’t know who her descendants are, although recently I was contacted by Andrene Messer, a descendant of William Beard’s, Velazquez’ last husband. They shared newspaper articles about a son she had named Valdemar Beard and I am hoping that once I share this story, and put some of the documents I have gathered about her up on my website (rebeldocumentary.com will be up by May 2013) others will be inspired to look for her traces in the public record, perhaps even discover a living descendant.
Why did you feel you were the right person to tell this story?
There have not been enough histories told about the role of Latinos in American history. Because of this each new film made about Latinos in American history is expected to take on a greater burden to represent our entire past. But one film cannot do that. In addition, because so many of the contemporary stories about Latinos are negative, there is additional pressure to tell positive historical stories about unblemished heroes. But I am interested in telling the complicated, nuanced stories that more closely describe our human condition. If we only tell stories of plaster saints we have a pantheon of unattainable heroes, of inhuman mythological characters that we can never hope to really emulate. So the story of this flawed woman whose consciousness grows over time was really appealing to me. I have spent a lifetime telling stories about race, politics and class and this story called me. It was also a wonderful opportunity for me to collaborate with a long-time producing partner, Calvin Lindsay, Jr., co-producer of this film, with whom I had done another story for PBS years ago – Devil’s Music. That was a film about the fear of blackness and sexuality implicit in censorship of black music and jazz. And those kinds of fears were again operative in the way Velazquez was being attacked, so this was an opportunity for Calvin and myself to continue a political and artistic dialog we had been exploring in other works.
Can you tell us about your research process? How did you go about getting the costumes, settings, language, and other details right?
First I relied on the work of many illustrious scholars in literary criticism, in history, in women’s studies. I not only read widely, but I had conversations about this story and the history and context surrounding it for years with my advisors and the experts in my film. I was fortunate to receive fellowships from Harvard and then from Tulane to do primary research, to explore in the archives, and to write the script. To convey the material world, I often used real historical settings – such as museum houses that were already furnished and historically appropriate. I brought in additional period-specific props that my actors could handle without moving rare one-of-a-kind museum pieces. I also used a lot of historical consultants who specialized in the hairstyles of the day, the clothing of the day, but I was less interested in material history perfection than in conveying the spirit of the times for laypeople.
The film is mostly carried in voice over so language was very important. For Velazquez’ 19th Century Cuban/New Orleans accent I sought out a dialect coach named Richard Dalgren and read what I could find about the sound of New Orleans’ speech patterns according to 19th century class, language use, etc. New Orleans accents don’t sound like the rest of the South, and the 19th Century New Orleans accent is even harder to pin down. Working class New Orleans accents apparently resembled Brooklyn accents, but Velazquez was not working class. People sometimes ask me why she doesn’t have a Cuban or Latino accent, but having grown up in the US as a child, she would have picked up the dominant language quickly and flawlessly, as it was spoken in her area. Being educated in New Orleans, she would probably have learned French as well as English, so she would have been trilingual. Finally, in terms of word use, my script uses her direct words when possible, but whether modern or historical, spoken language is very different from written language and that necessitated my having to rewrite her words and create a full script. Nineteenth century written memoirs were pretty florid and wordy. When writing voice over and narration, word choice becomes simpler, more vernacular. I was also trying to maintain the drama of her story, so I did not represent every single moment of her life from her memoirs, and I collapsed some of the episodes of her life in the film. While I did not change the history, REBEL is really my interpretation of her story, informed by the work of scholars, by the documentation available, and by her own words.
How have audiences been receiving the documentary so far? What types of reactions have you been seeing?
I am just starting to roll out this film and have done a few test screenings of the work in progress. I have been so gratified by the fierce responses I get, especially from young women. After a number of these screenings I have had a young woman come up to me, tears in her eyes, tell me how important it is for her to have seen REBEL and urge me to share it widely. Women and minorities are seldom the subjects of major historical films and it is deeply empowering to hear these perspectives alongside the predominant narratives to help us understand a fuller picture of our American past.
REBEL is a film about our identity as Americans. This is a country of possibility and reinvention – one’s race, gender, station in life need not define us or dictate who we are or what we can be. REBEL is also a film about the growth of consciousness. Velazquez starts out looking to hide from her reality, is willing to deny who she is and even to participate in the enslavement of other people. She is driven by a need for recognition when she writes her memoir and reveals she was a Latina woman soldier. It is then she is attacked – for who she is. Velazquez would go to her grave having experienced ridicule and derision for her participation in one of the pivotal moments of American history. We don’t know where she is buried. But we know, from newspaper articles and public documents about her post-war that she would not retreat. She would remain in the public sphere and embrace other causes.
In the NY Public Library sits an 1878 speech, discovered by Scholar Jesse Aleman, called An Address to the American Congress on Cuba, by Madame L.J. Velasquez. It is basically an argument for Cuban independence delivered by Velazquez to Congress around 1878 urging that the US intervene against Spain which at the time is allowing an illicit slave trade to continue. She opposes slavery in this address, where she says that “ The slave trade should be declared piracy; second, that the purchasers of negroes or Africans should be considered accomplices in that piracy, and that the anti-slavery party/should receive the approbation of the government.”
Scholars have found documentation about her spying for the Union late in the war. This speech written by her after the war also indicates she turned against slavery- even though she was from a Cuban plantation family, and even though she had begun as a Confederate soldier. That growth of consciousness, to me, is also quintessentially American – it is a journey from the Civil War to Civil Rights. And I am so pleased to be invited to screen REBEL at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and to begin to share this story of an American woman who should be part of that history. Velazquez’ story has been waiting to be discovered by new generations. As noted Civil War Scholar Catherine Clinton, said in an interview for REBEL, “History is a human construction and interpretation. We’re very lucky that we can, today, still recover lost artifacts, still find pieces that don’t fit, still find a memoir that’s been discredited, find a matching newspaper account that tells about a Lieutenant Buford so that we can put the pieces together. Loreta is someone who still speaks to us, and will speak to a younger generation, not just about the Civil War, not just about women’s experience, but about this question of how individuals can dream, can project, can live out their worlds. Her example compels each of us to try and fulfill our own destinies.”