Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Movie Night - REBEL: Loreta Velazquez, Secret Soldier of the American Civil War

I came across REBEL: Loreta Velazquez, Secret Soldier of the American Civil War while perusing the DVD shelves at my local library a couple of weeks ago. Having just finished watching Mercy Street, I was looking for other shows or books about the many different roles women played during the Civil War. The blurb from the back of the case certainly piqued my interest:
In 1861, at the outbreak of the American Civil War, a teenager from New Orleans headed to the front lines. Under the alias Harry T. Buford, he fought at First Bull Run, was wounded at Shiloh, and served as a Confederate spy. But Buford harbored a secret -- he was really Loreta Velazquez, a Cuban immigrant from New Orleans. By 1863, Velazquez was spying for the Union. She scandalized American when she revealed her story in her 1876 memoir, The Woman in Battle. Attacked not only for her criticism of war, but her sexuality and social rule-breaking, Velazquez was dismissed as a hoax for 150 years. But evidence confirms she existed, one of over 1,000 women soldiers who served in the Civil War.
As did this quote from the documentary's website:
With the triple digit explosion of Latino immigrants throughout the South, along with a dizzying increase in hate crimes against Latinos, and the increase in numbers of Latino and women service personnel in the nation’s military, I believe this story about a southern woman Civil War soldier who struggled with difficult decisions about nationhood and patriotism in a country racked with the scourge and legacy of slavery will resonate with contemporary audiences. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War in the 21st century, it behooves us to broaden our understandings of the meaning of this pivotal struggle forged in blood, that sought to establish citizenship for all Americans.
So, yeah. A woman passing as a man so she could fight in the war? A discussion about Cubans living in New Orleans in the 19th century? Scandal, sex, and social impropriety? Yes, please! Sounds like my kind of story.

I have watched the documentary and the "Behind the Scenes" clip (the documentary about the documentary?) a couple of times since bringing it home, and I find that it is so chock full of information that I truly needed to watch it several times to really get a handle on her story.

Filmmaker María Agui Carter does an excellent job addressing the ways race, gender, and ethnicity influenced Loreta's life, and the how she clearly went out of her way to defy many of the social expectations related to these same concepts.

The documentary takes as its foundation Loreta's Velazquez' memoir The Woman in Battle, written several years after the war, and which had all been forgotten, if not outright ignored, by historians. Carter carefully examines the details described in the book and collaborates with historians around the country, painting a picture of a bold and adventurous woman who routinely shirked social norms. As one historian comments, "Her willingness to live life on her own terms, and completely on her own terms, is something that is exceptional for any woman during this period."

As a blogger and amateur historian, I have often wrestled with how to present the stories of women who accomplished remarkable feats while honestly addressing the troublesome aspects around their motivation. In an recent post about Ettie Rout, this conundrum was dubbed the "Margaret Sanger Problem." In the case of Loreta Velazquez, how does one tell about the amazing actions of someone whose motivations were, even it only initially, to protect the abhorrent institution of slavery? Carter's approach has offered me a valuable example. She does not gloss over the contradictions in Loreta's actions. Instead, she points them out and asks important questions around them, with the goal of forcing the viewer to confront the truth of a complex woman.

While doing so, she also explores the responses to Loreta's story throughout the years, and what that can tell us about the changing views about the Civil War, the evolving attitudes toward women, and the hidden legacy of Latinos in the American South. "My film is a detective story trying to understand the woman, the myth and the politics of how we understand our own past."

REBEL is not an in-depth discussion about the facts of Loreta's life. While it answered many of my initial questions, it sparked a curiosity to learn more about her experiences, as well as a desire to better understand the era in which she lived and how she operated in response to it. To be honest, I'm not sure if one of the reasons why I want to know more about her story isn't just to find out that she had been affected by what she saw in the war and her dealings with her slave assistant and this turned her from supporting the Confederacy to working against it. Why did she go to war in the first place, and what effect did that have on her? Was she truly a naive young woman longing for excitement who experienced the horrors of war first hand, as Carter makes her seem? "To be a second Joan of Arc is a girlish fancy, which my experiences as a soldier dissipated forever."

Instead, it is the opening of a wider discussion about her story in particular, as well as the stories of other women living in the American South during the Civil War, and how we have chosen to tell them. As one historian in the documentary says about Loreta's memoir, "The absolute truth of one thing or another in the book is not the most important contribution that the book makes. It's the presence of the book, the fury that it provoked, the claims that it makes, the reality that it tries to portray."

REBEL is an excellent documentary and well worth watching if you are at all interested in learning more about women during the Civil War. María Agui Carter has been screening it around the country for a couple of years now, so if you can go see it in person with her to answer questions, I would highly recommend it. Otherwise, you purchase it from the website, rent or buy it via Amazon, or find it through your local library.

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