Female Civil War Re-enactors Fight for their Chance to Pretend to Fight

Then, again.
April 27 2014 11:48 PM

“I Would Have Followed Them Into Battle”

Female Civil War re-enactors march proudly onto the battlefields where their forerunners disguised themselves to fight.

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“Peddler’s Village, sorry. And J.R. was paid the highest compliment a female re-enactor passing as a male re-enactor can get. She’s in the women’s room, washing up, and this lady comes out of the stall, takes one look at her, and freaks out. She didn’t know if she was in the wrong stall or if J.R. was in the wrong bathroom.”

This story brought to mind a more famous case of restroom gender-bending. In 1989, a woman named Lauren Cook Burgess was “caught” coming out of the ladies’ room dressed as a field musician during a re-enactment at Antietam National Battlefield Park. The National Park Service, citing “authenticity,” banned her from the re-enactment, and Burgess went on to successfully sue the NPS for sex discrimination. After the suit, she faced a great deal of backlash from the re-enacting community, including hate mail, and hostility from male re-enactors.

“I'll never forget being on a ten-mile preservation march in the Shenandoah Valley,” she told me over email. “Several young men made disparaging remarks to me (they did not recognize I was a woman; someone pointed me out to them as the woman who had sued the Park Service), and they were cat calling and making rude remarks when I marched by with my unit. Later on in the march I saw these same boys laid out on the side of the road with heat exhaustion, while I continued on with the march, right past them, carrying a full kit and rifle, and fifing with my fife and drum corps. Do you know how much air it takes to play fife?”

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J.R. credits Burgess with paving the way for women who want to re-enact in pants. “She won a lawsuit for gender discrimination and I think because of that, at these big national events, I don’t think they can say anything one way or the other. But if you look in the rules and regulations of a lot of re-enacting events, there’s many times a specific section about women re-enactors.”

Item five of the “impression standards” list on the official Gettysburg Anniversary Committee website reads:

Women portraying soldiers in the ranks should make every reasonable effort to hide their gender. Hundreds, if not thousands, of women passed themselves off as men in order to serve as soldiers during the war—on both sides, and we will never know exactly how many did so because their disguises were so good. Honor them. If any Army or event volunteer (as above) determines the female gender at not less than 15 feet, that individual will be asked to leave the field/ranks.

The reason we know today that “hundreds, if not thousands” of women fought as soldiers is due to the scholarship of Lauren Cook Burgess (now Wike), who went on to co-author the definitive book on female soldiers, They Fought like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. The book takes its title from a letter a male Union soldier sent back home, after watching several Confederate women fall in a bloody battle: “They fought like demons, and we cut them down like dogs.”

“What launched my research was being told by park rangers that they did not want the ‘oddball, or the eccentric and out of place’ portrayed in their living history,” Lauren told me. “In my opinion, women who served as soldiers in the Civil War were anything but ‘oddballs and eccentrics.’ They were patriots just like their male counterparts, and … the confrontation I had with these officials angered me so much that I was determined to right the historical record.” She spent 15 years researching and writing the book, as well as editing the collected letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (the soldier who wrote home to brag about her fistfight). Now, she is hoping to find the time to update her records with new discoveries, and archive her material for an eventual donation to a museum or library.

Referring to the impression standards, J.R. told me, “I think that what they’re getting at is, ‘Don’t go out there with earrings and curly hair, wearing lipstick.’ But it’s also really off-putting to read stuff like that. It makes you feel like they don’t want you here.”

Aside from their positive experiences with the 6th New York and the 53rd Georgia, J.R. and her cinematographer have both faced gender discrimination on the re-enacting battlefield. The argument for discrimination goes something like this: Technically, women weren’t allowed to fight as soldiers 150 years ago and so they shouldn’t be on the re-enactment battlefield today. If you disagree, you’re historically “inauthentic.”

“You’re not allowed to be offended,” J.R. said. “It’s easy for people to discriminate and give you this idea that you’re not supposed to be mad at them. And when you really think about it, it’s kind of crap. They’re still saying something that’s prejudiced or discriminatory, and it’s easier for them to do that because it’s harder for you to argue because it’s ‘inauthentic.’ But re-enacting isn’t actually the Civil War.

There’s the rub. The women who’d fought in the Union and Confederate armies 150 years ago had the challenge of forsaking their female identities and assimilating into a completely male culture. But female re-enactors today aren’t trying to disappear into the ranks—they’re fighting for recognition as a subculture within a subculture. J.R. wanted to sleep in a canvas tent for four days and fire a cannon. My mom, who was also re-enacting at Gettysburg, wanted to sleep in a hotel and spend her days in a hoop skirt, washing other people’s laundry. To me, their aspirations seemed equally insane, and at the same time equally legit.

“A hobby is about finding people who are like you, and there are people who are like you in every aspect of re-enacting,” J.R. assured me. “If you’re Suzie Homemaker, or if you’re super feminist, or if you’re Suzie-Homemaker-Super-Feminist, there will be somebody like you. You just sometimes have to look a little bit harder.”

Re-enacting will never succeed as an actual re-creation of events; it occupies a fuzzy territory between theater and history, where the question of authenticity remains unresolved. Case in point: On Nov. 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, dedicating the National Cemetery to “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here.” This was truthful, as far as he knew, but I keep thinking about that unnamed drummer girl who said she’d never wear a dress again. How surprised she’d be today, to learn that although American women can wear pants and vote and join the military and go through infantry training, they’re now fighting for the right to bring to life stories like her own.

Some of this article originally appeared, in different form, in a two-part series at The Toast.

Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan, as well as a collection of poems, Dispatch From the Future. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches poetry to NYC public school students.

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