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.

Francis Louisa Clayton, who fought for the Union. When her husband died, a few feet in front of her at Stones River, she stepped over his body and kept fighting.
Frances Louisa Clayton, fought for the Union. When her husband died, a few feet in front of her at Stones River, she stepped over his body and kept fighting.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Kim Hopfer, a mother of two, lives on a farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. She works as a truck driver, and each year spends her one week of vacation re-enacting the Civil War—not in a hoop skirt and bonnet, knitting socks, but in a pair of Union blue trousers, among the ranks of the 138th Pennsylvania. The re-enacting community often derides wannabe re-enactors whose personas are historically inaccurate as “farbish,” but in fact Kim is far from farbish. She represents one of as many as a thousand women who served in the Union and Confederate armies during the war, cross-dressed as men.

One of these soldiers was Frances Louisa Clayton, alias Jack Williams, a Minnesotan who enlisted with her husband in 1861. To pass as one of the boys, she took up drinking, smoking, chewing, and swearing. When Frances’ husband died, a few feet in front of her at Stones River, she stepped over his body and kept fighting. Many like Frances enlisted with loved ones; a woman from Tennessee named Melverina Elverina Peppercorn joined the Confederate army to be with her brother. At least two women went to war with their fathers.

But women also enlisted for many of the same reasons soldiers enlist today: patriotism and adventure, honor, economics. (A maid in New York at the time could earn $4 to $7 a month for her services; a Union soldier got $13 a month.) The war ignited the imaginations and ambitions of young women like Emily, a 19-year-old from Brooklyn who wanted to enlist because she believed she was Joan of Arc reincarnate. Harriet Merill joined the 59th New York Infantry in order to leave behind the brothel where she worked.

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Last summer, I met Kim Hopfer at the 150th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. She is a tall, stately woman, who was wearing wool trousers and a long-sleeved checked shirt in spite of the 80-degree heat. Round metal (period-appropriate) glasses framed her soft, gentle face, and she immediately apologized for talking to me with a mouthful of beef jerky.

Kim Hopfer in regalia.
Kim Hopfer in regalia.

Photo courtesy of Kim Hopfer

“That only adds to the realism,” I assured her.

“I’m sorry, I just took a big piece.”

When I asked Kim about her impression (the preferred term for a re-enactor’s persona; they don’t like to be asked about their “character” or who they’re “playing”), she told me she was a soldier in the 138th Pennsylvania, a volunteer infantry unit organized here in Gettysburg. During the Civil War, one notable member of the 138th was Peter Thorn, the caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery, where some of the actual battle took place, and where President Lincoln eventually delivered his Gettysburg Address.

But the 138th missed all the action at home. They were at Harper’s Ferry in June, and on their way to Washington in early July.

“We found out while we were there that the battle here, in our hometown, was going on. So, you know: panic. We’re not able to be here to defend our own hometown, so it was pretty traumatic,” Kim told me, speaking in the first-person plural about an event that occurred 150 years ago.

Although she lives in town, this was her first time re-enacting at Gettysburg, and she was still trying to adjust to the heat. “You got to march, you got to keep time, you have all these clothes on, you have a 12-pound rifle plus however much weight in gear, plus all the wool that you have on.” Raising her boot for me to have a look, Kim said, “These are the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever had on my feet. They’re very hard. They’re very flat.” She admitted that she and some of her comrades “kind of have a Dr. Scholls thing going on in there” to make it a bit more comfortable. “Your feet hurt. Your back hurts. Your shoulder hurts. Your arms hurt. But it’s worth it. It’s really worth it.”

When I asked what made her want to portray a soldier, Kim told me she believed she was born in the wrong time period. “This is my time period. Because if my son or my husband was out there, I would have done the same thing. I would have cut my hair. I would have followed them into battle. I’m a big girl, but I would have wrapped and hid and done whatever I had to do in order to get out there.”

Many did wrap and hide and do whatever they had to do. At least five women fought in the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, including an unidentified drummer girl who swore that once she healed from her injuries she would never wear a dress again.

In the mid-19th century, no one carried an ID card. To enlist, a woman basically needed only to cut off her hair and pick an alias. Army surgeons conducting physical examinations often checked only to see if a recruit had teeth to tear open powder cartridges and a finger to pull a trigger. Once she enlisted, however, a female soldier had to learn to pass as one of the boys. Loreta Velazquez sometimes wore a fake mustache. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a farm girl from New York who served as Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, wrote home to brag of a fight in which she gave another private in her regiment “three or four pretty good cracks.” Summing up this kind of identity and gender performance, Sarah Emma Edmonds, a Canadian who served as a Union soldier, nurse, and spy under the alias Frank Thompson, wrote in her memoir that the war was a time for “entire self-forgetfulness.”

While I was at Gettysburg, I also met J.R. Hardman, a 27-year-old filmmaker who is currently making a documentary called Reenactress, about her experiences as a cross-dressing soldier. In addition to firing artillery with the 6th New York, she also switch-hits in gray and re-enacts as an infantry soldier with the 53rd Georgia. Her film will chronicle her experiences on both sides of the Mason-Dixon divide.

J.R. Hardman, who fires artillery with the 6th New York and reenacts as an infantry soldier with the 53rd Georgia.
J.R. Hardman, who fires artillery with the 6th New York and re-enacts as an infantry soldier with the 53rd Georgia.

Photo courtesy O.K. Keyes.

A hundred and fifty years ago, J.R. would have made a fine recruit. She is tall and slender, with a long boyish neck and short, auburn hair. The previous year, while she was at the 149th anniversary of Gettysburg as a spectator, the captain of the 6th New York recruited J.R. for his unit based on the way she looked wearing a man’s cap.

This year, I sat with the 6th New York while they ate lunch, and that captain, Jeff, was eager to tell me his favorite J.R. story. “We’re at Lambertville,” he started.

“Peddler’s Village!” she corrected.

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