Re-enacting Roles for Women
WOMEN IN THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
I am a private in 19th Indiana Volunteer Infantry and can vouch for how exciting and exhilarating it is to run around the battlefield pretending to shoot at or get shot by the enemy. Nothing brings a lump to the throat more than standing with your friends shooting as one when the order for fire by battalion is given in front of the crowd.
I am concerned that there are plenty of women who may secretly be keen to take part on the field but stop themselves because they don't believe it would be suitable for women; only men fought on the battlefield, right? Wrong! I'm sure we are all aware of the many angels of the battlefield who tended to the wounded. However what is more surprising is that through reports and American government sources it is estimated that as many as 400 women disguised themselves as men and served in combat regiments. Frances Hook took the alias of Frank Miller to enlist in the 65th Illinois "Home Guards". She was mustered out 3 months later with no one the wiser about her gender. She was later taken prisoner in a battle near Chattanooga after she had enlisted as a private in the 90th Illinois. She was shot through the calf while trying to escape and her gender was discovered when the Confederates searched her for papers. Frances was confined in a prison camp at Atlanta, though she was given a separate room due to her gender. Jefferson Davies even wrote to her offering her a commission of lieutenant if she would enlist in the Confederate Army. She declined, stating that she would rather fight as a private soldier for the stars and stripes than be honoured with a commission by the Rebs. Her captors tried to persuade her to go home and not to enter the service again shortly before her exchange. Her reply was - "Go home, my only brother was killed at Pittsburgh Landing, and I have no home no friends! ".
There was also Kady Brownell who went along with her husband as colour bearer for the 1st Rhode Island Infantry but she was not content to remain a parade ground soldier. Kady took rifle practice with the men until she became one of the quickest and best shots in the regiment. She also indulged in swordplay with a level of proficiency equal to that of her marksmanship. Her first brush with battle was at First Bull Run where she was colour bearer. She defiantly defended the colours even when the Confederate batteries had advanced to a point only a few hundred yards from where she stood even after the men of the 1st had fled the field. The 1st was later disbanded and Kady and her husband signed up with the 5th Rhode Island. She was initially denied the privilege of being colour bearer but when the army was preparing to storm the Confederate works at New Bern she dressed in full military uniform and begged to be allowed to carry the colours into battle. it was due to her quick thinking that they did not come under 'friendly fire' as she waved the colours until another Union regiment recognised them as friends. Albert Cashier was the alias of a 95th Illinois private who later claimed a soldier's pension even after her disguise was well known. There was also a rebel officer who gave birth to a 'bouncing baby boy' while in a Northern POW camp! More historical anecdotes can be found in the boundless literature about women's role in the Civil War.
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, April 2000
ROLES FOR WOMEN
Women played many roles during the WBTS era. Women often are considered to have been passive spectators during the Victorian period, but this was far from the truth. They were very active during the Civil War, although they didn't do what was considered "men's work."
The family was very close during that period, with multiple generations living in the same town, if not in the same house, all their lives. When it came time for the men to march away, many women from small farms (the majority) stayed at home to keep the farm in production. But many of the women from lower classes had no other place to go except with their men. Many miners and mill workers lived in houses rented form the Company, and their families didn't own homes. When the men left, their families left with them. The families worked where they could and tried to keep up, especially during the first few months of the early war. The war departments on both sides tried mightily to find work and housing for these women to keep them from following the troops but weren't successful. There were just too many of them.
During this period, women were undergoing a transition in status. A movement had been started during the preceding decades to keep women at home. Working conditions were so severe that women were encouraged to stay home with their children, to become educated and sophisticated and use their talents to improve the world around their families.
Local women often visited the military camps for a variety of purposes. At the camp of instruction outside of Bath, Maine, there was a daily scheduled omnibus that took townswomen back and forth to the camps for sightseeing of other reasons. Some went out of curiosity; others to visit male friends and relatives, and still others to sell produce, soft bread, and so forth. The civilians did not camp with the military, but during daylight hours there were female visitors to the military camps. During some campaigns, there were so many wagons and cars of civilians intermingled with the military train that they held up any movement of the army by a number of hours. On some occasions they seriously held up the advance or retreat of the army.
An unescorted woman was open to insults and unwanted attention during those days. Women visiting the camp alone were considered "loose women." A lady was generally escorted by a male relative or military escort, or stayed with a group of women.
Many women enact elaborate, scripted scenes with other male and female re-enactors. These can be used to show the life of women and families while soldiers are demonstrating life in the field. When they are not bound to a scripted and authentic set, these small playlets can create an excellent atmosphere at a re-enactment.
Most that I have seen have been so ad-libbed, however, that they were no longer historically correct, but only a vague representation of the times. Nevertheless, these playlets can be very effective in giving a taste of history.
Women re-enactors can be mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and sweethearts of officers, contractors, or politicians. Sometimes the women, particularly the younger women and girls, wore clothing cut in the regimental style and marched with the men in parades in the hometowns. They were called "vivandiers" and helped keep up the men's spirits by helping out with the cooking, washing, singing, and dancing. They were sort of an early O.S.O.
Local townswomen (or women from back home) visited the camp to sell produce, jams, and jellies. Other female visitors were tourists, tradeswomen, laundresses, cooks, itinerant seamstresses, sutlers, merchants, letter writers, nurses or nursing aids. Most nurses were male during this period; women generally took care of convalescents by writing letters, keeping bed linens clean, and conversing with the soldiers. Mothers or wives might come to camp to look for straying husbands, lovers, or sons, and other women to see officers with complaints about soldiers stealing. Other roles for women re-enactors include representatives of the bible society, Baptist sewing circle, U.S. sanitary commission, or the women's decent burial for soldiers association; political haranguers or soapbox speechmakers; abolitionists; and wives or pretend wives of politicians on "fact finding missions."
There were a small but active number of women who worked as professional (paid) mourners at funerals. Some women were entertainers, such as actresses or singers, although they were thought to be of questionable virtue because they often showed considerable personal freedom.
Bad women were a part of the nineteenth century, as they are today. These women have re-enactment roles as spies; gamblers; con artists; insurance foils; aggressive matchmakers (this can be especially good with ethnic regiments such as Irish, Italian, or German Brigades, or with ethnic families in any regiment where matchmaking was a traditional practice); "conjure ladies" who cast spells, foretell the future, and sell charms; and women who carry whiskey illegally into camp (under their dresses or even in their prams) to sell to soldiers, and who are sometimes caught by the pickets or hard-eyed officers. Only your imagination and historical accuracy limit the list.
One of the most touching, although seldom done, scenes is that of the women coming together to watch their men march off to battle. The women waving handkerchiefs, crying, trying to be cheerful while husbands, sons, and neighbours march away can add drama and pathos to almost any re-enactment. Spectators love it, and to be honest, so do the men. It's nice to be missed by people who care, even when it's pretend.
The civilian camp can be very active, with multiple scenarios being acted out. While the men are back in camp relaxing after a heavy re-enactment, activities in the civilian camps can take some of the pressure off the men and supply a ready diversion for visitors.
Extract from "Reliving the Civil War" by R Lee Hadden.
Pvt. T J Finn, Co K, 24th Michigan
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, February 1998