Johnny Rebs fight to keep a Woman out of their war
Some people decorate their lawns with garden gnomes or ornamental ponds. But Patty Lediner had something different in mind for the end of the gravel driveway at her sprawling country home near Bakersfield, Northern Arkansas. She fancied a replica civil war-era howitzer.
When her husband duly obliged by building her a handsome 12lb cannon, the stage was set for a most uncivil fracas that is sending shock waves through America’s vigorous community of history buffs and civil war addicts.
"It’s an awesome-looking little artillery piece," Lediner said proudly last week. Yet her efforts to show it off at the regular civil war games staged across the country by costumed Confederates and Yankees have fallen foul of a thoroughly ungentlemanly prejudice. The good ol’ southern boys who still mourn the glory days of General Robert E Lee cannot bear the thought of a woman carrying a gun. Or, in this case, a woman towing a full-scale howitzer.
Lediner’s efforts to join in a succession of mock civil war battles have provoked open hostilities with the 7th AR, an Arkansas battalion of Confederate infantrymen. The battalion cancelled one of its performances rather than allow Lediner to attend. "Gentlemen of the 7th, this cannot be allowed to happen," wrote First Sergeant Gary Roberts in the unit’s newsletter.
The state government has been forced to step in to consider claims that women are being illegally discriminated against at re-enactment events staged on public property. In Little Rock, another woman has filed a lawsuit in a federal court, claiming that her constitutional rights were infringed when she was barred from a mock battle.
At stake is the future of a national hobby-cum-obsession that attracts tens of thousands of civil war devotees, many of them from Britain and elsewhere. When Americans marked the 125th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1998, more than 13,000 costumed "soldiers" took part in a re-enactment before an estimated 75,000 spectators.
For many of those taking part, authenticity is a creed. Civil war buffs go to extraordinary lengths to replicate 19th-century materials and conditions, from the fibres in their uniforms to the powder in their muskets.
When Lediner and her husband Wolfgang decided to add a bronze Napoleonic cannon to their arsenal, she unearthed original blueprints from the Smithsonian Institute and found a local machinist who could manufacture a 1,080lb barrel to exactly the old specifications.
For her critics, however, the crucial question has nothing to do with the calibre of her ammunition or the wheelbase of her prairie gun carriage. Civil war purists complained that women had no place on the battlefield and that Lediner’s attempts to disguise herself as a male soldier - complete with Confederate cap and trousers - were undermining the dignity of an earnest historical venture. "There was a woman in the ranks," sighed Lediner. "That became a huge issue."
"We cannot allow this ‘male wannabe’ to push, shove and bully her way, uninvited, into our event," complained Roberts in his newsletter.
Thus was the battle of Bakersfield joined. In a text-book diversionary feint, the 7th AR claimed it was not opposed to women at all, but was merely seeking to ensure authenticity. And there was no historical evidence that women dressed as men had ever fought with artillery in Arkansas.
Redneck rubbish, retorted Lediner. The historical record showed that many women disguised themselves as men in order to accompany their husbands to the war. "Doggone it, women were soldiers and spies," she said. In her uniform at a distance, she added, she was unrecognisable as a woman. She is 5ft 5in tall, slim, with short blonde hair that tucks into her cap. "We are very conscientious about our appearance," she said.
Lediner hoped last week that state officials would eventually rule against discriminatory events being held on public property. Most of the bigger reenactments are stated in state parks.
As for the tarnished southern tradition of gentlemanly chivalry, the infantrymen of the 7th AR may have learnt an important lesson. Never meddle with a lady who has a howitzer on her lawn.
An article written by Tony Allen-Mills, which appeared in ‘The Sunday Times’ 17th August 1997.
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, June 2000