Women in the Civil War; reenactors tell their story

By Richard Lyman Correspondent

CAREY – This year’s Carey Festival once again played host to the 21st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery, a reenactment of the original unit from the Civil War.

One of the features of this year’s reenactment was the vivandieres, the women who served in the military. The group featured three reenactors portraying vivandieres, Tracy Henson, Shirley Miller and Wendy Romstadt. All three travel with the 21st OVLA.
The word vivandiere is a mixture of French and Latin meaning "hospitality giver." Henson said many of these women traveled with their husband’s unit and fought along side them. She also said many would take supplies or ammunition to their men during combat.

The reenactors wore reproductions of the uniforms worn by vivandieres. The uniforms consisted of men’s pants worn under knee-length skirts, wool jackets and a cap.

Mike Cousino, one of the OVLA reenactors, said the Union Army experimented with using women on cannon crews because of the shortage of men.

"The women didn’t have trouble when positioning the gun, as that was done with horses, or when they were aiming or firing," he said. "But once you unlimbered the gun from its horses, you have to pull it or maneuver it manually. That’s not easy because the barrel of a three-inch rifled cannon weighs 815 pounds and the carriage another 1.000. And if the ground is muddy, it’s extremely difficult. The army was worried the women couldn’t handle it. Also, if you were in danger of being over run, you have to be able to load that gun in a hurry and get the heck out of there."

Though there has been some debate among historians over how much fighting the vivandiere artillery units saw, Romstadt said the women artillery units saw action throughout the Civil War, serving as part of both artillery and cavalry units.

Romstadt said another type of vivandiere were women who disguised themselves as men, some even reaching officers rank. She said these women existed on both Union and Confederate side.

"These women were usually not discovered unless they got pregnant or wounded," Romstadt said. "Some surgeons refused to operate on them and would let them die so they could operate on the men. And some of them served throughout the entire war and were not discovered until they applied for their pensions."

Miller said, "Some women would get caught and then reenlist in another unit. One woman did this five times. Also, some of them would do it to get out of prostitution and to get the military pension."

Miller said on the Confederate prisoner of war camp at Johnson Island, a confederate prisoner was discovered when she became pregnant. She had the baby on the island on Nov. 24, 1862. The woman soon was released from the camp.

Few causality records exist for the vivandieres. Most estimates usually say about 400 to 600 served and about 80 were killed in action.