Female re-enactor’s quest for realism crosses gender lines

Sunday, June 25, 2006
News staff writer

Three years ago, Hoover native Whitney Hamilton found her calling fighting as a Confederate soldier. A male Confederate soldier.

Hamilton, who graduated from Birmingham-Southern College with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., but she flies home to re-enact with the 62nd Alabama Volunteer Infantry.

"Before I started to do this, I had the stereotype of backward people that just want to go out and shoot guns," said Hamilton, 41.

Now, she sees it differently.

"It is the closest to time travel I have ever experienced," she said. "The people you meet are such dear souls, so hospitable, so generous – and some of the smartest. I’ve met CEOs and dentists and lawyers. People really live this hobby because they love history."

Like most re-enactors, Hamilton developed a "character," a woman impersonating a man.

"I feel like this was a way this woman survived the war," Hamilton said. "She joined to keep from starving or becoming a prostitute."

Some of Hamilton’s favorite times have been re-enacting with men who thought she was male. "My own emotional experience is just going out there on the battlefield to people reacting to me not knowing what I am," she said.

A fan of Scarlett O’Hara since she was 13, Hamilton’s fascination inspired her to write a play, a book titled "Firefly" and an independent film called "My Brother’s War," financed by her husband, Patrick Sullivan. All are based on the 400 documented cases of women who fought in the Civil War as men – and some who lived the rest of their lives in disguise.

Hamilton was inspired to research her family history. She found that her great-great-grandfather rode with the 7th North Carolina Cavalry, but was never a slave owner.

"With all the re-enactors I work with, it’s a re-enactment of a very personal history," she said. "You can’t rewrite history. The issue of slavery is a bad institution, and there were black people that did fight for the Confederacy. It is the truth of what happened."

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