Women re-enact Civil War as men, quite accurately

By DAVID DISHNEAU, Associated Press

BALTIMORE (AP) — Hoop skirts and washboards don’t appeal much to Joyce Henry, so she found another way to relive the Civil War — as a man.

With her breasts tightly bound, shoulder-length red hair tucked under a shaggy auburn wig and upper lip hidden by a drooping mustache, Henry impersonates Lt. Harry T. Buford, a real-life Confederate soldier.

The impression could hardly be more accurate since Buford, too, was a woman. He was invented by Loreta Janeta Velazquez, a Cuban-born woman from New Orleans who fought as a man in a series of Civil War battles including the First Battle of Bull Run, according to her autobiography.

Researchers have documented more than 200 such cases. And today, a small number of women follow suit by donning blue and gray uniforms as Civil War re-enactors.

A century and a half ago, women weren’t allowed into military service; masquerading as men was the only way in for those who weren’t satisfied with supporting the war effort from home or following their husbands’ military units around. As the country marks the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States, some female re-enactors still cling to secrecy — not just for historical accuracy but because uniformed women aren’t always welcome in the male-dominated hobby.

Some of these women are easily spotted by their lack of attention to detail. Others go to great lengths and expense to avoid detection. Henry, of Williamsburg, Va., said she even got an FBI expert to teach her to apply facial hair.

"My goal has always been to be as authentic as possible," said Henry, a former Petersburg National Battlefield ranger who is now head coachman at Colonial Williamsburg. She said she has spent nearly $3,500 on her Civil War outfit and gear, including an $850, custom-tailored, gray wool frock coat.

But just having the right accouterments isn’t enough. To pass muster as a man, the normally exuberant Henry says she "flatlines" herself: "You have to alter your mannerisms, the way you speak, the way you use your hands, the way you walk, the way you use your facial expressions."

Even then, getting in may not be easy.

Audrey Scanlan-Teller, a re-enactor in the Washington area, was initially denied a role in this year’s 150th anniversary commemoration of the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, S.C., because of her gender. She successfully appealed to the National Park Service, citing a 1993 federal court ruling barring gender discrimination at park service events.

The Fort Sumter re-enactors were screened by a private-sector committee. Chairman Jeff Antley, of Mount Pleasant, S.C., said his Union troop commander initially rejected Scanlan-Teller because historical records prove there were no women, whether in uniform or civilian clothes, at the fort during the 1861 engagement — and organizers wanted to recreate those conditions.

Antley said he knew nothing of the dispute until the park service told him to let Scanlan-Teller in. He recognized her right to join the nearly 1,000 other re-enactors at the April event and said he has no argument with women who portray male soldiers convincingly.

"If you want to do this, do it the best you can and you’ll gain respect — and she did," he said. "She did as good a job as she could have done. I didn’t see her in the ranks. I didn’t notice her."

Susan Kinne of Woodsville, N.H., had a more frustrating experience when she was barred in 2008 from sharing sleeping quarters with her Civil War band mates during a weekend field-music camp at Fort Delaware State Park in Delaware City, Del.

"I had to sleep with women I didn’t know and it bugged me," said Kinne, 52, a tenor horn player in the 12th New Hampshire Serenade Band and the Baltimore-based Federal City Brass Band.

Event organizer Ronald Palese of Gettysburg, Pa., said the rule against cross-gender sleeping arrangements protects female students, some as young as 10.

"When you deal with children, you cannot step over a line," he said.

But Kinne said the dictum violates a sacred principle among serious re-enactors: They’re not in costume — they’re in character.

"When you are in character, it’s ‘Private Kinne.’ It’s never ‘Sue,’" she said. "We are all men."

At other events, "I’ve slept in the tents with the guys, I eat with the guys, I go in the woods and go to the bathroom with the guys," she said. "I do everything they do, and it’s expected, and it should be expected."

Women who fail to hide their femininity in uniform are branded "farby Barbies." The phrase is derived from a derogatory term hardcore re-enactors apply to those whose impressions fall short of historical standards.

Female re-enactors seeking to avoid the farby label can turn to Wendy King Ramsburg of Hedgesville, W.Va. She runs an invitation-only website for women military re-enactors.

Ramsburg suggests wearing vests, jackets and trousers one size too big to hide telltale curves. She also provides instructions for making an authentic chest binder she says flattens and protects one’s breasts better than the sports bras some female re-enactors wear.

Her online group numbers about 20, but Ramsburg said she doesn’t know how many women pursue the hobby. She protects her group members’ privacy and refused to divulge even her own unit’s name for fear of being targeted by sexist detractors.

The discrimination is often covert, Ramsburg wrote in an e-mail.

"For example, insisting that a female send in a picture to prove that she meets a specific set of requirements when males registering for the same event are not burdened with this requirement."

Ramsburg said some privately run events have rules stating, "Women discovered in uniform will be dismissed from the field." And some enforce a 5-foot height requirement, ostensibly for safety, that limits female participation.

None of the women interviewed for this story said they dress up as men to press an agenda. Some are tomboys who’ve always preferred rough-and-tumble play. Most are history buffs who want to know firsthand what Civil War fighters, often their own ancestors, experienced.

Lauren Wike literally wrote the book on Civil War female fighters. She and DeAnne Blanton documented 240 of these women in their 2002 volume, "They Fought Like Demons." The book is treasured by many of today’s female re-enactors.

Wike, of Fayetteville, N.C., started the project after a ranger ejected her from a 1989 living-history event at Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Md. She said the ranger told her, "We don’t allow women in uniform here."

She sued the National Park Service and won a federal court victory in 1993. Now the agency incorporates into its biennial training for living-history staffers a reminder that excluding women who portray male soldiers isn’t just unconstitutional — it’s historically inaccurate.

"In view of the fact that at least one woman (and possibly six women) did participate in the battle of Antietam, the presence of female volunteers appearing as male soldiers should be treated as an interpretive opportunity rather than as a liability," reads a memo used in the training.

Mike Litterst, spokesman for the park service’s Civil War sesquicentennial events, said four parks — Antietam, Appomattox Court House, Gettysburg and Shiloh — have information about women fighters in their programs, brochures or websites.

But Wike, 55, said she still hears from women who must fight for acceptance as uniformed re-enactors.

"It’s amazing to me that 18 years after what I went through, women still confront the issue," she said.

Wike also objects to today’s U.S. military ban on women in combat and infantry roles.

"It’s ridiculous that there are still barriers to women in today’s military," she said. "I think the only reason that women were successful as soldiers during the Civil War is because nobody knew that they were women. They were disguised, so all of the prejudices, all the stereotyping, was not a factor. And that’s the only reason women are barred from combat today."

Some women just find a uniform more convenient than wearing period women’s clothing. Elizabeth Charlton of Lawrence, Mass., wore bright red trousers and a navy coat and cap as she carried the colors of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia 6th Regiment Company I down Pratt Street in Baltimore last spring. The parade commemorated the four Massachusetts soldiers and 12 civilians who died April 19, 1861, when Southern sympathizers attacked federal troops passing through the city en route to Washington.

Charlton, a married mother of three, said she started re-enacting more than 10 years ago, portraying the wife of a soldier killed in Baltimore. When her local military re-enactor unit had an opening in the color guard, she volunteered and found pants preferable to a hoop skirt.

"It’s much easier to get dressed," she said.

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press

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