Written by J.M. Wasko
“I can drill just as well as any man,” wrote Sarah Rosetta Wakeman in the 1860s. Sarah—or Private Lyons as her comrades in the 153rd New York Volunteer Infantry knew her—was one of as many as 1,000 soldiers who fought in the American Civil War who were not men. On March 18, a group of Civil War reenactors almost exclusively made up of women will make camp at the Museum to bring the experiences of those soldiers to life.
This special group of living historians is organized by filmmaker J.R. Hardman, who directed the upcoming documentary, Reenactress, about women Civil War reenactors who cross-dress to portray soldiers on the battlefield. Many of our living historians are featured in or contributed to the movie, so we asked J.R. to tell us more about the heroic reenactors you can meet on Saturday!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: So, J.R., who is a reenactress?
J.R. Hardman: If you look up “reenactress” in the dictionary, you won’t find an entry, but you can find “reenactor” in there. The problem with using “reenactor” in the title of our documentary project was that the first thing I think of when I hear the word “reenactor” is never a woman, but always a man—often an older, chubby man. I’m pretty sure that’s the general experience of the viewing public as well. Considering our documentary, Reenactress, is about women in the reenacting world, we wanted a title that would reflect their unique female experience, and so we decided to create a new word. Reenactress: a woman who participates in reenactments of historical events.
DCHM: What are some of the unique experiences that women bring to historical reenactments?
JRH: One very important contribution women reenactors bring to the hobby is new blood. Without young people joining the reenacting hobby, it will eventually die out. If young men aren’t as enthusiastic about participating as they were 20 or 30 years ago, someone else needs to take their place. The more people on the battlefield during a scenario, the closer the spectators get to seeing the scale of what a Civil War battle might have been like. [Editor’s note: A scenario is what reenactors call one battle during a weekend full of multiple battle reenactments.]
Women reenactors have also been instrumental in conducting research on real women soldiers. For example, Lauren Cook Wike, who was once a reenactor, edited and published An Uncommon Soldier, a collection of letters written home by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman to her family during the war. Sarah was buried under her male alias until her family came forward and offered to share the letters with Ms. Cook Wike. Without Ms. Cook Wike’s interest in women soldiers and dedication to Sarah’s story, her true identity would still be a mystery to the world.
Another thing women bring to military reenacting is an opportunity to connect with women spectators, especially young girls. Being able to see women represented on the battlefield might make it possible for young girls to envision themselves in a military role in their future careers.
DCHM: Did you ever see yourself as a military reenactor when you were a child?
JRH: I wish I had been exposed to reenacting as a child because I would have so much more knowledge built up today, and I wish that our Civil War unit in school had covered more on women’s contributions to the war effort. I don’t remember learning anything about women in military roles at all.
DCHM: Can you tell us about how you first encountered reenactors and became one yourself?
JRH: My first encounter with reenactors was on a day trip to Gettysburg in 2011. There was a reenactor giving a tour to a group of visitors. The following year in 2012, I experienced my first reenactment as a spectator when I took a solo vacation back to Gettysburg for the 149th anniversary reenactment. That’s where I met Captain Jeffrey Cohen of the 6th New York Independent Battery, who invited me to join his group. Since I was living in Atlanta at the time, I first attempted to find a unit in Georgia, but the commander of the first unit I found at a living history event told me they did not accept “gal troops” in their unit. I could only join his unit as a civilian woman, not a soldier, which I was not as interested in trying. Fascinated by the idea that I could be excluded from a hobby for my gender, I decided I had to find a way to participate.
A few months later, I reached out to Jeff and joined my first reenactment as a soldier at the 150th anniversary Battle of Antietam in 2012. I couldn’t believe my luck that I got into the hobby right during the 150th anniversary cycle of events because almost every event for my first few years was gigantic. My very first event had thousands of reenactors and spectators, which left me in complete awe. I also served as Number 4 (the one who pulls the lanyard and makes the cannon go BOOM!) on my very first cannon crew, which was absolutely thrilling.
DCHM: What are you and the other living historians most looking forward to sharing with families at the New-York Historical Society? What’s something they shouldn’t miss?
JRH: The women in our presentation will all predominantly serve in military roles. We are very excited to have some members of the 6th New York Independent Battery because it was organized in Rahway, NJ, as well as in New York City. We are also planning to represent Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor for her service as a military surgeon during the Civil War, who was originally from Oswego, NY.
We hope to demonstrate the ways women soldiers were no different from men during the Civil War. They wore the same uniforms, carried the same weapons, performed the same drills, and lived in the same conditions as any other soldier. We will have a mannequin set up to describe the specific ways women could have gone about hiding their gender as women were not technically allowed to serve in combat roles in the military during the Civil War, and even up until 2016 due to the Combat Exclusion Policy.
DCHM: What is one thing that everyone should take away from meeting this predominantly women-led group of military reenactors? In other words, what is your message to our more distant readers who can’t attend the event?
JRH: It’s important for the public to learn that women have served in military roles in every American conflict in history, from the American Revolution to the Civil War to our current war in Afghanistan. Women warriors can be just as patriotic, adventurous, tough, and capable as their counterparts who are men. They just have to be given the same training, respect, and a chance. As modern-day pilot Major Mary Jennings Hegar, who was instrumental in the removal of the exclusion of women from ground combat roles, puts it in her book Shoot Like a Girl, “Battle readiness [has] nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with capability.”
I think the history of women Civil War soldiers teaches us that when consideration of their gender was taken out of the equation (because they were disguised as men), women served in exactly the same capacity as other soldiers. For me, there’s no better proof that the warrior heart has no color, creed, or gender!
DCHM: Thank you for all of your work, JR!
J.R. and her team hope to finish Reenactress in 2018, but the project isn’t complete just yet. There is still more scholarship, research, shooting, and editing to be done. If anyone would like to contribute to the effort, please visit the website. Or, better yet, come meet J.R. and her reenactresses this Saturday!
All Images Courtesy of J.R. Hardman and Reenactress