Hiking is a great way to get outside, commune with nature, and connect with the surrounding area. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hiking one of my favorite sections of the Appalachian Trail in a manner that was completely different than I had ever before experienced. Instead of dressing in my usual 21st century hiking attire, I, along with several others, opted to take things back about 154 years and dressed as a Union soldier would have in 1862.
Organized jointly by the Civil War Institute, GRAB, and members of the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia Regiment, the hike’s purpose was to be a learning experience and a fun way to get outside. The hike provided the members of the 26th Pennsylvania College Guard, which is the Civil War re-enacting club on campus, the opportunity to experience what it actually felt like to march for many miles as soldiers did. The trip proved that there is no better way to gain an understanding of what it was like for men to march through such steep, rocky, and unforgiving terrain than to go out and hike through it yourself. It was also a great opportunity for the 21st century folks who joined us to ask questions about the soldier experience during the war and the Civil War in general.
Last spring, my friends told me that it was the perfect time to get into Civil War reenacting. “The 150th is over,” they said, “No one is going to care about the Civil War anymore, so everyone will be selling all their stuff.” Somehow, this bit of insider trading information meant more to me than just bargain brogans and frock coats.
For many, indeed most, the Civil War ended when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9th, 1865. For reenactors and amateur historians today, the Civil War ended last April with the 150th Appomattox events or maybe even last May with the 150th anniversary of the Grand Review in Washington D.C. And then it was over. The four year frenzy concluded as if the spring of 1865 was the end of America’s great 19th century identity crisis. Yet in a broader sense, the Civil War lasted much longer than its affixed truncation date of April 1865, and its sesquicentennial commemoration should likewise project well into the next few decades. Victories like the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments and the Civil Rights Bills of the postbellum era should be celebrated just as much as the victories at Gettysburg and Antietam. Likewise, the tragedies of the Colfax Massacre and the founding of the Ku Klux Klan should be remembered just as well as the assassination of President Lincoln.
Even though I am president of the college’s reenactment club, I had never had the “pleasure” of experiencing one of the primary staples of the average Union soldier’s diet: hardtack. I had seen it made and eventually eaten by reenactors, but I always wondered what it tasted like and why it was so important to soldiers during the Civil War. After deciding to make a batch, I wondered if my friends would view it in the same way as the soldiers who originally ate the flour tiles, their means of survival for four years. Many accounts from the Civil War name hardtack as one of the worse aspects of military life, as it was often distributed moldy or infested with worms. Other soldiers created songs expressing their dislike for the cracker, most complaining about the bland taste and the hard texture. I decided to initiate the “Hardtack Challenge of 2015,” feeding unsuspecting people a baked mixture of flour and water, comparing their reactions to those of Civil War soldiers, and answering this question: how does hardtack hold up today?
Three ingredients are used to make hardtack: water, flour, and salt. I could give out a proportion of flour to water, but honestly, it would be of no help as the consistency of hardtack proved tricky to master. I continually asked my friend Elizabeth for help with the consistency and begged for the constant kneading to be over, but I found myself being sent back many times in order to make it just right. Much more flour than water is used, and only a few pinches of salt are added. After mixing the doughy ball for an hour, I pressed it on the counter, using a hardtack cutter to shape the dough into the squares that come to mind when we envision the famous cracker. After baking for roughly two hours, my small jawbreakers were ready to be consumed.
On November 21, a small contingent from the 26th PEMR or PCG—Gettysburg College’s reenacting group—gathered early in the morning in Union uniform and civilian dress outside of the Appleford Inn. With a flowered wreath in hand, the small group made their way down Chambersburg Street. There, in sight of the Dollar General and the Segway Tour office, they laid the wreath at the base of the monument, which features a young college boy, musket in hand, as he marches off to battle. The group of students read the history of the unit and had their pictures taken, an annual tradition that has become a prominent memory in the minds of the student reenactors.
For many, Civil War reenacting serves as a way to remember the Civil War. With reenactments ranging from large scale events like Gettysburg to small town living histories, thousands of men and women from all around the country—indeed, from all around the globe—choose to wear wool uniforms and day dresses and reenact this period of history. Reenacting, though controversial as a medium of public history, serves as a way for many people of all different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds to remember the American Civil War and the soldiers who served. Continue reading “The Grand Parade: Remembering the American Civil War”
This post is the last in a three-part series on women soldiers in the Civil War and during modern reenactments. You can also check out the first and second parts of this series.
Civil War reenacting has come a long way in the years since Lauren Cook was asked to leave the Antietam reenactment. Now women who aspire to portray soldiers have a far easier time of joining a unit that will allow them to take to the field. This does not, however, mean that the controversy surrounding women soldiers has vanished. Women may not be directly approached about their persona, but the disapproving glares like the ones I myself have received are all too prevalent.
Women who wish to portray soldiers in Civil War reenactments face a multitude of challenges. First, they must get past the physical limitations. “How serious are you at disguising yourself and presenting yourself as a ‘man?’” writes one reenactor on an online chatroom specifically dealing with women portraying soldiers.
Would you cut your hair? Trim your nails? Go without any makeup and perhaps smear your face with dirt? Wear restraints to hide your feminine features? The reason most reenacting units will not permit a female in the ranks is because, 1. It is more historically accurate. 2. Most women trying to act like a male soldiers do a rotten job of it.
This post is the second in a three-part series on women soldiers in the Civil War and during modern reenactments. Also check out the introduction of this series.
I was thirteen years old when I joined the 5th Kentucky Orphan Brigade, a Confederate reenactment group based out of south-central Kentucky. At fourteen, I “saw the elephant”—a Civil War term for seeing battle—for the first time as a soldier. It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done, but seven years later I credit that decision to go through with it as bringing me to where I am now, writing for the Compiler here at Gettysburg College. In those seven years, however, I have faced my fair share of scrutiny for portraying a soldier rather than a civilian. I didn’t become aware of the scrutiny until more recently, however, as I became more conscious both of historical and modern views about women portraying soldiers at Civil War reenactments.
I’ve been lucky. Only once have I ever been in a situation where I thought I would not be able to participate in the event because I am a woman, but that one time when I was sixteen was quickly fixed by my first sergeant convincing the board of that particular reenactment to amend the rules that had said no women were allowed to portray soldiers. In seven years, never once has anyone directly questioned whether or not I should be allowed to take the field. I’ve been complimented on my authenticity, encouraged to continue to be as accurate as possible, and never had a negative comment directed at my portrayal of a woman soldier.
Although I haven’t had anything said to my face, I have received nasty glances that clearly say “She doesn’t belong.” Though the reenacting community has become far more open to women soldiers since 1989, there are some who do not believe it is a woman’s place to be on the battlefield. I’ll discuss this more in depth in the next post, but for now it is safe to say that there are some who believe no women should portray soldiers. Continue reading “A Woman in Soldier’s Dress: Then and Now”
The year was 1989. The place, a Civil War reenactment at Antietam National Battlefield. Lauren Cook (then Burgess) had been participating in reenactments for two years. Her portrayal of a fifer required her to wear a soldier’s uniform rather than in a civilian woman’s dress. She did her best to portray a soldier, disguising her sex so she could pass the “fifteen yard” rule, which meant that at fifteen yards she could not be identified as a woman. The call of nature proved to be her undoing, however, when an NPS official “caught” her coming out of the women’s restroom. Asked to wear a dress and portray a civilian, Cook refused and was told to leave the event. Cook perceived this as sex discrimination and filed a law suit against the federal government. Four years later, in 1993, she would win her court case.
Though dramatic in nature, Cook’s experience is echoed through the many stories of women who attempt to portray soldiers in Civil War reenactments. Times have changed since 1989, and women are now allowed to portray soldiers, but the stigma remains. Women who wish to portray soldiers are expected to not only have an accurate uniform, but to pass the “fifteen yard rule.” For some, this is what they strive to do and many go above and beyond in accomplishing this. Others, however, do not even attempt to disguise their sex. This is where the controversy begins and people start to question whether or not women should be allowed to portray soldiers at all.
According to a July 4, 2011 NPR segment hosted by Michele Norris, at last glance there were approximately 30,000 Civil War reenactors in the United States. This number had taken a nosedive from 50,000 over the previous decade. The interviewer, Gigi Douban, explains part of the reason behind the decline in interest for the hobby. She lists “The cost of travel, the cost of gear. That runs into the thousands. And it’s economic pressures like these that have some shying away from re-enacting. And the ones that are doing it are doing less of it.” Mr. Dana Shoaf, the editor of the Civil War Times, adds that “There just aren’t as many kids that are… finding re-enacting as an enjoyable hobby.” Continue reading “Laughing at Ourselves: Public Perception of Reenactors”
In conversation with other CWI Fellows last week, we began discussing the strangeness of the annual Remembrance Day Parade. Originally conceived as a way to recreate the procession to the cemetery in 1863 to hear the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, it seems to have morphed into something different all together. If we are honoring a recommitment to the preservation of Union, why do Confederate reenactors march in the parade? If we are simply celebrating the soldiers of both sides of the Civil War, why does the parade end at the site of the address that rededicated the nation to Union emancipationist victory and a “new birth of freedom?” To sate my curiosity, I decided to go out on assignment and interview people before the parade began. I interviewed spectators and reenactors alike and asked them the following questions: 1) Is the parade a yearly tradition for you? and 2) What are you here celebrating and remembering today? Here is what I found:
Heather: In our last post, Bryan and I explored the unique challenges that the reenacting hobby poses to the interpretation and public understanding of the American Civil War. In it, we touched on just a few of the many motivations that inspire individuals to reenact. As we continue our Point/Counterpoint series below, we look to explore the relationship of the reenacting hobby with a particularly complex and problematic ideology–the Lost Cause.
Bryan: There are many breeding grounds for that despicable interpretation of the Civil War known as the Lost Cause. Perpetrated by Confederate veterans after the war, the Lost Cause teaches that the Civil War was neither caused by nor fought over the question of slavery, and that Confederates of all ranks, classes, and creeds were simply honest Americans nobly fighting for the doomed yet righteous cause of states’ rights. These claims are dubious at best; the importance of slavery in particular is universally agreed upon in academic circles due to the indisputable evidence for its centrality to the official Confederate justification for secession. One of the most interesting venues for the propagation of this questionable ideology is, I have noticed, that of reenacting. Continue reading “Point/Counterpoint: An Insidious Cycle”