Monday, April 7, 2008

Relic of my past

Forage capGather 'round children, it's time for me to ramble a story at you.

I've been playing with my new camera lens a lot, exploring its features and trying to become more proficient with the camera itself. The other night, I dug deep into my closet and found my old Civil War reenacting uniform, deciding to use the hat as the subject of a photograph. In the process, I managed to dig up quite a few memories, too.

For some reason I've never been able to fully explain, I've been fascinated by the American Civil War era since I was very young. I've always been a history buff. I love studying humanity: our triumphs, failures, inventions, misdeeds, everything. The personal stories of regular people tend to interest me the most. Still, my specific focus on mid-nineteenth century America came out of left field. I suppose the impetus of my obsession can be traced back to the older brother of my childhood best friend. He was a reenactor, and I often saw him coming or going from various events, dressed in his blue uniform and looking, I thought, super cool.

It was during this time, too, that the movie "Glory" first came out. I still contend (with little dissent) that it's a great movie, and I remember watching it several times when it first came to video.

Several years would pass, I moved to a new state, and eventually became friends with a boy whose family was interested in Civil War reenacting. It was through them that I eventually had my chance to participate. And between my love of history and my love of acting, it quickly became my number one hobby.

Happily, my parents were pretty supportive of me. I suppose having a kid who likes to learn about history, play dress-up and go camping every weekend is a lot better than some alternatives. Still, it's not exactly cheap. I spent a lot of time saving my allowance to afford the various pieces of my uniform before I could officially start reenacting. It was (is) very important to appear "authentic" - or as authentic as any 20th century person can be, anyway.

Keep in mind, too, that I had no desire whatsoever to portray a member of my actual sex. Hoop skirts and bonnets had absolutely zero appeal to me, so I would, quite naturally, act in the role of a young girl who dressed as a boy and went off to soldier. And contrary to what several older gents tried again and again to convince me of, my portrayal was quite authentic. While not super common, there are hundreds of documented cases where women passed as men so they could go off to fight in the war. They did it for every reason under the sun: to follow husbands and sweethearts, to get away from home, to fight for their country, to find adventure. They fought on both sides, north and south, and a handful even managed to become officers. Some served as spies, others as musicians, many as regular enlisted soldiers. They fought, they were wounded, killed, captured--some discovered for what they were, plenty who made it through undetected.

There was at least one documented case of a woman bringing a baby to term, only to be discovered when one of "the boys" gave birth in the middle of camp one day. A fellow soldier, remarking on the occasion in his diary, said that the Union would certainly win if they could keep up their numbers simply by having other soldiers give birth to new ones.

Point is, I realized very quickly that I was more "authentic" than the many late-middle-aged, overweight guys who were out there with me. I had just as much of a "right" to be there, and did my best to maintain my subterfuge. There were plenty of people who never suspected that I was actually a girl, and plenty of people who did know and had no problems with it. Sadly, however, there are still reenactors who don't believe women should be allowed to portray men, and it can be hard to find a unit to join up with. Luckily, my unit was comprised of friends, and it wasn't an issue.

Being that I was too young to drive, most of the reenactments I attended were near my home in Illinois. But in '92, I convinced my folks to take us on a "vacation" to Gettysburg, PA, where my unit would participate in the annual recreation of the famous three-day battle there. I still look back on that trip as one of the best things I've ever done. My unit, the 8th Illinois Cavalry, Co. E., took part in the first days' reenactment which, for the first time in several decades, the park was allowing us to do on the actual battlefield. Even a torrential downpour couldn't dampen my excitement. The accompanying lightning, however, brought an early end to our day.

We spent the following few days touring the park, wandering through the various encampments, and generally exploring. It was a blast, and I promised myself that I'd come back some day (which I did).

And though I stopped reenacting by the time I hit high school (it had become much harder to pass as a boy right around then), my fascination with the time period never ended. I still get this unexplainable thrill every time I read a book or watch a movie or stumble onto a reenactment of the era. And I've kept my uniform. The pants don't fit anymore, but (miraculously) some of the other pieces do. I won't lie: some day, I'm going to find a way to hit the field again, hardtack in one hand and a beeswax-lined canteen in the other. For whatever reason, I'm always drawn back to it--to take a photo, wander a battlefield, read a book, or just to reminisce on my stupid blog.



Further reading about women in the Civil War:

8 comments:

George H said...

That was a fun narrative.

See below:
Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy: A Woman's Adventures in the Union Army (Paperback)
Book Description
Sarah Emma Edmonds was born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1842, the fifth daughter of Isaac and Elisabeth Leeper Edmondson. Her father, a farmer, was bitterly disappointed with Sarah as he had wanted a son to work his land for him.

Sarah tried very hard to be the boy her father always wanted, abandoning female dress and becoming an expert horsewoman and markswoman. However, this was all to no avail: sadly, she never won the approval of Isaac. In 1859, she ran away from home to escape the man she described as ‘The Brutal Father’.

Sarah fled to the USA, where dressing as a man to draw less attention to herself, she adopted the name of ‘Frank Thompson’. By 1861, ‘Frank’ was working selling Bibles door-to-door in Flint, Michigan, and so successful in ‘his’ guise that he was escorting young ladies in ‘his’ carriage.

When President Lincoln issued his first call for volunteer troops, ‘Frank’ wanted to answer the call and patriotically serve ‘his’ new homeland. The army at that time didn't require a full physical examination. However, it still took ‘Frank’ four tries to get into the Union Army. On April 25, 1861, Sarah Emma Edmonds alias Frank Thompson became a male nurse in Company F, of the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This is 'his' story.

Emily said...

Thanks George!

It's funny that you mention the Edmonds memoir, as I read a biography of her a little while ago: "The Mysterious Private Thompson."

She was an interesting character, and apparently somewhat prone to exaggeration in her own writing about her adventures. Still, well worth the read, especially since there are only a handful of books on the subject--less so those written by the women themselves.

Zach W. said...

I've always wanted to do Civil War re-enacting, simply because I've always held a deep fascination with that period in our nation's history.

Great read, Emily!

Emily said...

Thanks Zach! You should definitely check out reenacting. There are groups all over the country, and the best way to start is just by showing up at an event and asking around. Be forewarned, though: it's far from being a cheap hobby. But it is, indeed, incredibly fun!

M Big Mistake said...

In your brief list of reasons why women might try to pass as men in the civil war you left out that they might just want to pass as men, period...because they were transgendered.

Emily said...

MBM - You're right, and from what I've read, that was likely the case in at least a handful of the stories. Some of them even continued to live (to varying degrees of success) as men after the war. One even managed to go undetected until being discovered in a home for elderly veterans.

Fair Play said...

I have to agree that was a fun story to read!

Emily...what kind of camera do you use?

Emily said...

FP - Thanks, glad you enjoyed it.

I use a Nikon D70 with this lens.

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