When film maker J.R. Hardman started as an American Civil War reenactress three years ago, she was not allowed to wear uniform and join the ranks, as females were not supposed to be combatants. Embarking on a journey through books and archives, she discovered that there is lots of historical evidence for women fighting in the Civil War. Most of them were disguised as men, continuing a tradition of cross-dressing and soldiering that dates back at least to the 17th century.
Hardman is now running a Kickstarter to finance the production of her documentary Reenactress. The feature-length film will show how women today are active in reenactment groups and how they cross-dress and take up arms to represent combatants. It will also shed light on the history their activity is based on, namely the stories of real women who fought on the Union and Confederate sides.
In some ways, reenactment is similar to wargaming: Both represent military history in a playful way and by that, both also offer unique possibilities of questioning traditional narratives. In this way, Reenactress shares questions with my own Wargaming Warrior Women project. As I was curious to find out more, I contacted J.R. Hardman, who was kind enough to participate in a short email interview.
Cpt. Shandy: What do you find exciting about reenactment?
J.R. Hardman: Reenacting is exciting because you get the chance to experience something you never would otherwise. Reading a history book about the Civil War is great, but there’s no smell of the black powder, you don’t feel the heat of the July weather when wearing a wool uniform, and you don’t learn what it feels like to get soaking wet and then have to march 20 miles from a book. Reenacting gives you an approximation to the experience of what it might have been like during a different time period, and although it’s not exactly the same, you can extrapolate from your experience much more closely to what a soldier might have felt like at the time. It’s so much different to pull the lanyard on a cannon than it is to watch someone else do it in a movie. It’s also an incredible feeling to have people, especially children, ask you questions about history and be able to answer them and help those kids learn.
C.S.: Who are the women reenacting female combatants?
J.R.H.: We have interviewed a lot of really incredible women who reenact, and they come from all walks of life. One woman in our movie is a doula and was a volunteer firefighter. One woman is a reporter for local news. One woman is a retired prison guard. One is a student studying to become a veterinarian. One is a substitute teacher. Some women we have met were formerly in the military, and some would never have thought about it before reenacting. Everyone seems to be doing it for a slightly different reason, but overall people seem to love history, and want to learn more about it and represent it well.
C.S.: Why is it important that what you do is grounded in history, that there really where women donning uniforms and fighting in the Civil War?
J.R.H.: It’s important to represent that history that people don’t know about. There were women fighting in the Civil War on both sides of the conflict, Union and Confederate. It’s important to recognize that history because it really informs the present.
The fact that women in the 19th Century were brave enough to go to war and were willing to abandon their identity and pretend to be men in order to do so speaks to the power of the female spirit. Knowing women could do that back then is hugely inspiring to women today, especially in the face of unequal treatment they receive in places like the modern military. Knowing that there were real women who served in the Civil War also creates a large sense of legitimacy for our portrayals. After speaking with historian and former reenactor Lauren Cook Wike, who authored the book, They Fought Like Demons, and compiled the letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who was a real woman soldier on the Union side, I have come to understand how important it is for people to know these stories. It turns out that Rosetta Wakeman’s letters would never have been uncovered without Lauren’s work as a reenactor.
I also understand that the reenactment hobby is a lot about authenticity, and it really helps to have historical women that you can point to to model your impression on. Lastly, without this hobby, I would never have been motivated to learn about this history, myself. Reenacting has taught me things I never would have learned otherwise. It has really changed my perspective on history all together.
C.S.: What do you think representing warrior women in a playful context – be it reenactment or miniature wargaming – can achieve?
J.R.H.: Reenacting can be really fun. When it comes down to it, it’s a hobby, and sometimes people can take it too seriously. The units I participate in really treat each other like a family, and I have made life-long friends reenacting. Representing warrior women in a playful context can help to make the history more accessible for everyone, from tiny children to big adults.
C.S.: Thanks for your time and all the best for the Kickstarter!
The Kickstarter for Reenactress will be running until Saturday, 1 August 2015 05:59 CEST. I think it is well worth supporting and I’ll keep my fingers crossed – I’d really love to see the documentary.
A very worthwhile project. These “hidden” histories are very interesting and make one wonder if this was not more common in even earlier periods then one would think.
Thanks. I’d really be interested to know if there were similar cases of cross-dressing in the ancient world…