On the fifth of July, I got up early to lace my mom’s corset. She was 64 years old, and in a couple of hours, she would be standing in a field, washing laundry over a fire pit in a copper tub at the 150th anniversary reenactment of the battle of Gettysburg. The corset would serve as her back brace. Like most of her clothing, she had sewn it herself, from a historically accurate pattern. Two pieces of pink floral fabric connected in front with a row of hooks and eyes over her chemise, and it was my job to lace the pink cording in the back—first the top, which narrowed the shape from ribcage to waist, and then the bottom cord, which broadened from waist to hips.
“You can pull it tighter,” she said, sucking in her stomach.
Reflected in the mirror of our hotel room, we were an anachronistic duo. She was in her underpinnings and I was her futuristic handmaiden, in floral Banana Republic shorts and a pair of hot pink Nikes.
Once the corset was sufficiently tightened (my dad usually does this job, before reenactments that take place closer to home), she put on her hoop and her skirt, her blouse and her jacket. She twisted her long hair into a bun. “But now I don’t know what to do with my bangs,” she said.
Bangs are not historically accurate. Mom worried that the other women would remark upon them.
She finally clipped them back with a couple of regular drugstore barrettes, and then tied her bonnet under her chin. “Let’s see if Dunkin’ Donuts is open, so I can get a tea for the road.”
Technically, we were staying in Hagerstown, Maryland because the Days Inn was one of the few hotels in the Gettysburg area with any rooms available. But truthfully we were staying in Hagerstown because last Christmas my mom said she wanted to go to Gettysburg and I said I would go with her, maybe as a joke, maybe as a kind of dare to myself, or maybe because I was feeling bad after she put on a CD of an Irish tenor singing “Danny Boy” and told us she wanted it played at her funeral, which made my little sister burst into tears and leave the room.
It’s not like my mom has a terminal illness—she just isn’t afraid of death or hard, manual labor. Hence Gettysburg, the bloodiest single battle of the entire Civil War, with 50,000 casualties. In her role as laundress, my mom would be one of 10,000 reenactors, and I would be one of 60,000 gawkers in sunglasses and sneakers.
To prepare for the experience, I’d been reading Tony Horwitz’s book, Confederates in the Attic, the only bestseller about Civil War reenacting. It’s a journalistic page-turner, peppered with colorful characters and painful truths about the American South, but it’s also mostly the story of men, which just reminded me of why I’d never gotten interested in military history in school. In eighth grade, our social studies teacher had made us memorize which general fought for which side and this about summed up what the history of the Civil War still was for me: a catalogue of facts and figures about men, passed down by other men. Then I came to a paragraph in Horwitz’s book that commanded my attention:
Women weren’t quite as welcome on the [reenacting] battlefield. A female reenactor dressed as a male soldier had successfully sued the National Park Service following her expulsion from a 1989 battle (she was caught while coming out of the women’s bathroom). Ever since, a small number of women had dressed and fought as soldiers, despite frequent grumbling from male reenactors who regarded this as farbish.
“Farbish” is a derogatory term for amateurish, inauthentic reenacting. But after a little Googling, I learned these female reenactors were far from farbish; in fact, they represented the real women, as many as a thousand, who fought in the war, dressed as men. Lacing my mom’s corset was my initiation into the surreal subculture of reenacting and over the next few days, I would travel from campfire to battle line to artillery camp, uncovering the stories of women my eighth grade history textbook left out.
Back in her twenty-first century life, my mom works full-time as a clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders and trauma, and I’m used to seeing her in knit pantsuits and earth-tone jewelry. This morning, after observing how delicately she moved in and out of modern doorways in her hoopskirt, I offered to drive the rental car.
“I can drive,” she insisted.
I doubted it.
She tossed me the keys and I set our GPS for Gettysburg. It was a perfect summer morning, cool and dewy before the heat hit. We drove past well-tended farmland and down a two-lane winding road through shady green Catoctin Mountain Park. My mom sat in the passenger seat, checking Facebook on her pink smartphone while the GPS directed us towards the Pennsylvania border.
In 1863, Gettysburg was a major crossroads town between south-central Pennsylvania and Baltimore, with a population of 2,400, including 188 free black residents. The three-day battle took place in and around town, but the reenactment was being held on rented farmland—the original battlefield is now a military park operated by the National Park Service.
At the reenactment site, we waited in line for thirty minutes with hundreds of cheerful Midwesterners and cranky patriots. There were a few ladies in 19th-century day dresses and parasols and some men with rifles slung over their shoulders, but mostly it was families—moms pushing strollers, dads carrying sets of folding chairs, teenage daughters wearing crop tops and heavy eyeliner. Over the next few days, I would hardly see anyone who wasn’t white. For cultural diversity, I saw one Amish family and one Hasidic family. (The Amish were distinguishable because the teenage girls were wearing Nike shower shoes; the Hasids were distinguishable by their hats.) My mom saw Harriet Tubman, but I missed her because I was getting breakfast at the Lincoln Diner in town.
The spectator sport of the Civil War arguably began on July 21, 1861, when hundreds of people from Washington, D.C. followed Union troops to the battle of First Battle of Bull Run (also known as Manassas), hoping to see the Feds dramatically snuff out the rebellion. They packed picnic lunches for the seven-hour carriage ride, and watched the battle from a hill about five miles from the actual fighting. William Howard Russell, a London Times correspondent wrote, “The spectators were all excited, and a lady with an opera glass who was near me was quite beside herself when an unusually heavy discharge roused the current of her blood —‘That is splendid, Oh my! Is not that first rate?’”
As Mom and I walked towards the civilian camp, we passed merchandise tents and food vendors and bleachers crowded with middle-aged people holding striped umbrellas and huge sodas.
“Doesn’t this remind you of a baseball game?” I asked. The bleacher seating was entirely sold out, and more spectators were crowding the perimeter of the battlefield, some in camping chairs, some standing in the tall grass with binoculars and video cameras. A male announcer could be heard over the loudspeakers, asking everyone to please save the first row of bleachers for those unable to walk any higher.
My mom disagreed; she thought I was being cynical. She reenacts because it makes her feel closer to her ancestors, Scotch-Irish farmers who made their homestead in Kansas in the nineteenth century. To her, this field of tents, these smoldering campfires, plus the fact that she’d stayed up most of the night hand-stitching a blouse, brought hallowed history back to life.
Walking and talking, we hadn’t noticed that the national anthem was now being broadcast over the loudspeakers.
A dark-haired Union soldier beside us was stopped in the grass, his cap over his heart.
“Whoops, we should stop talking,” my mom whispered.
We stopped walking, too. I put my hand over my heart and mouthed the words. The only sounds were the voice of the soprano and a light breeze rustling the dry grasses.
When the anthem was over, the soldier put his hat back on, winked at us, and said, “Play ball!”
The first battle of the day had begun.
Finally we reached the tent where the rest of my mom’s unit was camping, and I met a redhead in a sage green blouse named Kim Jackson, whom I’d already heard a lot about, as my mom seemed envious of her detailed knowledge of historically accurate buttons and the fact that she had made her own cage crinoline. I complimented Kim on her braided hairdo, which reminded me of Kirsten, the American Girl doll. It turned out that we shared a childhood obsession with historical make-believe (she had the Felicity doll, I had Molly; we both loved Anne of Green Gables). But this obsession eventually lead us in different directions: I was drawn to the stage, while Kim took to the battlefield.
“I took an acting class once and it was a terrible idea,” Kim told me. “I have a very hard time learning lines and taking on another person’s role. But I can be myself in another time.”
To prepare for this kind of time travel, Kim takes stock of her own experience: liberal values, working- to middle-class background, parents who “insisted on education beyond what they could afford,” and then portrays a woman with similar circumstances in the 1860s. “My mom’s a single mom, so I look at the circumstances of women when there was no man in the household, which is how I really got drawn to the laundress idea,” she said.
While we spoke, her boyfriend Marcus was sitting in the grass, making a menu of laundry services—shirts were five cents, socks and drawers were three. For mending, one could “inquire.” The following night, there would be a dance for all the reenactors, and some were already stopping by to get their washing done, an hours-long process that included pre-soaking, scrubbing and then boiling the clothes over a fire pit in a copper tub, and finally hanging them on a line to dry in the eighty-degree heat.
There are about a dozen members in the 8th Veteran Reserve Corps, a reenacting unit based in my hometown, Lombard, Illinois. During the war, the 8th Veterans guarded Camp Douglas, a P.O.W. camp on the south side of Chicago. Their commander was Col. Benjamin Sweet, a Lombardian. Fascinatingly, the 8th Veterans were all disabled—Union soldiers discharged for illness or injury. Both the original unit of 19th century soldiers and the contemporary reenacting troop had at one time called themselves the Invalid Corps.
I asked Andy Dorsey, who founded the unit in 2010 while still a college student, about the name change. “Well, who would want to join the ‘Handicapped Patrol?’” he said. Or “the ‘Cripple Squad?’”
This weekend at Gettysburg, the men of the 8th Veterans joined the 1st Michigan Engineers & Mechanics, and the women were posted in the dependents camp, washing laundry, but 150 years ago, there would have been at least one woman fighting with the Engineers. Following her fiancé to war, Marian Green enlisted in the 1st Michigan Engineers in 1862, and conspired with the army surgeon in order to pass the physical exam. Marian is one of 250 women we know served in the Union and Confederate armies thanks to historical records, though the real number is probably closer to 1,000. Many women enlisted with loved ones. A woman from Tenneessee named Melverina Elverina Peppercorn joined the Confederate army to be with her brother. At least two women went to war with their fathers.
But women also enlisted for many of the same reasons soldiers enlist today: patriotism and adventure, honor and economics (a maid in New York could earn four to seven dollars a month for her services; a Union soldier got thirteen dollars a month). The war ignited the imaginations and ambitions of young women like Emily, a nineteen-year-old from Brooklyn, who wanted to enlist because she believed she was Joan of Arc reincarnate. Harriet Merill joined the 59th New York Infantry in order to leave behind the brothel where she worked.
Eager to explore, I said goodbye to the 8th Veterans and walked up a grassy slope, alongside a low rope that cordoned the civilian camp from the battlefield. A golf cart drove past with President Lincoln riding shotgun. He waved. I didn’t feel immersed in history as much as I felt smacked in the face by it, at random. I stopped at the top of a hill to listen to a military band play, and closed my eyes. That was the only way I could really block out the anachronisms and let the music carry me back in time.
When I opened my eyes, I saw a tall, stately woman dressed in blue wool trousers, a checked shirt, and suspenders. My first female soldier: Kim Hopfer. Round metal (period-appropriate) glasses framed her gentle face, and she immediately apologized for talking to me with a mouthful of beef jerky.
“That only adds to the realism,” I assured her.
“I’m sorry I just took a big piece.”
Before arriving at Gettysburg, my mom had coached me on how to approach and speak to reenactors: you don’t ask about their “character” or who they’re “playing,” as if interviewing an actor. You ask about their “impression.” Their clothing is clothing, not a “costume.” According to my mom, not a single reenactor makes clothing using costume patterns; only reproductions of clothing patterns from the 19th century will suffice. “That would be Furby,” my mom said. “Do you know that expression?” I told her she was confusing farby with a robot from the late nineties.
When I asked Kim about her impression, she told me she was a soldier in the 138th Pennsylvania, a volunteer infantry unit organized right here in Gettysburg. One of its notable members was Peter Thorn, the caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery, where some of the actual battle took place, and where President Lincoln eventually delivered his Gettysburg Address.
But the 138th missed all the action at home. They were at Harper’s Ferry in June, and on their way to Washington in early July.
“We found out while we were there that the battle here, in our hometown, was going on. So, you know: panic. We’re not able to be here to defend our own hometown, so it was pretty traumatic,” Kim told me, speaking in the present tense about an event that occurred 150 years ago.
It must have been equally, if not more, traumatic for Peter Thorn’s wife Elizabeth, who remained at Gettysburg, responsible for their three young sons, her own elderly parents, and the cemetery during the battle. In the grisly aftermath, she set to work burying soldiers, but many of the men detailed to help her couldn’t bear the stench of the rotting corpses and horses, and so deserted. Elizabeth herself buried 102 soldiers. She was six months pregnant. In 2002, a monument of Elizabeth was dedicated in the cemetery.
A seventh-grade field trip was what first made Kim fall in love with the battlefield and its history, and she and her family now live on a farm in town. “Reenacting is something I always wanted to do,” she told me. “But I have two children, and one of them is mentally retarded, so I had to wait until she was a little older.”
Kim makes a living as a truck driver, and spends her one week of vacation a year reenacting. This was her first time reenacting at Gettysburg, though, and she was still trying to get used to the heat. “You got to march, you got to keep time, you have all these clothes on, you have a twelve-pound rifle, plus however much weight in gear, plus all the wool that you have on.” Raising her boot for me to look, Kim said, “These are the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever had on my feet. They’re very hard. They’re very flat.” She admitted that she and some of her comrades “kind of have a Dr. Scholls thing going on in there” to make it a bit more comfortable. “Your feet hurt. Your back hurts. Your shoulder hurts. Your arms hurt. But it’s worth it. It’s really worth it.”
When I asked what made her want to portray a soldier, Kim told me she believed she was born in the wrong time period. “This is my time period. Because if my son or my husband was out there, I would have done the same thing. I would have cut my hair. I would have followed them into battle. I’m a big girl, but I would have wrapped and hid and done whatever I had to do in order to get out there.”
In the mid-nineteenth century, no one carried an ID card. To enlist, a woman often needed only to cut off her hair and pick an alias. Army surgeons conducting physical examinations generally only checked to see a recruit had teeth to tear open powder cartridges and a finger to pull a trigger. Once she enlisted, however, a female soldier had to learn to pass as one of the boys. Frances Louisa Clayton, a Minnesotan who enlisted with her husband in 1861, took up drinking, smoking, chewing, and swearing in order to pass. Loreta Velazquez sometimes wore a fake mustache. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a farm girl from New York who served as Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, wrote home to brag of a fight in which she gave another private in her regiment “three or four pretty good cracks.” Summing up this kind of identity and gender performance, Sarah Emma Edmonds, a Canadian who served as a Union soldier, nurse, and spy under the alias Frank Thompson, wrote in her memoir that the war was a time for “entire self-forgetfulness.”
Female soldiers were particularly adept at recognizing other women in the ranks, but they also formed lasting friendships with their male comrades. Jerome Robbins of the 2nd Michigan Infantry mentioned his friendship with Sarah Emma Edmonds seven times in his diary, describing it as a “consolation” and a “blessing,” and kept her secret once he finally learned she was a woman.
Kim Hopfer told me that, aside from the battles, her favorite part of reenacting was the camaraderie she found at camp. The night before, some of the guys played guitar and fiddle and she sang along.
I finally had to say goodbye to Kim and go find a port-a-potty, which made me wonder how female soldiers dealt with menstruation. This was a question that felt especially pressing to me, as I was on the rag all weekend. I tried to be as sanitary as possible, carrying my own antibacterial hand wipes with me everywhere I went, but I still wanted to basically die every time I had to change my tampon in a sinkless, garbage-can-less port-a-potty.
To amuse myself, I thought about writing a poem as soon as I got back home, called, “Have You Ever Gotten Your Period During Pickett’s Charge?” Appropriately enough, the word “tampon” actually comes from the Civil War era noun “tompion,” a plug made of wood use to protect rifle barrels from dirt and rain.
Some historians suggest that female soldiers may have stopped getting their periods due to the stress of marching up to thirty miles a day and inadequate nutrition, not to mention the psychological stress of battle, and of passing in disguise.
Compared to the trench-style latrine situation (or its alternative: the woods) of nineteenth century military camps, the port-a-potties at the reenactment were pretty civilized, but I still longed to wash my hands and splash cold water on my face. By the end of the first day at Gettysburg, I was hot and exhausted, totally unaccustomed to standing outside all day without any opportunity to duck inside an air-conditioned shop or café. My mom was exhausted, too. She was glad we were staying in a hotel, and not camping on the field with the rest of her unit.
We drove into downtown Gettysburg and looked for an air-conditioned restaurant where we could grab some dinner. All along Baltimore Street, tourists stopped us and asked to take her picture. In her hoopskirt and bonnet, my mom was a memento, an image from the past for someone to put on their iPhone to say, I was there. I saw history.
Part Two coming November 19th.
Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan and a book of poems, Dispatch from the Future. Her non-fiction has appeared in Allure, Bookforum online, The LA Review of Books, The New Yorker online, and Poets & Writers. She teaches poetry in the NYC public schools. Follow her @rhymeswithbee.