The Cross-Dressing Reenactors of Gettysburg -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

6thNYPreviously: Part I.

On August 3rd, 1862, a nineteen-year-old Irish immigrant named Jennie Hodgers joined the ranks of the 95th Illinois Infantry, successfully passing for a man during a physical examination in which she only had to show her hands and feet. For the next three years, she served as Pvt. Albert D. J. Cashier, engaging in as many as forty battles and skirmishes, where she fought bravely and memorably.

During the six-week siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Cashier was captured at a Confederate outpost, but managed to escape by stealing a gun from one of the guards and outrunning his mates. Comrades also remembered her climbing to the top of Union fieldworks at Vicksburg and taunting the rebels to come out and show themselves.

cashierCashier was illiterate, but she had help from her friends in writing letters, because she corresponded with the Morey family in Babcock’s Grove, Illinois throughout the war, also sending them money, blankets, and other gifts. A few of the Morey letters refer to Cashier’s “sweetheart,” asking if Albert will bring her home at the end of the war, and if he has bought his sweetheart a new dress. We’ll never know if this sweetheart was a lesbian partner, part of the ruse to maintain Cashier’s male identity, or entirely made-up.

After the war, Cashier returned to Illinois and continued living under her male alias. For over forty years, she labored at a variety of jobs—farmhand, handyman, janitor, property caretaker, and town lamplighter. She also took advantage of her male status in order to vote and march in veteran parades. No one knew her as anyone other than Albert, a short guy (she was 5’2”) with an Irish brogue. She received a veteran’s pension in 1890, and an increase in 1899 at the age of 56, as she was aging out of the hard, physical labor she’d done for so many years.

Then, in 1911, while doing odd jobs for an Illinois state senator, the senator accidentally ran her over in his automobile, and broke her leg. The doctor who set her broken thigh discovered her gender, setting off a series of events that would make her a national celebrity and ultimately contribute to her death. Although the doctor swore to keep her secret, Cashier never healed enough to go back to work, and she had to move into a home for disabled veterans. A psychiatrist at the home, Dr. Leroy Scott, also knew her secret, and became fascinated with Cashier’s story. Over the next three years, her physical and mental health deteriorated and Dr. Scott’s interest in her story did nothing to help. The superintendent of the home decided to have Cashier declared insane by the State of Illinois, so they could send her to an asylum.

At the same time, someone leaked her story to the press, and it made national headlines. The Pension Bureau decided to investigate the case of this woman who had been “defrauding” the government for veteran benefits for twenty-four years. In 1914, the court declared Cashier insane and she was sent to an asylum, where she was placed in the women’s wing and forced to wear a dress.

Many of her former comrades visited her there. One recalled, “I left Cashier, the fearless boy of twenty-two at the end of the Vicksburg campaign. I found a frail woman of seventy, broken, because on discovery she was compelled to put on skirts. They told me she was as awkward as could be in them. One day she tripped and fell, hurting her hip. She never recovered.”

During the Pension Bureau investigation, the men who’d fought at her side were asked about her sanity. “His mind seemed to be alright but his actions seemed to be a little funny,” one said. “I suppose that was because he was a woman.” Finally, in February 1915, the bureau determined that she really was Albert Cashier, who had served in the 95th Illinois, and had therefore not defrauded the government. Her pension checks would continue. Sadly, ten months later, Albert died. She was buried in her uniform, with full military honors.

Cashier belongs to a group of an estimated one thousand women who fought, cross-dressed as men, for the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. We are currently in the middle of the war’s sesquicentennial, and over the Fourth of July weekend, I traveled with my mom, a reenactor, to the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, where there were plenty of ladies in hoopskirts and hairnets, but also some cross-dressed women portraying soldiers. At least five women fought in the battle of Gettysburg in 1863, including an unidentified drummer girl who swore that once she healed from her injuries she would never wear a dress again, and two female Confederates who were casualties of Pickett’s Charge.

On the third and final day of the battle, after two hours of ineffective artillery bombardment, 12,500 Confederate soldiers began a march towards certain death—for almost a mile, troops marched in formation across an open field, stepping over bodies as they fell, toward the Union line at Cemetery Ridge. Those still marching by the time they reached the ridge were decimated by point-blank musket-fire and bayoneting. The Confederate casualty rate alone was over fifty percent; overall, the Battle of Gettysburg had the highest casualty rate of any of the war. One Union private from New Jersey wrote home to say that as he was guarding Emmitsburg Road the evening after the charge, he heard the screams of a woman, dying in the field across the road, where so many Confederate dead already lay. He described the screams as the most awful sounds he’d ever heard.

It was stories like these—Albert Cashier, the drummer girl, and the unknown Confederate—that made the history of the Civil War come alive for me like it never had in school. I went to Gettysburg to look for Albert reincarnate, wondering if the reenacting community would try and force her into a skirt today, or if they’d let her keep her pants on and hang with the guys.

At high noon on July 6th, I went to meet J.R. Hardman, a twenty-seven-year-old filmmaker who is currently making a documentary called Reenactress, about her experiences as a cross-dressing soldier. We’d been texting ever since I arrived in Gettysburg on July 4th, but cell service was spotty on the farm where the reenactment was being held, so it took us a couple days to rendezvous. I finally found her near a flagpole at the top of a hill next to the Union artillery camp. She was wearing Union blue trousers, a checked shirt, and suspenders, having just returned from an 11am cavalry battle, in which she fired artillery with the 6th New York. She also switch-hits in gray and reenacts as an infantry soldier with the 53rd Georgia, and her film will chronicle her experiences on both sides of the Mason-Dixon divide.

A hundred and fifty years ago, J.R. would have made a fine recruit. She is tall and strong, with a long boyish neck and short, auburn hair. Last year, while at the 149th anniversary of Gettysburg as a spectator, the captain of the 6th New York recruited her for his unit based on the way she looked wearing a man’s cap. It was too hot to be in the sun without one, and so she’d bought one from the sutlers (vendors that sell clothing and accessories at reenactments). As J.R. remembered, “He comes up to me and he goes, ‘You reenact?’ and I go, ‘No…’ And he goes, ‘Well, you want to?’”

“And that’s him over there,” she said, introducing me to Jeff, the captain, as a writer from New York.

“All the way from New York City?”

“All the way,” I said.

It was obvious that Jeff was the proud papa of the unit, comfortably reclining at the lunch table in a white undershirt, suspenders, and trousers. I’d overheard the women in my mom’s reenacting group complain of meager portions of the historically accurate venison stew prepared by their unit’s cook (and served first to the men), but everyone in the 6th New York looked well fed. Scattered across the table, I saw a bottle of Hellman’s mayo, Ziplock bags of crackers, Sabra hummus, and huge Tupperware containers of tabouleh and chicken salad.

“Which one is our food?” J.R. asked, making a plate.

“There is no ‘our food.’ It all belongs to the captain,” Jeff joked.

bootsJ.R.’s cinematographer, O.K. Keyes, made a dive for the edamame. The two women met through J.R.’s work on a campus film fest; when J.R. realized they both went by their initials, she decided it was “meant to be.” O.K. was also dressed as a soldier, in borrowed garb, but she didn’t have boots, so she’d improvised by covering a pair of sneakers in black duct tape.

I took a picture of the shoes, adding to an album already filled with anachronistic snapshots—Abe Lincoln in a golf cart, a port-a-potty for “hoops only,” a Styrofoam bowl of historically accurate colcannon (mashed potatoes and greens) I got from the food tents. Watching the 6th New York feed themselves was like watching a scene from Brecht: these people looked like they were from the 19th century, and the setting seemed accurate enough, but rather than feeling carried away into history, I felt distanced and hypercritical. The closer the reenactors came to matching their behavior and clothing and accessories to history, the more I noticed the gravel parking lots filled with RV’s, the paper plates and plastic forks. The more real the reenactment, the more I was reminded of how far we were from the actual war.

I sat with J.R. and O.K. while they ate lunch. Jeff seemed eager to be included in the conversation, and offered to tell me his favorite J.R. story. “We’re at Lambertville,” he started.

“Peddler’s Village!” she corrected.

“Peddler’s village, sorry. And J.R. was paid the highest compliment a female reenactor passing as a male reenactor can get. She’s in the women’s room, washing up, and this lady comes out of the stall, takes one look at her, and freaks out. She didn’t know if she was in the wrong stall or if J.R. was in the wrong bathroom.”

This story brought to mind a more famous case of restroom gender-bending. In 1989, a woman named Lauren Cook Burgess was “caught” coming out of the ladies room dressed as a field musician during a reenactment at Antietam National Battlefield Park. The National Park Service, citing “authenticity,” banned her from the reenactment, and Burgess went on to successfully sue the NPS for sex discrimination.

J.R. told me she had located Lauren Cook Burgess (now Lauren Cook Wike) and hoped to interview her for the documentary. She credits her with paving the way for women who want to reenact in pants.

“She won a lawsuit for gender discrimination and I think because of that, at these big national events, I don’t think they can say anything one way or the other. But if you look in the rules and regulations of a lot of reenacting events, there’s many times a specific section about women reenactors.”

Item five of the “impression standards” list on the official Gettysburg Anniversary Committee website reads:

Women portraying soldiers in the ranks should make every reasonable effort to hide their gender. Hundreds, if not thousands, of women passed themselves off as men in order to serve as soldiers during the war—on both sides, and we will never know exactly how many did so because their disguises were so good. Honor them. If any Army or event volunteer (as above) determines the female gender at not less than 15 feet, that individual will be asked to leave the field/ranks.

The reason we know today that “hundreds, if not thousands” of women fought as soldiers is due to the scholarship of Lauren Cook Burgess/Wike, who went on to co-author the definitive book on female soldiers, They Fought like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. The book takes its title from a letter a male Union soldier sent back home, after watching several Confederate women fall in a bloody battle: “They fought like demons, and we cut them down like dogs.”

Referring to the impression standards, J.R. told me, “I think that what they’re getting at is, ‘Don’t go out there with earrings and curly hair, wearing lipstick.’ But it’s also really off-putting to read stuff like that. It makes you feel like they don’t want you here.”

After Jeff recruited her for the 6th New York, J.R. tried to find another reenacting group closer to home in Georgia, where she’s based for work. At a small living history event in Atlanta, she approached a male reenactor in a medical tent and asked about becoming a member of his unit. He told her she would have to speak to a woman in the group. When J.R. clarified her intention, asking if she could join as a soldier, he told her, “We don’t do that in our unit.”

“And then I went to go talk to the woman he was directing me towards, and she goes, ‘Oh no, women going out on the field as soldiers is really frowned upon,’ and I thought, that’s so weird, because when I met Jeff he was like, ‘You, go fire the cannon, now!’”

Next, she found an online forum, where she corresponded with someone about joining the 53rd Georgia as an infantry soldier. Most people get into reenacting through a friend or family member, so there were initial suspicions about J.R.’s motives. The reenactor who saw her forum posting brought it to the attention of his wife, who wanted to know, “Who is this woman? What is she trying to do? Who’s her husband?”

“Eventually I went out and met them, and I turned out not to be a psycho who was trying to steal their husbands,” J.R. told me.

O.K. pointed out that there’s an expectation for women to do the same things they were doing 150 years ago: cook and clean and wear dresses. And the male-dominated culture of reenacting creates an arena for these expectations to be enforced; gender stereotypes and prejudices are perpetuated under the veneer of authenticity. O.K. and J.R. weren’t naming names, but I got the sense that, aside from the inclusive camaraderie of the 6th New York and the 53rd Georgia, they’d brushed up against a lot of gender discrimination at reenactments. The argument for discrimination goes something like this: technically, women weren’t allowed to fight as soldiers 150 years ago and so they shouldn’t be on the reenactment battlefield today. If you disagree, you’re historically “inauthentic.”

“You’re not allowed to be offended,” J.R. said. “It’s easy for people to discriminate and give you this idea that you’re not supposed to be mad at them. And when you really think about it, it’s kinda crap. They’re still saying something that’s prejudiced or discriminatory, and it’s easier for them to do that because it’s harder for you to argue because it’s ‘inauthentic.’ But reenacting isn’t actually the Civil War.”

There’s the rub. The women who’d fought in the Union and Confederate armies 150 years ago had the challenge of forsaking their female identities and assimilating into a completely male culture. But women today weren’t trying to disappear into the ranks—they were fighting for recognition as a subculture within a subculture. J.R. wanted to sleep in a canvas tent for four days and fire a cannon. My mom wanted to sleep in a hotel and spend her days in a hoopskirt, washing laundry in a copper tub over a fire pit in the middle of a field. To me, their aspirations seemed equally unbelievable, and at the same time equally legitimate.

“A hobby is about finding people who are like you, and there are people who are like you in every aspect of reenacting,” J.R. assured me. “If you’re Suzy Homemaker, or if you’re super feminist, or if you’re Suzy-Homemaker-Super-Feminist, there will be somebody like you. You just sometimes have to look a little bit harder.”

Reenacting will never succeed as an actual recreation of history, nor does it satisfy the conditions of a well-made play. It occupies a fuzzy territory between theater and history, where the question of authenticity remains unresolved.

Case in point: on November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, dedicating the National Cemetery to “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here.” This was truthful, as far as he knew, but I keep thinking about that unnamed drummer girl who said she’d never wear a dress again. How surprised she’d be today, to learn that although American women can wear pants and vote and join the military, they’re now fighting for the right to bring to life stories like her own.

In the next installment: interviews with a professional Harriet Tubman.

Photos courtesy of the author, O.K. Keyes, and Robert Fagan.

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.

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again