Published April 26, 2023
Civil War Reenactress
In this episode, you will meet JR Hardman, a documentary filmmaker, educator, and Civil War reenactor, and hear about her first feature-length documentary film currently in production, Reenactress. The film tells the story of the women in the American Civil War reenactment community who portray soldiers, commemorating the women who fought in the Civil War disguised as men.
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council. This episode was produced and edited by Dinah Mack, with a little help from Kathleen Barker and Deb Fowler.
Hello and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities, A Podcast for Teachers. I'm Deb Fowler, Executive Director of History UnErased. In this season, my colleagues Kathleen Barker and Dinah Mack will introduce you to a few of the characters featured in our Intersections and Connections curriculum and some fascinating and empowering backstories. In the last episode, "A Soldier's Secret," you met Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who joined the 153rd New York Regiment as Lyons Wakeman and fought - and died - as a soldier in the Civil War. Flash forward more than 150 years to today's Civil War reenactment battlefields and women are still facing erasure and discrimination.
In this episode, you will meet JR Hardman, a documentary filmmaker, educator, and Civil War reenactor, and hear about her first feature-length documentary film currently in production, Reenactress. The film tells the story of the women in the American Civil War reenactment community who portray soldiers, commemorating the women who fought in the Civil War disguised as men. You'll also learn about a discrimination lawsuit filed against the National Park Service and hear more stories of uncommon soldiers who fought valiantly in the Civil War.
JR Hardman: My name is JR. I am a filmmaker based in Salt Lake City, Utah. I am currently working on my first feature-length documentary called Reenactress, which is a film about the gender-bending women in American Civil War reenactment and the real women who served as soldiers in the Civil War that they portray. And I have been working on the film for just a little over a decade now, so a bit longer than the Civil War actually went on.
Dinah: We know that women served as soldiers during the Civil War. Can you tell us why might a woman have chosen to serve as a soldier? What do you think motivated them?
JR: Yeah, I think the evidence that we have that's the clearest is from the letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who was living as Lyons Wakeman when she was serving in the Civil War. And the reason that she gave is really a financial reason. She was living in upstate New York and posing as a man to work or maybe living as a man to work. And during the time of the Civil War, women's options were extremely limited for how they could earn money. And especially if you were someone who didn't have a lot of education or a lot of resources, you could be a domestic servant, you could marry someone and try to live off their income and maybe work on their farm.
But for somebody like Rosetta, she was the oldest child in a very large family, and the boys in her family were much younger than she was. And for her, I think joining the military gave her access to a whole other world that she never could have seen otherwise, and also gave her cold hard cash that she could use for living a life of relative freedom compared to a lot of what women were allowed to do. And so I think from what I understand from the researchers that I've spoken to, the majority of women doing this were of a lower class background. Women's best-paying jobs during the 1860s paid about $9 a month. And that is if you were a governess or some job that you had to have a lot of education to do that kind of job.
And joining the military as a private paid $13 a month in the Union Army. So you're increasing your earning potential by just a massive amount. And we know that Rosetta Wakeman got a bounty, I think $152 when she signed up. That's more than a year of pay for someone. There's evidence that women used joining the military to escape abusive relationships with men. There's evidence that women did this because their male relatives were going off to war and they were going to be left at home. And so I think for a lot of the people doing this, there was no real other option for them to make the kind of living and to support themselves, and in the case of Rosetta, to send money back to her family than to basically live as a man.
Dinah: So how did you first learned about Sarah Rosetta or Lyons Wakeman?
JR: I had a really great elementary school teacher that taught Civil War when I was in the eighth grade, and his name was Mr. Kelleher, and he taught our history class. And I was so fascinated because he would draw diagrams on the board or on the overhead projector of how the battles actually worked. And it would be like these Xs and Os, it looked like a sports game, like a football game. And it was so fascinating to learn this really pivotal part of our history. And I had always wanted to go to Gettysburg ever since that class. And when I was in my twenties, my job was taking me through Pennsylvania and I forced a coworker of mine to get up at seven in the morning and drive from Philadelphia to Gettysburg.
We walked on the battlefield and we saw the headstones and we saw the sides of the buildings that had the bullet holes in them, and it felt so real. And then we went into this little shop and somebody said, "Well, what are you doing here in the spring? Come back in July when the reenactment is happening." And it just happened to be that the 150th-anniversary cycle of the Civil War was happening at that time. And so I went to the 149th-anniversary reenactment of Gettysburg, and I met this guy and he said, "Do you want to be a reenactor?" And I was like, "Oh, I guess, I never had thought about this." But I ended up going with him in his unit to the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. And that was the first event that I ever went to as a reenactor and I participated.
So it was gigantic. There were hundreds if not thousands of people. And it felt so real and it was such an amazing experience. And I was like, "I got to do this. I want to do this." But I had gone to an event actually in Atlanta where I was living at the time, and when I went to ask the folks in charge, "Can I come and reenact with your unit?" They said, "Yeah, go talk to my wife. She'll hook you up with a nice hoop skirt." And I was like, "No, I want to do what you're doing. I want to fire the cannon. I want to carry the gun. I want know what the actual soldiering was like." And the gentleman that I spoke to was like, "Oh no, we don't do that. It's too weird. It's totally frowned upon in this community and we would never allow that in our unit."
And so that's actually what got me to call the first guy that I met at Gettysburg and go out with their unit was that somebody told me to my face, "You can't play because you're a girl." And I was like, "In the 21st century, you're telling me I can't do a hobby?" I came to learn after that whole event happened that there is a pretty big naysayer community within reenactment and they don't want women there. And that's when I started doing the research on, well, did women actually do this? In 2015 we did a fundraiser for a film and there was an article about our film and the fundraiser in NPR online. And I started getting all of these calls and emails and Facebook messages, "You should come to Northern California. We do this here. You should go to Chicago, we do this here. You should go to." And it was like, oh my gosh, this is a gigantic community of women who want to be doing this and keep getting this pushback.
Dinah: Are women allowed to be in Civil War reenactments today?
JR: There are reenactment events and living history programs that allow women to come and portray soldiers. And there are events or even just groups that don't allow women to come. However, I've been told that if you can find evidence that there is a woman who fought in that battle and you are portraying that particular individual, that in theory they would let you come.
Dinah: That's the loophole.
JR: Yeah, that's what I've been told. But so for example, there was an event, it was called Wauhatchie, it's the Battle of Wauhatchie in Tennessee. And my unit was invited to this event and the group that invited my unit was called 40 Rounds Events. And they are a group that organizes reenactment events. And this particular event was on somebody's private land. They consider themselves to be a particularly authentic group and they did not want women at their event. Now did they put that on their website in advance? No, because they assumed no women would want to register for their authentic event and they didn't think it was going to be an issue, or maybe it never even occurred to them. But my unit is what you might call a mainstream unit. And so we do a lot of times large scale events where there's spectators.
But from what I understand, this particular group was trying to create an event where it would be completely authentic and there would be no anachronisms and it would just feel like the real war would feel. And so when I registered, I used my real name because for safety and insurance purposes, should I get injured, I want them to take me to the hospital and I don't want them to give me an antibiotic I'm allergic to or something like that 'cause my medical records are going to be under a different name.
So I registered for the event and a couple of weeks later I got an email from the event organizers and it said, "As per our regulations, we don't allow women to portray soldiers because it's anachronistic and basically we're refunding your registration and don't come." And so that particular event, I know now that this group doesn't want women at their events. However, I do have two friends who went to one of their other events because it was held on public land and you're legally not allowed to discriminate against women. And they said nobody knew they were there the whole weekend and they just passed for men and it was fine.
Dinah: Could you speak a little bit about the case of Lauren Cook Burgess? Wasn't she portraying a soldier and barred from dressing as a man at Antietam and didn't she sue the National Park Service?
JR: What happened to Lauren was that, I think it was 1989, she went to a living history program at the Antietam National Battlefield Park, which she will not like that I said that because she loves that battlefield and she doesn't want people to think disparaging things about that battlefield. But she went to an event, it was on public land on a National Park site. She went dressed as a soldier. It wasn't even a battle, it was a living history program, which is the other aspect. And so the idea there is that you are portraying a soldier and then maybe the public might come and interact with you and they could ask you questions and you could answer those questions or maybe you would march in a drill or you would show people how the weapons fire or you would talk about something about the life of being a soldier.
And so she was there and she said she was portraying a wounded soldier and she had to use a restroom. So she went inside the park building, used the bathroom, came out, and when she came out, the park ranger there saw her in her uniform hum out of the women's restroom and realized, oh, this is a woman. And I guess went up to her and said, "We don't allow this here." So she tried to get him to change his mind. She took it to her unit commander because he was asking her to leave. He went back to the ranger, they tried to take it to the management of that ranger, and ultimately she ended up leaving the park that day and not getting to participate in the rest of the event.
So she sued the National Park for sex discrimination. And you can read in the lawsuit how the decision was made. So they got a summary judgment, which basically means there wasn't a jury or anything. A judge made the decision. And the judge decided that because the park ranger went to her directly and not to her unit commander, that was evidence that they were discriminating against her because of her sex. Because if she was just a male reenactor who had a bad impression and it wasn't up to the park standards, normally the order of operations is that they go to the unit commander and they tell them that soldier is looking out of sorts and get them back in order.
And because they went to her first, that was the evidence that they had, that it was because she's a woman and not because her impression was bad. And the result was that that particular battlefield redid their regulations and they now do not discriminate against women who want to portray soldiers. By extension, you could make a good argument that applies to all National Park or State Park or all government property and public property should not have regulations like that. But that doesn't mean that particular organizers aren't going to give people a hard time or that you're going to show up and be made to feel unwelcome or that there's going to be a unit that won't let you in or that you're going to receive some kind of discrimination or harassment or just generally awful treatment and they won't tell you it's because you're a woman. But that's why.
Dinah: What other fascinating women soldiers did you learn about or have you learned about in your research for this film?
JR: Yeah, I think Rosetta is definitely somebody that we know the most about because we have her experience in her own words. Albert Cashier, whose birth name was Jennie Hodgers is really interesting. What we have of Albert is all of the paperwork, everything that exists. Albert has enlistment records. Albert had a house where Albert lived after the war. There are letters from Albert's comrades to the pension board when they tried to take his pension away and they wrote saying, "This was our comrade and you should not revoke his pension." So there is a considerable amount of information about Albert Cashier. There are other women who we know very little about. For example, the women whose dead bodies were found at Antietam. There's very, very little information about them. We don't even know their names. We know that a doctor found them on the field and they were buried. And that's about it.
There were women who had maybe one or two letters that document their experience. One woman who has very little documentation but is really interesting, her name was Maria Lewis. She was actually a teenage girl. We think that she escaped enslavement and she was found with a white unit. She was with the 8th New York Cavalry at the Battle of Waynesboro. And after that battle, her unit had captured 17 Confederate battle flags during that battle. And they brought them from Waynesboro to Washington DC and presented them to the war department. And she was with that delegation. She was introduced to this woman, Julia Wilbur, who was in Washington DC doing refugee resettlement for people who had escaped the South and escaped enslavement. And Julia Wilbur documented Maria Lewis in her diary. And that is what we know about Maria Lewis.
So this White Quaker lady who was doing work as an abolitionist in Alexandria happened to meet Maria Lewis. And from what she put in her diary, she was going to help Maria Lewis find a place to work and a place to live. And after that, we don't hear much about Maria and we don't really know what happened to her. But all the documentation of Maria Lewis's service is in this lady's diary, and we don't know if she has enlistment records. We don't know if there's anything tying her real name to her male alias. In the case of Black women, there might not even be any census records of them because, at the time they were enslaved, they were not considered people that get documented in a census. They were considered property that gets documented in a bill of sale.
So finding the bill of sale with her name on it, if she was sold at some point, that could be evidence that she came from a particular place at a particular time. Insurance records, people took out insurance policies on the people that they enslaved, and if somebody died and they collected the insurance or if they got injured and they collected the insurance, then you might have a record that that person existed. It's really, really difficult to document people of color from the time period, especially if they were not free people. And it's amazing that we know about Albert Cashier because Albert Cashier couldn't read and write. There's nothing in his own words about his experience.
The one other woman that wrote extensively about her experience, her name is Loreta Janeta Velázquez, and she claims to have been a Confederate lieutenant, but her record, she wrote an autobiography about her experience, but what's in her book doesn't actually match historic records. And whether that's because her memory wasn't perfect or her ability to research where she was at any given time wasn't great or she embellished heavily what her experience was or possibly her autobiography is a work of fiction. We don't really know. I guess the last woman that I have been doing some research on myself is a woman, her name is Francis Clayton, and she was reported to have been in the Missouri Artillery or possibly the Missouri Cavalry, and she is also reported to have been from my home state of Minnesota.
And so a few years ago, actually right after I got kicked out of participating in that event at Wauhatchie, I thought I want to have an immersive experience in this way that I was not allowed to have with this particular group. And I had been talking to different people who did what we call a first-person impression, and I thought I should try and do one. Or maybe if they're saying you have to portray a particular individual, like okay, maybe I'll go out and find a particular individual that I could portray at events and make an argument that I'm doing this impression of this particular person. So I found Francis Clayton. She's not that hard to find. She is the woman on the front cover of They Fought Lake Demons.
And what I learned about her is that the photographs that exist of her were taken in a professional photo studio outside of Boston. I think these photographs are particularly interesting because they are publicity photos. This photo studio took these photos and then sold them all around the country and they printed many different copies of them and they were taken, we think in 1865, which means either right before the war ended or right as the war had just ended. And I think they posed her in the way that they did so they could sell more photos.
Dinah: So was photography used by the government at the time as PR, or-
JR: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Photography, newspaper articles like some of the newspaper articles about Francis Clayton. One place it says that she was wounded a certain number of times and another place she was wounded more. In one place she stepped over the dead body of her beloved husband and continued to fight, and in another place it's like a different story and newspaper articles or photographs, they could be reprinted and sent out.
Dinah: If newspapers are sharing articles about women and we're seeing photographs, did they just look the other way and acknowledge that yes, there are women who are enlisting or did they just not know, or?
JR: They tried to frame them in such a way to get more men to enlist? I know that for sure. "Why are you not fighting when this woman is willing to fight? She is being braver than you and you should be brave and go fight because otherwise if you don't do it, we're going to have to find a woman to do it", which is horrifying. So people at the time knew that women were participating in military roles. They might not know who the woman was. From what I've read, other women could tell because they know what a woman looks like even when she's wearing pants.
These stories were being used in maybe different ways than what we would use them for now. People are like, "Oh, you have this agenda", and I'm like, "I absolutely have an agenda. I want people to know that when somebody doesn't know you're a woman, they treat you the same and you perform in the same way." And so there is no physical barrier to you doing this role. It is all a societal barrier. It is because you think I can't do it, that you don't let me do it, not because I can't do it.
Dinah: Do you think anyone knew that Rosetta Wakeman was Lyons Wakeman?
JR: Yes, I think people did know. Obviously, she's writing letters back to her family. They knew. In one of her letters, she talks about visiting a cousin in the Washington DC, Alexandria area, so they would've recognized her. If people in Sarah Rosetta Wakeman's unit knew that she was a woman, they probably supported her because she went to her grave with this secret. If the doctor that took care of her when she was dying and then the group of people that buried her, if they found out, they clearly never said anything.
People get to know somebody and they support their identity and what they want to do, and they're going to keep your secret just as much as you are. I would like to think that people knew what Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was doing and that they helped her because I think that would've been an easier way for her to continue to do what she was doing. I think people have always known what other people are capable of when they get to know them as a human being and then they support them. There's so many fascinating stories and I can't tell them all, but I really appreciate that there are reenactors and there are historians and there are people who are just generally interested in this information.
And you can have a person you're an expert on and you can tell people about that person. And I highly encourage you, if you have an ancestor or if you have a historic figure that you really connect to, or if you have somebody that's absolutely a hundred percent different from you and you want to research that person because you think they're cool, go be an expert on that person or that time period or that event and then tell everybody about it. Because the more we learn about history, the better we're going to live our lives now and into the future.
Deb Fowler: This podcast is funded by the New York City Council. It was developed by History UnErased and produced and edited by Dinah Mack with help from Kathleen Barker and me, Deb Fowler. Dinah is History UnErased Youth Equity Program Director and is a veteran, former middle school social studies teacher, the author of two books and a curriculum writer. Our theme music is 1986 by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise. I'm Deb Fowler. Thanks for listening.
1. Blanton, DeAnne, and Lauren M. Cook. They Fought like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War, chapter
2. Wakeman, Sarah Rosetta, and Lauren M. Cook. An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Wakeman, Alias Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers. Pasadena, MD: Minerva Center, 1994. Print.