When J.R. Hardman, 28, asked to join a group of Civil War re-enactors in a military drill a few years ago, the unit commander said no dice.
Hardman was willing to wear the wool uniform, carry the gear, load the muskets, eat the hardtack, but the brass still said no.
Because ... J.R. Hardman is a woman.
The unit commander told her to talk to his wife, who would help Hardman find a hoop skirt.
"I told him I wanted to be a soldier, and he informed me that they don't accept women in their unit at all," says Hardman from her home in Atlanta, where she is working on a documentary about women who dressed as men so they could fight in the real Civil War. The working title: Reenactress.
Gettysburg, No Dress
"I have been interested in the Civil War since I was in elementary school," says Hardman, who helps run a movie-festival program for college students. In 2012, she was in Gettysburg, Pa., to witness the annual battle re-enactment. "It was really hot so I bought a big hat from one of the period vendors, and I got mistaken for a re-enactor."
That was the first time, she says, "I realized that women could even portray soldiers, but I found out later that it's not always easy to find a welcoming group."
Eventually, she was invited into the family-friendly 6th New York artillery unit of re-enactors and she joined them for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. Hardman learned how to fire a cannon. "It was," she says, "one of the most exhilarating experiences I've ever had."
She has since also found an open-minded infantry unit — part of the Georgia Volunteer Battalion — to re-enact with. "Doing an infantry impression," Hardman says, is "a lot more physically taxing than artillery, because you have to carry your own weapon and gear and there's a lot more marching."
Tie Back My Hair
There is historical authenticity in the idea that Hardman must dress and act as a man in order to fit into contemporary re-creations of Civil War life.
After all, the small number of women — perhaps several hundred — who fought in the real Civil War did so disguised as men. Some fought to be near loved ones; others for better pay; still others for ideological reasons. Those dressed-as-men combatants are beacons to Hardman. For example:
- Jennie Hodgers, an Illinois resident, enlisted at 21 as an infantryman named Albert Cashier. Her regiment fought in more than 40 engagements, the Civil War Trust reports. According to one account, Cashier was captured and imprisoned, but escaped. She lived out her life as a man and died in 1915, when her subterfuge was found out.
- Sarah Rosetta Wakeman from New York state disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Union Army, according to the Civil War Trust. She served as "Lyons Wakeman" from 1862 until her death in 1864. Wakeman "fought in multiple battles and she actually died of dysentery without ever being discovered to be female," Hardman says. That secret was revealed many years later.
- Loreta Velazquez apparently called herself Lt. Harry Buford and fought in the Battle of Bull Run, according to the Department of Defense. Details are sketchy. The Civil War Trust notes that Velazquez/Buford commanded a group of volunteers and eventually became a spy for the Confederacy.
After participating in more than a dozen re-enactments, Hardman tells pretty good tales. "Many units have a practice called 'powdering' or 'getting powdered,' " she says. "They make you pour a whole cartridge-worth of black powder into your hand, spit in it and then rub it all over your face like a beard. They tell you it's a way to keep you safe on the battlefield so that everyone knows you're 'seeing the elephant' for the first time — that it's your first battle — and they can make sure to keep an eye out for you. But it's also pretty clearly a mild form of hazing. I was never in a sorority — or a fraternity — but I imagine that's what joining one is like."
While Hardman was in full military regalia during a Civil War Days festival in Bucks County, Pa., nature called. In the public facilities "a woman came in and saw me washing my hands at the sink, and got quite a fright because she mistook me for a man in my uniform and thought she was in the wrong bathroom," Hardman says. "I had to explain to her that I was also a woman and that she was in the right place. When she heard my female-sounding voice she was really relieved. We had a good laugh."
The Next Campaign
Hardman's firsthand re-enacting experiences, along with her filmmaking studies as a student at the University of Southern California, have inspired her to try to make a documentary.
For her work-in-progress, Hardman draws on the pioneer research of historians DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook Wike, who co-authored They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War in 2003. Wike won a discrimination lawsuit against the National Park Service in the 1990s, the Los Angeles Times reported, that opened the door for women to participate in certain re-enactments.
Today women like Hardman can be found in uniform at re-enacting events — in homage to those who fought in the real Civil War.
"There are so many ... really inspiring and tragic stories," Hardman says. "Doing this project has given me a wonderful opportunity to research many of them. I love talking about the female soldiers, and a big part of this project is also trying to preserve their history and inform more people about it."
She has spent three years and $10,000 of her own money on the venture, she says. She is hoping to raise more capital through crowdfunding this summer.
Is Hardman also hoping — now that she has had some practice — to re-enlist as a man in that Confederate unit that rejected her in the first place? "I have definitely considered that," she says. "Trying to pass completely as a man is definitely a goal of mine for this project."