Battle re-enactor finds herself at war with U.S. Park Service

September 30, 1991|By Lynda Robinson

Each time Lauren Cook Burgess dresses in a Confederate soldier's uniform, she takes the same pains to hide her sex as the 400 or more women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War.

She binds her breasts, wears her hair short, pulls her cap down low over her face and speaks in a husky voice.

But Ms. Burgess made one mistake when she showed up with her musket and fife for a living history program at Antietam National Battlefield in 1989. She went to the ladies room.

When she came out, she found herself at war with the U.S. Park Service instead of the Union Army.

Two Antietam rangers who saw her refused to let the fife player from the 21st Georgia Volunteer Infantry participate in the park's living history program.

"They asked me to take the uniform off or leave the park," says Ms. Burgess, a 35-year-old college administrator from Fayetteville, N.C., who was infuriated by the ultimatum. "I was so mad that I wasn't going to take it off."

Instead she marched out of the park and, in February, filed a sex discrimination suit against the U.S. Department of Interior in U.S. District Court in Washington.

Ms. Burgess claims that the rangers forced her to leave the park because she is a woman. The Park Service contends Ms. Burgess was barred because her uniform was not appropriate for a re-enactment of a battlefield hospital.

The legal skirmish has divided Civil War re-enactors, a subculture of people from all over the country who devote their weekends to marches, firing drills, encampments and other demonstrations of 19th-century military life.

"This is a hot potato," says Marylander Dave Pridgeon, an Edgewood man who commands the 21st Georgia. "There are those who think that women have no place in the ranks. There are those who think she's correct to go after the Park Service."

Much of the debate revolves around the question of historical accuracy. Re-enactors who want to exclude women in uniform from the field say they weren't there during the Civil War and shouldn't be there now.

Ms. Burgess begs to differ.

Most women, she concedes, were the nurses, grieving widows and camp followers portrayed at living history re-creations and in the much-watched PBS television series "The Civil War." But hundreds of women also disguised themselves as men to enlist in the Union and Confederate armies.

Union nurse Mary A. Livermore wrote in her memoirs, "My Story of the War," that at least 400 women fought in the war, though she suspected the real number was far higher.

So do many historians, but nobody really knows, says Dr. Linda Grant De Pauw, a professor of American history at George Washington University and the president of the Minerva Center, a non-profit group that focuses on women in the military.

"In the 19th century, somebody with pants and short hair was a man," Dr. Grant De Pauw explains. And because there were so many young boys fighting in both armies, women faded into the ranks far more easily than they would today.

Civil War letters, memoirs and newspaper accounts are littered with references to women soldiers, including:

* A corporal startling comrades in the 10th Massachusetts by having a baby at their winter camp in Falmouth, Va.

* Two drunken soldiers in the 15th Missouri shocking the men who pulled them out of a river when they turned out to be women.

* A member of the 15th Iowa committing suicide after her unit learned she was a woman.

L The women enlisted for many reasons, Dr. Grant De Pauw says.

Some were determined to fight alongside a husband, brother or son. Others burned to defend the cause of abolition or state's rights. A few were already living as men before the war to support themselves with the kind of high-paying jobs denied to women.

Jennie Hodgers continued living as a man after fighting in the 95th Illinois Volunteer Infantry under the name Albert D. J. Cashier, according to an article on her life published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

She spent four years at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Home in Quincy, Ill., before dying in 1915. She was buried with full military honors.

At least three women were at Antietam, the Sept. 17, 1862, battle that left 23,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing on the single bloodiest day in U.S. military history. One of the wounded Union soldiers, Mary Galloway, was nursed by Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross.

But the existence of women soldiers made no difference to the Antietam park rangers, Ms. Burgess charges.

"They said they wanted to portray the norm," she says. "They called me a yahoo and told me I knew nothing about the history of the period. It was insulting."

The Park Service, however, insists it does not prevent women or anyone else from participating in its living history programs as long as their portrayals are accurate.

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