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Women Portraying Soldiers

Article from The Citizens Companion
Dec 2005 Edition

Living History

The Editor's Comments:

      Let me simply say that numerous women out there are considering taking on a male soldier role, for numerous reasons. It happens every year, and it seems to be happening with greater frequency. The most disturbing fact is that it is happening with less and less respect for historical accuracy and period-correctness. It seems to have become a "point to be made" issue instead of a true attempt to portray accurate history. This is not my "opinion", these are concerns voiced by commanders, event organizers, soldiers and officers, spectators and civilians. I speak with hundreds of people at dozens of events each year, and this is a hot topic on and off the battlefield.

      Many of these women are now civilians. They are thinking of making the move to the "other side", or they've already "crossed over" and believe they're doing a sufficient job. Some women meticulously study the topic and carry out the persona with great care and detail. Most, however, are blatantly inaccurate in their portrayal of a male soldier and become the topic of conversation in the camps, on the sidelines of battle and under civilian flys.

      Photographers grumble when women with flowing hair, earrings, makeup, manicured nails and bouncing..."parts" turn their otherwise period photographs into throw-aways. Unit commanders often admit to being frustrated and angry at having women in their ranks but, because 21st centry political correctness, keep quiet to keep the peace. Spectators, many of whom are historically knowledgeable, openly express distaste for the numerous women in the ranks that make no real attempt to disguise themselves. Their presence in camp is often resented by their fellow soldiers.

      You and I may not like it, but it's not going to go away. For a mydrid of reasons, women will continue to select a male soldier role as their impression, and you will continue to see it at reenactments. From an educational standpoint, I would rather see this impression carried out correctly, which is the very reason for this article. This article is NOT advocating that women take on such male roles, nor is it suggesting that women abandon such roles. It is simply providing useful information for those who either ARE, or want to be, a disguised female soldier. These tips will greatly enhance your persona, make you more convincing on and off the field, and assist you in accurately portraying history.

      Yes, there were female soldiers during the War, that argument has been beaten straight to death. But women who painstakingly disguised themselves as men during the Civil War made every effort to remain hidden, their sex unknown. I encourage all civilians who may be contemplating taking on such an endeavor to think twice, and then think again. Can you do it justice? Can you accurately honor history? We are all examples to our fellow reenactors and to thousands of spectators who come to see us every year. As with any impression, if we are going to do it, let's do it right.

      I applaud the few women who do a remarkable job of accurately presenting this very difficult impression.

From Fanny & Vera

Helpful Hints & Timely Tips

      A great controversy in Civil War reenacting is women portraying soldiers. Can they? Should they? For those women who would like to reenact as men, Fanny and Vera would like to give you some tips on how to look and act the part. Whether you want to be a male soldier or portray one of the handful of women who masqueraded as men to serve in battle, you must pull off the part in a convincing manner. Can you show up at an event, be a man all weekend and go home without anyone knowing you are really a woman? That should be your goal.

      Be committed to being a man. Not just during battles. No letting your hair down in the shade after the fight as if people won't notice. No popping out of your tent in a ball gown after hours. If you want to be a man then be a man all weekend.

      Prepare to "get in touch with your masculine side". Even a teeny-tiny bit of cuteness will ruin your portrayal as a soldier. There is more to portraying a soldier than firing a musket. Examine period photographs of soldiers and known women soldiers, you will see it isn't pretty being a man in 1863. The first part of being a soldier is looking like one. It is more than slipping on a wool coat. The hairstyle, your face and hands your deportment, speech, stance and activities must all be masculine. You have to pass muster with your officer, your fellow soldiers, and the visiting public if you want to be a Mister. Fanny & Vera offer you this practical advice for developing your manly mein, using a few costume and make-up tricks, there are some easy techniques you can use to add realism to your role.

      Hairstyles. Let's start at thye top shall we? Study the hairstyles prominent among 1860's males. There was a great deal of variety, but a few style do's-and-don'ts apply and they apply to the gentlemen reenactors as well. Visit the Library of Congress website to view hundreds of images of soldiers, both North and South at: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/cwphtml/cwphome.html.

      Men of the era universally parted their hair on the side. The side part was maintained with oil-based hair treatments or on campaign, more often it was unwashed sweaty, oily hair. Hat hair, plastered down on the top but a curl or wave below the hat line, was a common look for the common soldier.

      Long hair? A style adopted by very few officers and soldiers. Custer or Pickett, known for their long, perfumed curls, are often sited as examples. They were the exceptions to the rule and in the minority. A common soldier would not have access to a body servent and French perfumes on campaign so when masquerading as a soldier, aim for the norm. Soldiers worked hard, marched far and fought with conviction. Only about 1 in 300 soldiers had long hair, those that did were rather greasy and straggly looking with hair just below the collar. Most soldiers hacked their hair off above the collar as a thickness of hair on the neck, gathering grease and dirt while making one hot and sweaty was not an asset.

      How can you make your hair look period correct? Cut it short, collar length or shorter; some of that commitment to persona we told you about. Shoving your long hair up under your hat does not fool anyone, nor is it a look seen in period images. Before you leave to an event, use a bit of hair oil or pomade to slick your hair down, comb in a good side part and it should last all weekend.

      About the face. This is the one place that needs your absolute attention to garner a manly appearance. Don't bother with false beards or mustaches unless you are an expert with latex and can do a professional quality job that will stand up to close scrutiny. A fake beard looks like a fake beard and most likely will fall off at the worst possible moment.
Disguised Federal Female Soldier
Disguised Federal Female Soldier

      The majority of period men were clean-shaven when possible. Groups on campaign might show a few days growth of stubble. Young men and some light haired fellows were never able to produce a respectable growth of facial hair, so you are in good company. If your fellow soldiers tease you for your youthful, hairless lip, take it like a man. Should your ethnic background bless you with downy fuzz atop the lip, exploit the trait with a touch of waterproof mascara applied where mustache and sideburns should be. Be sure to match your hair color.

      The most convincing woman/soldier we have ever seen used the simplest, most humble method possible of disguising her dainty features possible. Dirt. Yes, dirt is your friend when it comes to manly make-up. Each morning she would mix up a handful of dust or ash and rub it gently onto her face using extra on the chin, cheeks and sideburns. She wiped off some excess with a dry cloth leaving her pores filled with this earthly mixture and danged if it didn't look like she had a 5 o'clock shadow. The best part of this organic make-up treatment is that it is free, hypoallergenic and removed with mere soap and water.

      This same grimy tecnique works to provide manly hands and fingernails. It goes without mention- no tips, no polish and no fresh manicured look. Short fingernails are a must extra points for ragged or bitten nails. And whatever you do don't use girly make-up. Not a bit of foundation or a touch of eye shadow or even a tinted chap stick. Remember men don't wear make-up.

      The Manly Torso. Men's bodies have broader shoulders and chests, thicker necks, narrow hips and stronger arms than women. With a few theater costime tricks you can imitate this look and camouflage your feminine form.

      If you belong to a unit that utilizes the sack coat as part of its uniform, your job will be easier. The loose fitting sack will hide a multitude of curves if you wear it without the belt. When you wear the belt, fit it 2-3" below your natural waistline to make the torso appear straighter. The dropped shoulder seams of period shirts and coats will help your shoulders to look wider, but you can stitch some modest shoulder pads into your undershirt to help this illusion.
Disguised Federal Female Soldier
Disguised Federal Female Soldier

      Pay attention to the neckline of your shirt and coat. To make your neck look thicker and to hide your lack of an Adam's Apple, choose a shirt with an attached collar rather than a band collar. Always wear your shirt closed at the collar with a stock neckerchief hidden away; the extra material will add bulk. Purchase your shirt a size or two larger as a loose fit, this will help hide your form.

      A short coat will take more effort. Be sure it is wide at the shoulders and baggy enough to end at the mid-hip to elongate the torso and hide your curves. Plan on wearing your coat at all times unless you can convincingly look male in just a vest. A vest with a high collar and hem ending mid-hip is your best bet. Ask your fellow soldiers or unit officiers if you can pass muster in your shirtsleeves and respect their honest opinions. If it does not look convincing, keep your coat on!

      Be mindful of slinging a canteen or forge bag across your chest, as the strap will "lift and separate", pointing out in the most obvious way that you are, indeed, a woman.

      Now to the most intimate matter of camouflage; to make yourself appear bereft of breasts. There is not a bra in the world that will flatten you sufficiently. Sport bras may ban the bounce, but they will only succeed in giving you a uni-breast in the middle where you don't want one. Fear not, the solution is as close as your neighborhood drug store. Purchase a roll of Ace bandage (the nice, strong, wide ones used for knees), and tightly bind your bosoms while lying down. The pressure of the bandage will compress your breasts and spread your bounty across your chest quite evenly, giving the appearance of pectorals and eliminating telltale bounce.

      But be real about your bosoms. There is no way in the world to make those double-D's look flat. If you are so endowed, consider giving up on your soldierly plans in the interest of authenticity. Be a vivandiere instead so that you can freely be female.

      Bottoming out. The well-rounded bottom that fills your jeans so nicely is not a manly trait, and must also be disguised. Fortunately, period style comes to the rescue. Trousers of the times were styled to be loose fitting in the leg, baggy in the seat and long enough to touch the tops of your shoes. Worn with braces (suspenders) rather than a belt, you can keep your manly pants loose to hide your slimmer waist and lack of frontal "bulge". Buy trousers that fit loosely at the hips instead of being fitted at the waist to accomplish this look; your braces will keep them up.
Sarah Edmunds Seelye (aka- Franklin Thompson)
Sarah Edmunds Seelye,
Served two years in the Second Michigan
Infantry as Franklin Thompson.
In 1866 she received a military pension.

      A nice thick pair of wooly socks will hide your dainty ankles. In the interest of safe locomotion, however, don't buy your brogans or boots too big just to get the look of big manly feet. Men have small feet too, though they may not like to admit it. The square toes of period men's footwear should hide the most narrow or dainty of tootsies. An extra pair of socks worn with these shoe styles will help them fit snugly and comfortably.

      Walk the walk. Watch your fellow soldiers in motion. Their feet face forward, they STRIDE with long steps, and they swing their arms unless carring something. They stand with legs apart, arms crossed on the chest. They lean on objects with their backs or shoulders. They sit whenever possible, leaning forward with hands or elbows on knees or leaning back on a support, often fiddling with some object such as sticks, pipes, chew, whittling, picking nails clean, patting their bellies or scratching where it itches. This will require some practice, but will add much to your persona.

      Men don't mince, step or sashay unless they are seeking to shock their local draft board. Keep those hips from swaying. Men don't stand around with their hands on their hips or lean their chins or elbows on objects. When carrying an object, place it on your shoulder. A shovel or tool should be placed on the shoulder and balanced with one hand, not used like a walking stick. Mealtimes are an occasion to shovel as much food down your gullet as you can get, manners be damned; you're starving! Wipe your mouth on your shirtsleve and don't forget to belch. Stand erect with head high, shoulders back and back straight. Push, shove and hollar with chest forward. Practice your steely-eyed look and be prepared to look others eye to eye.

      Talk the Talk. Folks in the 1860's were generally educated and had much wider vocabularies than today. However, in a soldier's camp it was a man's world and a man was expected to hold his own in manly "conversation". Study the slang of the time and know if you are a goober grabber, a top-rail skunk or a lickspittle. Military life was austere at best and usually rough, dirty, dull, stressful and dangerous. Sink down to its level.
Frances Clayton
Frances Clyton
Served many months in Missouri
Artillery and Cavalry Units

      Don't bother trying to lower your voice as it will sound fake. Instead, breath from your chest when you speak, open your mouth to project, hold your head up and let your natural lower register free to vocalize. It's in there. Should someone tell a funny joke, no girlish giggles allowed. Laughter should be a heardy guffaw accompanied by a slap to the knee or your neighbor's shoulder. Learn to play cards or dice. If you don't feel up to this kind of manly behavior, be the soldier who quietly reads his Bible or writes home to mother.

      Don't be too sensitive. If the men play jokes on you they are just treating you like one of the guys. Be prepared to give as good as you get. If they tease you about being a beardless boy, you can reply that they grew a beard because they couldn't find a bush big enough to hide behind. You get the idea. Boys will be boys, and so should the girls who portray one.

      Special thanks to Wendy King, author of the Women Military Reenactors Homepage at www.geocities.com/womansoldier/ - excellent advice and pattern for a breast binder, by Wendy King.


Bibliography and Recomended Reading

  • Nurse and Spy in the Union Army by Sarah Edmunds (aka Frank Thompson)
  • They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War by De Anne Blanton
  • All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies by Elizabeth D. Leonard
  • She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War by Bonnie Tsui
  • An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, aka Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers by Sarah R. Wakemanm Ed. by Lauren Cook Bergess
  • The Women in Battle: The Civil War Narrative of Loreta Janeta Velazquez Cuban woman and Confederate Soldier (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography) by Loreta J. Velazquez
By Janine Delcamp

      The "Women in the Ranks" impression isn't for all women,and is one that should only be attempted after careful consideration. After all, it is one of the most controversial and hotly discussed impression in the reenacting world, and to plunge headlong into it with only fleeting thought of "Gee, that looks fun" can lead to headache, empty pockets, and in some cases, courtroom battles. I have been reenacting as a soldier for the past 7 years, and I have had nothing but praise from other reenactors, civilians, and spectators on how I have fooled them with my impression.

      Here are my thoughts on how to get off on the right foot, what to consider, and how one's frame of mind can accomplish an impression of disguise:


    There are plenty of other impressions in reenacting where you don't have to disguise yourself as a man. Is there a genuine interest in soldiering? Is there an inner need to find out what it may have been like to be a soldier in the Civil War? Are you serious about trying to portray one of the hundreds of women who actually fought in the Civil War disguised as a man?


    Be honest. Can you hide all of your feminine features? Are you willing to cut your fingernails, cut your hair, bind your chest, by-pass any make-up? Are your hips large? Will your face be reconizable as a female, even after you've taken off the make-up? In my opinion, tucking your hair under the cap just doesn't work. Neither does trying to hide large hips by wearing large trousers. As for hiding a feminine face with a fake beard or a mustache, they just look fake. Most people can spot a fake beard or mustache a mile away. I think it's better to go WITHOUT than to stand out like a sore thumb WITH. Besides, they're just an added pain.


    Men act differently when they think there are no women around. I know, I've witnessed this. Some men can be rude, lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable. Are you willing to bite your tongue while they go on? Remember, you are portraying a man in a "man's world." YOU DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE FEMALE ONE MINUTE AND MALE THE NEXT. You are a man. You must act, dress, sit, act, walk and talk like one to pass as one.


    The uniform of choice and what sutler you purchase it from does not matter nearly as much as how you wear it. When it's hot, don't even think of unbuttoning any more than the top button of your shirt. Any cleavage is too much. I once witnessed a woman trying to portray an artillery soldier. It was a warm day, her long hair was falling out from under her kepi, her shirt was unbuttoned about 1/2 way down, her fingernails were painted red (to match her suspenders, I suppose), and her fair-skinned face had a noticable red color from her make-up. I was in the crowd watching the reenactment, and the comments I heard from the other spectators were all negative. Some comments reflected on how she made no attempt to hide her gender, while others made derogatory remarks about how she was dressed.


    Try to fit in rather than stand out. For some reason, there always seems to be more women in the artillery units, drenched in red, and Zouave units, with their puffy pants and colorful jackets, than any women in the plain old infantry. I've always wondered, if women are trying to hide their gender, then why do they pick units with flashy, gaudy uniforms that stand out from a mile away?


    Find out about real women who fought disguised as men in the Civil War. It will give you the needed information when someone asks about women soldiers in the Civil War, as well as help your first person impression. It will also help you when an event requires you to have documentation to participate. Also, research men. How they walk, sit, eat, etc. This will give you the body language you need to fit into the ranks and around camp.

Janine Delcamp as Pvt. Kibbie Guyor LEFT: Janine Delcamp as Pvt. Kibbie Guyor
4th Michigan Infantry
Company A

BELOW:Janine Delcamp
5th from the right
Janine Delcamp: 5th from right

      At age 6, Janine's family took a vacation to Gettysburg, PA, where Janine was immediately bitten by the Civil War bug. Always dreaming of "being in the Civil War", Janine tried at age 17 to join a unit that would allow her to do a male soldier impression, with no luck. Finally, in 1996, a North Carolina unit (where Janine was working at the time), allowed her to try her impression. If she could keep her true gender hidden from the public. Being tall, lanky and a self-professed "tom-boy", it worked. She fooled not only the public, but fellow reenactors as well. Janine has since returned to her home state of Michigan and has traded her Confederate gray for Union blue, portraying both marine and a sailor in the Union Army. Janine can be contacted at jadtreefrog @ yahoo.com