Ladies in Military Camp
By Bridget Carson
A question which is asked by all reenacting groups is "Should women be in the military camps during public hours"? It begs more than a simple yes or no answer. If she is portraying a role consistent with the period that would allow her presence there, then she should be welcome. If her persona is not appropriate for a military encampment, then she should retire herself with all due haste to the township or the refugee camp as befitting a lady.
What personas are fitting in camp? Number one is that of soldier. If a female can dress herself as a man in a way that looks masculine and stay in male character all day, then by all means let her be a soldier. Other women who would have been in the camps on a full time basis are the cooks, laundress, vivandieres and daughters of the regiment.
The Union army allowed for one laundress for every 20 men. If you take on this role, then you had better look like a laundress--no hoop and no fancy dress. Look tired and worn out. Spend your day at a tub of soapy water washing men’s shirts and unmentionables. Know how to make lye soap in case the public asks you how it is done. Laundry was a hard job done by the lower class of society. It was the duty of the sergeant to appoint the laundress. Most often it would be his wife, sister or some poor member of his own family and he would collect a large portion of the pay. Stay in character while you are in camp.
Vivandiares and daughters of the regiment are interesting roles. They are working in the role of a military assistant and so are allowed on the battlefield. If they pass the safety tests, they can be allowed to carry a pistol. But for the most part their role was that of battlefield medic. Period images of vivandieres show their uniform to include a small cask of brandy for first aid on the battlefield. In this role, a woman would be a member of the military unit she is attached to and would have to obtain the permission of that unit commander to undertake the role
The Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission would be a legitimate representation in the Union military camp. They would often set up near the edges of a large military encampment to help with the medical, sanitary and spiritual needs of the soldiers. But this is only period correct in the Union camp as they were northern civilian groups. The Southern army was not served by these commissions but rather by local and state supported soldier’s aid societies.
Did women visit the camps? Yes, ladies would visit their husbands in camp when the opportunity arose. They might bring them a supply of favorite foods or a new quilt. A poor farmers wife might go to camp to request her husband’s furlough for the plowing or the harvest. Remember, it was expensive and dangerous to travel at the time. Poor women would not be able to come from New York or Texas to visit their soldier. Most women visiting in camp were officers’ wives. A lady would never go to a military camp alone. A lady never went anywhere alone as it would leave open the speculation that she had done something less than lady like. So a trip to camp would include other family members, a sister or mother, brother or uncle as escort. Civilians visiting camp would have a pass to allow them to travel safely through the lines.
Other roles that would allow a female in a military camp on a part time basis are those of poor women working hard for a living. These would include local farmwives who might venture into the camps and try to sell produce, baked goods or eggs and butter in order to support her family. Another would be the prostitute, who visits near the edges of camps but not necessarily in the camp.
What is not acceptable? Ladies who, dressed in their lovely day dresses, spend the day sitting around the military camps chatting with each other. If you are not there to portray a legitimate persona then remove yourself from the camp. Your husband or brother does not need you to hold his hand all day long. His fellow troopers do not appreciate your presence in camp. They are trying to recreate a period correct camp and it is rude and unlady-like for you to spoil their effect.
The RACW Township has many options for the civilian reenactor. You can join with the ladies quilting for the Sanitary Commission. Spend some time writing a letter to your loved ones. Knit socks for the soldiers. Join in singing period parlor songs. Discuss politics out of the earshot of the gentlemen. Research some of the other civilian roles available and set up your own educational station for the public. Or set up a shade fly, sit down with your friends and spend the day in conversation.
This article was penned by Miss Bridget Carson, aka Miss Vera Biggins, at the request of a military unit in our club. Bridget is a veteran reenactor, co-author of this website, the RACW newsletter editor and former Civilian Representative to the RACW Board of Directors.