Fighting Like a Man: A Conversation with Civil War Reenactor Wendy Ramsburg
Contributor Scott Magelssen 18 Sep 2014
Wendy Ramsburg has been participating in battle reenactments since 1984. She got her start with French and Indian and Revolutionary War events, portraying “Betty Zane” and “Molly Pitcher” roles (Zane ran gunpowder during the siege of Fort Henry and Pitcher worked the cannon crew in the Revolutionary War after her husband became ill). Her research eventually led her to women who disguised themselves as male soldiers—like Debora Sampson, who fought in the Revolutionary War enlisted as Robert Shurtliff—and her creation of “Craig Anderson,” a female fighting as a male Confederate soldier in the American Civil War, based on real individuals.
Ramsburg’s persona in Civil War reenactment events is a fascinating study in representation: she is a contemporary female portraying a historical female, who is herself pretending to be a male. And she has exposed some fault lines in historical representation and in the reenactment community, butting up against those who feel her participation as a soldier is inappropriate. But, in the long run, Ramsburg has found that her involvement has helped educate audiences and fellow participants about women soldiers in wars throughout history.
In this interview with living history scholar Scott Magelssen, Ramsburg shares some of her experiences as Craig Anderson, the motivations behind her character (her “impression” in reenactment terminology), and her goals as a reenactor.
Scott Magelssen: You portray a female soldier disguised as a man at reenactment events. Why?
Wendy Ramsburg: I’ve always been a self-proclaimed tomboy, preferring to play at war with my younger brother and his friends rather than playing with dolls. Never mistake, I am very much a female, but I like the opportunity to indulge my inner tomboy by reenacting as a soldier.
SM: Did you base Craig Anderson on a particular individual?
WR: Craig Anderson is not a real person—the name is a compilation of my younger brother’s first name and an ancestor’s last name. I don’t feel comfortable using an original soldier’s name—unless specifically requested to do so—since I cannot possibly ever do exactly as they did. I believe that these female soldiers deserve more respect than for me to usurp any of their names.
Putting on another personality is freeing. The persona of Craig Anderson is based, in part, on how I wish I could be—or rather how I, as a female, wish that men might be. “Craig” is far more outgoing than I am. He is at times boisterous, at times a “ladies man” (I have female friends who reenact the female role to play along with this “gag”). He is a little bit of a “tough guy” and he gets more respect than the women.
“Putting on another personality is freeing. The persona of Craig Anderson is based, in part, on how I wish I could be—or rather how I, as a female, wish that men might be.” —Wendy Ramsburg
SM: Do some members of the living history community have a problem with a woman doing this?
WR: You have hit on a sometimes divisive issue. I’ve dealt with people who don’t want women in this role at all (without having even seen the impression), those who approve if the female is well disguised, and those who simply don’t give a hoot if they are disguised at all.
My own endeavor is to disguise enough that I am not immediately apparent in the ranks (except for my height). It is a challenge, but not as difficult as one may think. A good chest binder, a shortened haircut, NO makeup or female jewelry, a properly fitting uniform, and attitude are all that are required. I would add that studying some male mannerisms and throwing them into the pot help “sweeten the deal” in not being instantly recognizable.
SM: Like what?
WR: Keeping my hands in my pockets, holding a cup (or mucket—a sort of combined cup and cooking vessel) by the body and not by the handle, sitting with the legs splayed and leaning back as if one owns the world, being a civilized gentleman when around the ladies (offering them my chair), and not opting out of the physical chores around camp (such as gathering wood and water, building the fire). I’ve also learned to appreciate some of the “guy humor” that I’m exposed to. I am disguised as a man—if they don’t know I’m a man and make an off-colored joke, I’m not about to give myself away by playing “offended.”
SM: Do some event participants or organizers object to women in the reenactments because they feel women compromise the accuracy or authenticity of the events?
WR: This is often the excuse used to exclude women from reenactments. However, according to this logic, then they also need to exclude some of the male soldiers who are overweight, or too old to take part in period-correct Civil War scenarios. Since the majority of those reenactments that would turn away women would not turn away incorrect men, the true reason for broad “no women” rules is simply to keep it an “all guys” party.
I personally do not espouse the idea that all women should be allowed to field as soldiers. A woman wishing to take the field as a disguised male soldier should make every effort to disguise her gender. I’ve seen some women at reenactments who I honestly believe should have been removed, or at least taken to task, because of their poor attempts at blending in. They are held up as examples of what women-disguised-as-men look like, and that example is what gives the “No Women in the Ranks” people their fuel.
SM: Have you been refused entry or asked to leave once someone has found you out?
WR: I’ve never been subjected to being pulled out of camp or off the battlefield. I did go to a reenactment in Tennessee where there was a huge sign proclaiming, “Women discovered in uniform will be summarily dismissed from the field.” The commander knew that there would be a woman in our group, but it took him three days to figure out which one it was. His chief of staff wanted to dismiss me—after three days!—but the commander shot him down, saying, “She’s been camped that close to us for three days and we never knew she was female. She deserves to stay.” That commander took me aside at the end of the reenactment and complimented me on my portrayal.
SM: Do you eventually let audiences know that you’re not a male soldier?
WR: That is dependent on the circumstance. I’ve done scenarios where the “discovery” is pre-planned, as in playing wounded so that the surgeon finds out my gender. If I am doing a specialized talk on women as soldiers while in uniform, I’ll generally reveal my gender. If someone notices that I’m female and asks, I give them a quick history lesson.
SM: How do audiences respond when they find out you’re a woman, or that women fought in the Civil War?
WR: It depends. Some are unaware and want to know more; some already know about it and still want to learn more; and some are fascinated about how I disguise. I am sometimes surprised at how much knowledge the public has on this seemingly obscure subject.
They are often more surprised at the actual history of women who fought as warriors throughout time. Most are familiar with the name of Joan of Arc, but not so much Boudicca, who led the Iceni against the Romans between A.D. 60 and 61. They are also surprised to learn that the first recorded death at the hand of a woman is recorded in the Old Testament: The book of Judges (Deborah) mentions that a woman named Jael tricked and killed one of the enemy, Sisera. Judges 4 gives the whole story. Once people find out just how long women have been warriors, it doesn’t seem so strange to them that women fought as soldiers during our Civil War.
SM: You mentioned that portraying Craig Anderson allows you to become someone else you wish you could be—or how you wish some men could be. Is this the reason why some women disguised themselves as men in wartime (or in peace time)?
WR: The reasons for the original female soldiers to disguise themselves were varied. Some did it because they couldn’t see themselves surviving without their husbands or fiancés. Some disguised themselves before, during, and after the war because they had to make a living on their own, and the best chance at getting a decent job was to disguise as men. Rosetta Wakeman, for example, worked as “Lyons Wakeman,” a collier on a New York Canal boat before the outbreak of the war. Jennie Hodgers, aka “Albert Cashier,” worked as a “handyman” after the war. Sarah Emma Edmonds left her home as “Franklin Thompson” well before the war in order to avoid an unwanted marriage. She became an itinerant book and bible “salesman.” Some women did it for the adventure and or the freedom that not being female offered to them.
SM: Has society come a long way in its regard for women serving in armed conflict in the last century and a half?
WR: There are some societies where women serving in armed conflict represent the normal circumstance from time immemorial. Americans are starting to get used to the idea, yet there are few women who are “allowed” to intentionally go into harm’s way to fight. For some reason, it seems that men don’t understand the instinct for women to fight. Apparently not enough have come between a mother bear and her cubs! While some women choose to embrace the subordinate role of “needing protection,” there are others who are emotionally, mentally, and physically strong enough to be the protector. At least the women warriors of our generation don’t have to disguise their gender to be what they want to be.
Watch a video animation below by 2009 Pew Fellow Jennifer Levonian, “Rebellious Bird,” the culmination of a collaborative research project with the Library Company of Philadelphia, supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. “Rebellious Bird” is inspired by Levonian’s interactions with the library’s Civil War collection, and explores the topic of women who disguised themselves as men and fought as soldiers in the Civil War.
Scott Magelssen is Associate Professor of Drama at the University of Washington. He is the author of Living History Museums: Undoing History through Performance and Simming: Participatory Performance and the Making of Meaning.
“For some reason, it seems that men don’t understand the instinct for women to fight. Apparently not enough have come between a mother bear and her cubs!” —Wendy Ramsburg