Some Men Play Soldier and Forget It's Just Play
By Susan Reimer, Baltimore Sun (online version), 8/10/97
This summer, Americans seem to want to be whoever they are not. Preferably,someone heroic from another century.
Some are pretending to be Vikings discovering the New World, and others are pretending to be Mormons making their historic journey to Utah. One pilot pretended to be Amelia Earhart while another pretended to be Charles Lindbergh. And a bunch of sailors refitted "Old Ironsides" for a cruise around Boston Harbor.
It seems you can pretend to be anyone you want to be this summer, unless you are a woman in Arkansas and you want to pretend you are a soldier in the Civil War.
A group of Civil War enthusiasts in that state has canceled a re-enactment rather than allow a woman to participate. And state officials have canceled other re-enactments scheduled for state parks, fearing discrimination suits.
"Gentlemen of the 7th [Arkansas Infantry Volunteers], this cannot be allowed to happen!" wrote Gary Roberts in the group's newsletter. "We cannot allow this "male wannabe" to push, shove and bully her way, uninvited, into our event! Somebody in this hobby has to take a stand against this crap ..."
Patty Lediner, the offending woman, has been a re-enactor for several years along with her husband, her 16-year-old son and their fastidiously re-created cannon. Rather than play a female role in the re-enactments, such as nurse or camp follower, she plays the part of a soldier.
"I'm learning that there is a lot of this prejudice," Lediner says. "I'm not on a crusade, but this is just a hobby, guys. Let everyone enjoy it."
During the Civil War, women often impersonated soldiers to be near their husbands. Some went undetected for the four-year duration of the conflict. But if they were caught, they were sent packing. "And that's the way it should be," says Roberts.
After the national press rushed into Arkansas like Matthew Brady to record this conflict, Roberts backed away from his angry declarations. He says now that the Lediners were not invited to attend because the re-enactment already had the 10 cannons it needed and did not have enough free gunpowder for another.
But during a telephone interview, he adds that Patty Lediner did not look enough like a man to be a credible re-enactor.
We take this seriously. We invest thousands of dollars. Other women go through great pains to disguise themselves as soldiers, and this woman didn't. About all she did is cut her hair.
"If you can see that she has the attributes of a woman, she shouldn't be allowed to do it."
Let me see if I understand this. These men pretending to be soldiers don't want women pretending to be soldiers beside them while they pretend to fight battles.
In other words, men who are probably too old and far too well-fed to play the part of young, starving Confederate soldiers with historical accuracy don't want women who look too much like women to play the part of Confederate soldiers because it would not be historically accurate.
Wow. Is this a stupid argument, or what?
My husband, who is a Civil War nut (a fact he hid from me before marriage), says I have no appreciation for the attention to detail of Civil War re-enactors.
They hand-stitch their own costumes out of scratchy old wool from historical patterns and hand-craft their own weapons or buy authentic guns at enormous expense.
During the re-enactments, they drill in ill-fitting boots, drink from rusty canteens, roll their own cigarettes, eat beans and beef jerky for breakfast and do not bathe or brush their teeth, presumably so that they at least smell historically accurate.
They chase one another across hayfields in the broiling heat, enduring heat stroke, heart attacks, gunpowder burns and bee stings, only becoming irritated when the other side doesn't die on cue or when wimpy re-enactors die clustered comfortably in the shade.
The best part, they say, is the evening encampment, where they drink whiskey around a campfire, clean their weapons, sing songs to the tune of homemade banjos and tell historically accurate stories. (Apparently the Civil War was some fun; you'll notice there is no great rush to re-enact the winter at Valley Forge.)
Often, these war games climax in a fancy-dress ball. Among Gary Roberts' objections to Patty Lediner's participation was that she would shed her uniform and then don a gown for the dance. "That's a bunch of crap," he says. "If you are going to be a soldier, be a soldier 24 hours a day."
I don't understand why people who spend their weekends pretending to be someone they are not can object to other people pretending to be someone they are not. It seems to me that if these re-enactors are aiming for that moment they all talk about - when they pass through a window of time and actually enter the Civil War - they might want to take a few women along for company.
But there appears to be no place for women in this hobby. My husband plans to take our son to witness his first Civil War re-enactment soon, and he's made no mention of taking our daughter. She's not objecting, though.
"Why would anyone go to all that trouble," she asks, as bewildered as I am, "when you can rent the video?"