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Dressing for a Civil War Reenactment in South Carolina

How women find a place on the fictional front lines.

I was late and underdressed for church on Sunday. A group of behoopskirted women, their bonnets rustling in the wind, were already tending to their Bibles when I rolled up to the service in dusty sneakers and the T-shirt I'd worn the day before. He then launched into a sermon so free of modern colloquialism or progressive Biblical interpretation that it sounded like it might have been delivered at a Baptist church 150 years ago. That was the point. On a table beside him, the preacher had Xeroxed copies of Christian tracts that were originally passed out to Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. I took notes on a Victorian era pamphlet entitled "HOW TO BE SAVED," penned by the honorable Reverend H. C. Hornady, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta around 1864.

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The most stirring tale the preacher delivered was one about Jesus, of course, and the woman in the dirt. Trying to catch Jesus doing wrong, the Pharisees brought him a woman who had been caught committing adultery. According to the Law of Moses, a woman found guilty of such should be stoned to death; if Jesus refused to uphold the Law of Moses to save this woman's life, the Pharisees could accuse him of breaking the law too. But when the woman came to him, Jesus looked down and wrote something in the dirt. When he looked up, he addressed them all: "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."

I listened intently. I don't go to church much, particularly not faithful recreations of Baptist services at Civil War reenactments, but there I was, just another woman in the dirt.

A Confederate flag waved with a syrupy Southern languidness in the background of the church service. Dozens did. I was at a weekend-long reenactment of the Battle for Broxton Bridge in Ehrhardt, South Carolina, and I saw them everywhere: hanging off the funnel cake and elephant ear concession truck, shellacked onto the sides of luxury RVs hunkered down in the forest preserve, on the shirts of truth-seekers at the Confederate lineage tracking tent, emblazoned on the poster-board marquee advertising a pistol raffle, affixed to a flagpole the reenactors carried into battle. Everywhere.

For any sanctimonious Yankee like myself, the sight of a Confederate flag is jarring. Ehrhardt is only 70 miles from Charleston, where Dylann Roof murdered nine people at Emanuel A.M.E, a historically black church, in a racially-motivated killing spree last June. In photos that surfaced after the massacre, Roof poses with Confederate flags in his bedroom and in a yard. In one photo, he stands outside a Confederate history museum. In another, taken on a trip to Sullivan's Island, where about 40 percent of slaves landed after arriving in America, he has scrawled the white supremacist code "1488" in the sand.

Not even a year ago, South Carolina became the epicenter of the country's debate over the Confederate flag. Governor Nikki Haley mandated its removal from the South Carolina State House. She deemed the flag permissible on private property, but asserted the state's relationship with the flag was too devastating to keep it waving on public buildings. "On matters of race, South Carolina has had a tough history; we all know that. Many of us have seen it in our lives, in the lives of our parents and grandparents," she said. "We don't need reminders."

But reminders of antebellum America are everywhere, dressed up as policy or institution or mass culture. That weekend at Broxton Bridge, as most weekends around the South, those reminders can be literally dressed up as Confederate reenactors.

Historically speaking, the Battle for Broxton Bridge is not a particularly memorable battle. One hundred and fifty-one Februarys ago, General Sherman's Northern army left Savannah and fought for the bridge. It was a smallish skirmish, one of the defensive efforts leading up to the capture and burning of Columbia, South Carolina. The event is far smaller than your Gettysburg reenactments up north, for example, or your Battle of Fredericksburg reenactments in Virginia. It's more intimate too.

The reenactment of the Battle for Broxton Bridge is broken into two parts —€” an hour on Saturday; its stunning and pre-planned conclusion on Sunday —€” but from what I could observe, the actual battle isn't even half of the event's appeal for regular reenactors. It's about playing dress up with friends. It's about shopping for authentically replicated buttons and canteens. It's about wearing your Southern pride on your sleeve by wearing epaulettes on your shoulders.

If you're part of a certain subset of reenactors, it's also about drinking apple pie moonshine and talking about how you lost all respect for documentarian Ken Burns for claiming Abraham Lincoln as his hero on the PBS show Finding Your Roots. This anecdote comes courtesy of a Confederate reenactor who had been made to switch uniforms and impersonate a Federal (or Union) soldier for the day. At reenactments in the South, there often aren't enough Yankees for a fair fight. Confederates have to keep blue uniforms handy and take turns portraying the other side.

Dressing up as a group in a group is common, in psychological terms. It doesn't just happen at places like ComicCon or at themed costume parties; think about the human messes you might know who put on suits and business casual sweater sets once the work week starts. Dressing up can be a form of self-care, or it can foster a detachment that allows someone to melt into a crowd working collectively toward a greater goal.

Dr. Joyce Marter, a psychotherapist in Chicago who has written about the psychology of dressing up, believes costuming also reflects our "shadow selves." "Dressing up allows you to take on the attributes of the character you are representing," said Marter. "Sometimes we may unwittingly choose to dress as characters who have traits that we unconsciously repress into our ‘shadow' side."

This is not to say that those who choose to put on Confederate uniforms in 2016 necessarily have latent interest in white supremacy, segregation, enslavement, or any other principle the Confederate flag has stood for. But for reenactors, putting on a Confederate uniform might very well allow the wearer to return to a past where life was "simpler," which is a way of saying less concerned with political correctness and inclusion. Or maybe the wearer just wants to feel like an underdog hero.

The trouble is that the romanticized past was only great for a certain elite set, white and wealthy. The Confederate uniform might be a heritage symbol for a particular population, but to many more, it's a reminder of a traumatic history that continues to inform racial inequality and violence.

"Dressing up as a witch probably does not mean somebody actually wants to be a witch, whereas dressing up as a Confederate soldier is less clear," said Marter. "It's a slippery slope because even if somebody believes they are doing it in good fun, there are people who still share the dangerous beliefs of the Confederates and will see dressing up as somehow validating or even glorifying that belief system."

At the Battle for Broxton Bridge, I spent three days with the 53rd Georgia Infantry Company K, a reenacting unit of the Georgia Volunteer Battalion. As one might assume, a majority of reenactors in Company K and at the Battle for Broxton Bridge were middle-aged (or older), white, and male. But there were plenty of others who did not fit this mold.

I spoke to a lot of young people who found this hobby early through their parents, who had dragged them along to reenactments every other weekend growing up. I met my fair share of teenagers in gray uniforms that swallowed their slight shoulders with excess fabric, but exposed three inches of lily-white ankle. I saw elementary school-aged kids doing impressions of drummer boys, and pint-sized reenactors even younger than that —€” not yet ready for battle, but dressed for it nonetheless.

During my time with the 53rd Georgia Infantry, the unit humored me, fed me, and showed me how to clean my rifle. (I don't own a rifle.) The settler camp where the reenactors slept was set deep in the forest and replete with crackling firewood and pup tents. A group of Confederate soldiers forced to defect to the Federal camp offered me Civil War-appropriate liver mash on a biscuit, which I ate to be polite. Mainstream groups like the 53rd Georgia camp also offered portable space heaters, digital SLR cameras, and Red Velvet Oreos.

The 53rd Georgia is a family-centric unit, and I hung out with reenactors, their babies, and their wives. Most of the women who participate in reenactments impersonate army spouses in practical, muted camp dresses, though they still incorporated corsets and hoopskirts. Women get to have a more elaborate go at finding an authentic Civil War style than men. Male reenactors are more or less stuck with the same colors and patterns thanks to their fairly standard military-issued uniforms, which varied during the war and still do now depending on class standing and unit; many buy their uniforms from companies like The Regimental Quartermaster, which is run out of Gettysburg. Women impersonating women, however, can personalize.

Practical outfits with buttoned bodices and full skirts are available from specific online retailers, like Abraham's Lady, or from sutlers like Rum Creek (sutlers, historically, were those not formally associated with the army who sold provisions to troops) that set up booths at reenactments. But not all camp dresses are created equal.

Serious reenactors only wear dresses made using authentic Victorian patterns and techniques, otherwise fearing the scorn of being called farby, short for "far be it from authentic." Even underwear's got to be authentic. The term "stitch Nazi" was thrown around pretty loosely in reference to someone who is obsessed with accuracy in costuming. Calling someone a "polyester soldier" is also a pretty good diss, a dig at reenactors who look as though they just took their costumes out of the plastic wrap from some second-rate Halloween superstore.

Most of the women at camp did exactly what you might expect women in the 19th century to do: the cooking, the cleaning, and the gossiping while their men were out to battle. Stephanie Groce, wife of Captain Frank Groce, was the 53rd Georgia's den mother. She was hilarious and nurturing and killer at hand-stitching. She is the platonic ideal of a Southern belle: white, free, wealthy enough to embody the Victorian lady she reenacts every couple of weekends.

And then, of course, there's J. R. Hardman, a filmmaker and reenactor who has also found a home with the 53rd Georgia Infantry. She's been reenacting for more than three years, and is one of the only women in her Confederate unit to do an impression of a male soldier; Kaitlyn Groce, daughter to Frank and Stephanie, is another. Up north, Hardman is part of a Federal unit called the 6th New York Independent Battery, which has more women dressed for battle, though they still remain a significant minority.

Hardman is an anomaly within, or even an antidote to, the current state of Confederate reenacting. First off, she's a 29-year-old woman from Minnesota. She graduated with a degree in cinema-television production and Spanish from the University of Southern California. She doesn't talk about her politics with the group, but they've guessed she may not be voting for Trump or Cruz or anyone else on the Republican ticket this year. Recently at a party in their civilian clothes, a fellow reenactor shouted, "Oh, there's J. R., the closet liberal!" when Hardman entered the room.

Hardman coined the term reenactress, and she's making a documentary of the same namethat will explore the experiences of female Civil War reenactors like herself who dress as male soldiers.

The first reenactment Hardman attended was in 2012. It was her birthday, she'd just gotten out of a rocky relationship, and she wanted to treat herself to a vacation. The solo getaway destination she chose is telling of her ardor for American history: she made her way to southern Pennsylvania for the 149th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. It's there she met the captain of the 6th New York, the Northern unit of which she'd later become a part.

Just a few weeks later, Hardman attended a reenactment of the Battle of Atlanta, where she lives. She wanted to join a Southern unit too. She approached one of the unit commanders and asked if she could. "Yeah," he said. "Go talk to my wife. She'll hook you up with a nice hoopskirt." Hardman told the commander she wanted to be in the infantry. "We just don't do that," he told her.

That lit Hardman up. "That moment was the catalyst for me even starting this project," she said. "That's when I knew it was interesting, that there was a conflict in this community, and I had to find out more."

Like any 21st century girl looking to imitate a 19th century man, Hardman took to the internet. She eventually found the website of the 53rd Georgia and posted on its forum. The captain of the unit —€” perennial seat-offerer Frank Groce —€” reached out to Hardman and let her in without question. It doesn't mean she's fully assimilated, though. For starters, she can't pee in the woods with her brothers-in-arms when commanded to go "water the trees." Far more limiting, she's still assumed to be a rookie at whatever she does in battle.

"Last year, I was out there in the field doing everything right," she said, "and someone in the unit turned to me and said, ‘So you're pretty new at this, right?' And I'm like, ‘No. You can watch me. I can teach you something.'"

After reaching her Kickstarter goal for Reenactress, Hardman shaved her head in celebration. While it's grown some in the past few months, it's still shortly cropped. I saw her only in uniform the entire weekend, and she looked the part of a young soldier in an heirloom tintype. It was only when I browsed through her Facebook page and saw a picture of her with a nose ring that I registered her possible affinity for fabric other than gray wool. Hardman's devotion to her impression of a male soldier shows: Her posture is impeccable. She carries a pocket watch. She accessorizes well.

"Honestly, there's still some people in our unit that are like, ‘When are you going to get a dress and go to the ball?'" she said, referring to the formal dance usually thrown during weekend reenactments. "And I'm like, ‘Well, I could spend $150 dollars on a dress, or I could get a really nice hat.'" Hardman, as you probably already guessed, wears many hats.

Hardman said she finally began to be taken seriously when she stopped borrowing her rifle from the unit and bought her own, a Pedersoli 1853 Enfield. Prior to reenacting, Hardman had never touched a firearm. She only first fired a gun with ammunition a few months ago.

Hardman's reenactment rifle is a real weapon that shoots gun powder, just without a bullet. "That first weekend I went out with it, instead of people asking me what I'm doing there, they're asking me about my super-authentic rifle," she said. "It's gotten to a point now where they say, ‘Look what J. R.'s doing.'"

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Photography by Chloe Gilstrap

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