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A woman discovers a secret that the government long tried to keep hidden: a secret about who exactly fought in the Civil War.
JH: : So when we decided to do a show about the Civil War, we knew at some point we'd have to talk about it's biggest fans: Civil War reenactors. The dudes who dress up and pretend to be back in the war on the weekends.
CK: And it’s more than just a hobby… they are obsessed with details and authenticity… And they have arguments about it all the time, New battles are constantly popping up… So we sent producer, Mickey Capper, out to a windy battlefield in Virginia learn about one of the latest...
MK: Uh is your unit, is it all guys?
CONFEDERATE: Yeah, we don’t tolerate any women in our ranks unless they’re gonna come out and portray a housekeeping type role but, we don’t allow women in our ranks.
MK: Uh, and could you imagine like a woman like trying to-?
CONFEDERATE: I’ve told you that I really don’t like women in the ranks. So we’re just going to leave it at that.
MK: But like how does that look like? What’s the most-?
CONFEDERATE: Listen man, you’re really starting to bust up my vibe right now so I’m gonna end this interview with you.
MK: Okay. I’m sorry man.
CONFEDERATE: Your questions are a little fucking annoying. Ok? I told you what I thought already and you’re continuing to dig.
JH: Mickey kept digging, and he kept getting told off. And yet, just 30 feet away our senior producer, Kimmie Regler, was proving just how wrong those guys are. She was dressed in full Union blues disguised as a male Civil War soldier. And she wasn’t alone. She was there with two other women. Women who have been coming out here and doing this for years. And they taught Kimmie a couple of tricks.
KR: What’s this?
AST: This is my breast-binder.
AST: I just used materials that would have been available to a mid-19th century person. So the straps are the same kind of cotton strapping that we use to tie our signal flags to the poles. And this is so much more comfortable. A sports bra is like thick and heavy and compresses and kind of give you this mono-boob effect.
AST: You want to be, you know, flat and manly.
JH: That’s Audrey. And her battlefield partner, Tracy, says the two of them are damn good at convincing people they belong on the battlefield. They told Kimmie this story about a reenactment they were at not too long ago.
TM: And so—we were there Friday, Saturday. Well, come Sunday, this fella says to some of the other guys in the in the unit, “um, so when are these women supposed to show up?” And we had been there all along.
AST: Hi guys.
CK: Audrey and Tracy can laugh about it, but when they get caught they catch hell from the male reenactors. They’ve been threatened, banned from reenactments, for being inauthentic
Which they say is bullshit--Audrey and Tracy say they’re just as accurate as any of the men.
And that’s the other thing you hear on the battlefield--women DID fight in the Civil War. And they’ve been fighting ever since to prove it.
CK: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.
JH: And I’m Jack Hitt.
CK: And this... is Uncivil,
JH: the show where we ransack America’s past…
CK: and discover that sometimes… history needs a push.
JACK: Our story begins on a misty Pennsylvania battlefield. Back during the Reagan administration.
LCW: It was overwhelming, it was just incredible. The noise, the smell, the ground shaking, the horses,
CK: This is Lauren Cook Wike. You could say she’s the original lady reenactor. The one who fired the first shot in the fight Audrey and Tracy are still fighting today.
She got into reenacting back in 1988 after going to the 125th anniversary of Gettysburg, the Super Bowl of reenacting. And it had a big impact on her; the smoky battlefield, the percussion of the cannonfire.
[BATTLE SOUND DESIGN ABOVE]
JH: But what really hooked Lauren?
[FIFE MUSIC in the clear]
LCW: I really wanted to play in a fife and drum corps. I was a flautist all of my life.
CK: So she bought a uniform. A man’s uniform. She chopped off her hair, real short.
LCW: And I would sort of rub some dirt on my face so I’d have a five o’clock shadow.
CK: She took up spitting into the dirt and, of course, manspreading.
LCW: I walked differently. I would um not roll my hips at all. Know what I mean?
CK: Yeah, I know what you mean.
CK: And if you’re passing as just an average guy, then you can’t really use the kind of flamboyant names that re-enactors sometimes use. Names Like Jubal and Bushrod. So Lauren decided to play it straight.
LCW: My name was Larry. My compatriots called me Private Larry.
CK: And with that Lauren joined the Georgia 21st Fife and Drum Corps. Soon she was touring battle reenactments all over, marching, spitting, fifing, as a man. A Civil War soldier named Larry.
JH: But all that changed one afternoon in August 1989. Private Larry found herself in the one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war, Antietam. And she was scheduled to play a soldier who got shot, but first:
LCW: I needed to go use the restroom. [laughs]
CK: So she headed over to the park’s visitor’s center and without thinking pushed open the door to the women’s room.
LCW: And so when I came out of the ladies room I was immediately confronted by one of the park rangers there who told me that, “they didn’t allow this here”, and I said, “what don’t you allow?” And they said “we don’t allow women in uniform here.”
And I said, “what? I mean, what?”
JH: The ranger was furious. He told her that a woman in the ranks would mislead and confuse the public. He called her a fraud and he ordered out her out of the park immediately. Lauren was humiliated. She packed up her car and left. But back home, she just got angrier, and she sat down and wrote a letter to the park superintendent defending herself.
LCW: He wrote me back a very long letter and explained to me that I would never be allowed to re-enact a soldier there ever unless basically I had a sex change.
LCW: I mean it was like any time that you're being discriminated against -- it feels, you feel like less than a human being when somebody tells you you are not wanted just because of who you are. And that's ultimately why I went on my crusade.
JH: So Lauren hired a civil rights attorney and filed a gender discrimination suit against the national park service — Lauren Cooke v. the Secretary of the Interior. In other words, Private Larry was suing the United States of America.
JH: After the break: Lauren’s lawsuit takes a turn, when she discovers secret hidden away for one hundred and fifty years in a family attic.
CK: Lauren’s lawsuit against the National Park Service got a bunch of press coverage. And the story ended up reaching a woman who lived hundreds of miles away.
RG: I was living in Orlando at the time and I always read the newspaper in the morning: The Orlando Sentinel. And I picked it up one morning, and there was a picture of this girl in her civil war uniform.
CK: This is Ruth Goodier. And she was about to give Lauren some serious ammunition in her crusade.
Because that picture in the paper reminded Ruth of one she’d seen before in a family photo album. A photo of her distant uncle Lyons Wakeman who fought for the North in the Civil War. When Ruth was in her thirties, she found out that Lyons had a secret, hidden away in a box of letters in her cousin’s attic.
RG: It had been there ever since the end of the Civil War. Yeah.
JH: And for the longest time, the family felt uncomfortable about these letters -- they knew that Lyons Wakeman’s real name wasn’t Lyons, it was Rosetta. And he was born a woman.
RG: We all had different opinions, we all kind of talked about it. It was -- it was just sort of discussion, “well I wonder, hm.”
CK: Ruth and her family weren’t sure of Rosetta’s motivation for dressing as a man. But they did know she had fought in the Civil War. And so when Ruth read about Lauren in 1989--a woman getting harassed for reenacting as a man--she wrote Lauren a letter.
RG: And explained to her that I had a great-great-aunt that had fought in the Civil War and she had written home a packet of about 20 or so letters and I would be glad to share them with her.
LCW: And it just sent chills down my spine. I knew that that there was no collection of letters by a woman soldier. So I thought, well, this is amazing. And I have to have them.
JH: So Lauren gets these letters from Ruth, and starts reading them. They tell the story of how a poor farm girl became a soldier on the front lines.
CK: Rosetta didn’t get to go to school. She worked side-by-side with her dad on a farm that didn’t do well. He was always in debt, and the family rarely had enough food to eat. So when Rosetta was 19 she went out looking for other work.
JH: She heard about a job on a canal boat--but only men could apply. So she put on a pair of pants, walked off her farm and became Lyons Wakeman.
In late 1862, a recruiter from the Union Army came by, offering a $152 signing bonus to join. It was a year’s pay. So Rosetta signed up. And wrote home telling her family she was rich:
KR: All the money I send you I want you should spend for the family in clothing or something to eat. Don't save it for me. I can get all the money I want.
CK: She talks about how happy she is to be, quote, “the fattest fellow”, by which she means, not starving. But it’s more than food. Rosetta’s finding out that as a man in uniform—she has things she never had before.
KR: I am enjoying myself better this summer than I ever did before in this world. I have good clothing and enough to eat. I’ll dress as I have a mind to for all anyone else cares, and if they don’t like it, they should be sorry for it.
JH: She writes a lot about her new autonomy--a fearlessness that in war sounds like bootcamp bragging.
KR: I don't believe there’s any Rebel bullet made for me yet. Nor I don't care if there is. I am as independent as a hog on the ice.
CK: Then in the spring of 1864, things got real. Lyons ended up in battle in Louisiana.
KR: There was a heavy cannonading all day and a sharp firing of infantry. The next day I had to face the enemy bullets with my regiment. I was under fire about four hours and laid on the field of battle all night. There was three wounded in my company and one killed. I feel thankful to God that he spared my life.
JH: Two months after that firefight, Rosetta got sick, and died. She’s buried in New Orleans and, still today, her headstone reads: Lyons Wakeman.
CK: So now Lauren, aka Private Larry, is suing the United States, and she has these letters. The whole argument against Lauren reenacting as a man was that it wasn't authentic, that women didn't fight in the war. But the story of Rosetta Wakeman proved that wasn't true.
JH: But Lauren's lawyers cautioned her against taking on history. Rosetta was just one woman.
History had mentioned women like her, but written them off as kooks. Back in 1909, when journalists first began poking around this issue the government put out an official statement: “No official record has been found that any woman was ever enlisted in the military service of the United States at any time during the period of the Civil War."
So Lauren left Rosetta out of the courtroom, took the modern approach, and brought a straightforward sex-discrimination case before a judge. And won.
LCW: He ruled that the Interior Department would have to ensure that they were no longer discriminatory in any way shape or form on the basis of gender, race, or disability.
JH: In other words, Lauren was allowed to reenact, but only if she was able to pass convincingly as a man.
LCW: And he also ruled that the National Battlefield Park that I was ejected from would have to pay me the $1 that I was denied for the day's living history. So that was the victory. [pause] One dollar which they never paid me. [pause] They still owe me a dollar.
CK: The judge had said Lauren can keep reenacting. But he hadn't acknowledged women like Rosetta who had fought and died in the Civil War.
And as Lauren was researching her case, she found more and more Rosettas. Women who dressed as men and fought in battle.
JH: So she started collecting the stories of these women and found so many that she eventually put them in a book called, They Fought Like Demons.
CK: Like Lizzie Hoffman, a black woman from Virginia, who slipped into the 45th US Colored Infantry. Lizzie fought as a man for two years until she was found out, charged with the crime of masquerading as a man, and ordered to wear a dress.
JH: Or Albert Cashier. He lived his whole life as Albert—fought, got pensioned, bought land, even voted—and wasn’t found out until he was 66 years old, in 1911, when he got hit by a car and a doctor discovered his biological sex. He was shipped off to a hospital, where he was forced to wear a dress. He pinned it up into pants, but one day, he tripped on them, fell, and later died.
CK: It’s like, you read a single line and suddenly you’re into this whole story. Sarah Edmonds fled an arranged marriage and disguised herself as a male Bible salesman before going one step further--putting on a uniform and disappearing into the fog of war.
JH: Some women enlisted to be with their family. Rebecca Peterman wrote that she wanted to be near her brother and cousin who were in the same regiment.
CK: A lot of men had no idea these women were there. And when women did get busted—it usually wasn’t for failing as soldiers, but rather for small unconscious slip-ups.
JH: Mary Smith of the 41st Ohio Infantry got exposed as a woman because of her, quote, “peculiar wring of the dishcloth.”
CK: So many soldiers on the battlefield were discovered that the Army came up with a bureaucratic term for ejecting them. They were discharged for--are you ready for this--for “sexual incompatibility.”
JH: We don’t know the motivations for a lot of the women who did this. For some, being a man might have been merely a disguise, while for others, it might have been their true identity. But what’s clear is that women like Rosetta took risks, and it gave them a taste of freedom and power that, in those days, you could only access if you were a man.
CK: Right. And not just a man, but a white man. Which brings us to this one last woman from the Civil War we learned about who took passing as a white guy to a whole other level. I heard about her from a woman named Yvette Blake, a retired US Army soldier.
YB: I’m a reenactor with the 23rd United States Colored Troops. I portray a female portraying a male.
CK: The woman she told us about was named Maria Lewis.
YB: Maria Lewis was a slave in Virginia, she was about 17 years old, and she escaped to the Union Army. And she went and disguised herself as a man and joined the 8th New York Cavalry, which was a white unit.
CK: I just want to make sure you caught that. Maria Lewis escaped from slavery. As a teenager. She put on a uniform, and fought in the Union cavalry for almost two years, as a white man.
YB: She rode a horse and carried a sword and carbine just like a man. And she went by the name of George Harris.
JH: Maria's plan was to spend only a short time disguised as a man in the Army, to use enlisting as a way to escape to the North and true freedom. But that turned out to be harder than she expected. And then she realized she kicked ass as a soldier. And kinda liked it.
CK: In one battle, her unit took 500 prisoners and captured 17 flags and when a few soldiers were selected to present them to the Secretary of War, George Harris aka Maria Lewis was among them.
CK: For Yvette, learning about Maria changed the way she thought the role of black women in the Civil War.
YB: I mean, I’m just, just just to know that these women existed and did these things. You know, they helped free themselves. And that's what's important to me
JH: Like all reenactors, Yvette wants us to see the authentic version of the Civil War, only this version includes women like Maria.
YB: I want people to know, I want my grandkids to know these women, who they were.
[MUSIC POST AND OUT]
CK: Maria Lewis’s story to me is incredible. It sounds like something if you’d have told me the story I woulda said, “Naw, that’s not true.” It’s almost unbelievable. And I think it really shows how determined and innovative folks were, in trying to achieve freedom.
JH: Yeah. But with all of these women, like, the freedom and rights you get when you're disguised as a soldier are, limited right? I mean, they’re only on the battlefield and under the constant threat of death.
CK: Right. And it's even more extreme for Maria than a lot of these women, ‘cause she went from enslaved black woman to white man in the Army. And here’s what drives me crazy. We know anything about Maria Lewis's life after the war. Like, who did this woman become?
JH: All we know about her comes from a handful of diary entries from an abolitionist Maria knew at the end of the war. And it’s clear that she wanted to leave her alias behind, but she was conflicted. Sometimes she’d borrow a dress and wear it around town, like she was practicing. Sometimes she’d come to dinner in full cavalry gear. Maybe that was just easier for her.
CK: I think about the entry where Maria got a petticoat and some hoops. And I can picture her folding up the Army uniform one last time, putting it away, and fully taking on her new role. A role she'd fought to make possible: free woman of color.
JH: Uncivil is produced by Chris Neary, Chiquita Paschal, and Saidu Tejan Thomas. We had more help from Alvin Melathe. Our senior producer is Kimmie Regler. Editing by Pat Walters, Jorge Just, Caitlin Kenney, and Alex Blumberg.
CK: Our show is mixed by Bobby Lord. The music for Uncivil was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll in collaboration with Ann Caldwell & The Magnolia Singers. We’d like to thank everyone in the low country for a fantastic week of recording.
Additional music features JC Brooks, Son Little, Rocko Walker, Haley Shaw and Saidu Tejan-Thomas.
Special thanks to Alex Meyers, Dana Bialek, Amand Claybow Audrey Scanlan Teller, Tracey McIntire, J.R. Hardman, Paula Whitacre, W.C. Davis, the New York Historical Society, and the 28th Massachusetts Infantry, Company B. There’s a new documentary about the history and experiences of female civil war reenactors by J.R. Hardman that’s coming out soon--it’s called Reenactress, and you can learn more about it by visiting Reenactress.com.
CK: Uncivil is a production of Gimlet Media. Our website is uncivil.show. We’re on Twitter and Facebook at UncivilShow. And don’t forget to join our facebook group: Uncivil Podcast
JH: I’m Jack Hitt.
CK: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.
ON NEXT WEEK”S EPISODE OF UNCIVIL
We’ll see you next week