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Combat Frock: Women Re-Enact The Civil War

This week marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and in the spirit of the Fourth of July, a friend and I set out to experience our first Civil War re-enactment. Armed with my camera, I attended the re-enactment of the battle with a specific question in mind: What inspired women to participate?

I originally wondered why women would want to put on heavy clothing in the July heat and re-enact a time when they had a lot less freedom, and both participants and enthusiastic spectators were more than willing to explain.

Several women told me they became involved to have a shared experience with the men in their lives. Leeanne Boles traveled from California to attend the re-enactment with her fiance. Monica Williams of Halifax, Va., has been participating in re-enactments with her husband for 13 years. Corrie Tice of Philadelphia wanted to join in as a father-daughter bonding experience.

Carole Hackett (left) and her twin sister, Cheryl Hackett, from West Virginia, participated in the re-enactment as part of the Confederate Army artillery.
Chloe Coleman / NPR
Carole Hackett (left) and her twin sister, Cheryl Hackett, from West Virginia, participated in the re-enactment as part of the Confederate Army artillery.

Fashion also influenced some women's decision to travel to Gettysburg. Emily Kelley, of Kalamazoo, Mich., is part of the Living History Experience. A fashion professor at Western Michigan University inspired her, and several other young women, to don the period-based clothing, some of which they made themselves. Adalee Flaherty, of Pennsylvania, says she dresses up not just for re-enactments but to teach her special education students. She noted that women of the era "were very demure, unlike my character. But it's good to be different for a change."

Several of the women participated in the re-enactment as soldiers. Carole and Cheryl Hackett, twins from Parkersburg, W.Va., said they've "loved this stuff since we were little. We started out playing 19th-century-era music." Eventually, they moved from playing music to joining the Kanawha Artillery, Battery D.

And although the re-enactment is deeply entrenched in American history, Les Peplinski gestured for us to come speak with her and whispered: "I'm Canadian!" From Ontario, Peplinski is the only female color sergeant (keeper of the flag). A history teacher originally got her interested in re-enacting, and she noted that her Confederate regiment "is an extended family; we sleep in the dirt together." The character she plays is an amalgam of female soldiers of the Civil War, but she said her character "has become her own personality over the years."

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