In the first part of The Lady Civil War Reenactor, I gave an introduction about what should be expected at most reenactments for women, why people choose to participate in reenactments, and a list of vocabulary commonly spoken by people in the reenactment community. In the second part of The Lady Civil War Reenactor, I talk about building the impression (persona) that you’ll use at reenactments and what should be avoided. I also put up a short questionnaire designed to help you build your impression.
Today we’re going to get into more of the specifics in each type of impression for female Civil War reenactors. It’s so vast, however, that I will break it down into the basic economical and social groups and the differences between Union and Confederate women within those economic groups. Keep in mind that research is never going to stop. I’ve been doing this on and off for going on two decades now and I still do research in primary sources like photographs, letters and diaries. There is no such thing as, “I know everything about Civil War reenacting.”
Types of Ladies Impressions By Economic and Social Status
The lowest classes of women on both sides of the Mason-Dixon were known as “public women”. The ideal image of a woman in the 1860s was a modest, virginal, angelic type. Much of Victorian society was based on rules of chivalry from the Arthurian period of history. A woman who dared to live her life in the open was considered immodest and immoral. A “public woman” was a prostitute, an actress, and any other woman who held a job that was not considered feminine. Contrary to popular belief, the nursing profession was, until the Civil War, dominated by men only because it was considered indelicate for women to witness such things. Women only entered nursing out of lack of manpower during the war and they slowly turned it into a legitimate career choice for the unmarried woman after the Civil War. Even if a woman was filthy rich from these professions, she was still considered low class because of the perceived immorality attached to how she made her money. The only legitimate work open to unmarried women was teaching, sometimes secretarial (although I don’t think secretary work was very common until after the Civil War), or domestic service ranging from a seamstress or laundress all the way up to being a full-time live-in servant in a wealthier home. Upon marriage, however, a woman was expected to give up any form of work and devote herself to raising her family with a happy and grateful heart. Even though it was acceptable for unmarried women to have some forms of work, they were still considered lower class because if their family had any money whatsoever, they wouldn’t be forced to work at all.
During the Civil War in the Confederacy, another form of lower class people came to surface in the form of refugees. A refugee was someone who was forced out of their homes and put into poverty by the invading Union Army taking over and fighting around their properties. If I’m correct in remembering what I’ve read, refugees were not look down upon at all because they had nothing, that put them into the low class category. Refugees are becoming more popular for impressions in the reenacting community because it’s easier to portray people who had virtually nothing since it costs virtually nothing to build that impression. Slave women were the lowest of the low class people in the Confederacy with free black women only slightly above them. Conversely, in the Union, immigrant servants were the lowest class with, again, free black women only slightly above them as well. It’s hard for me to see any distinction between slaves, immigrant servants, prostitutes and actresses as to who was above who. Studying it closer will probably reveal the hierarchy of the lowest classes of women in the 1860s, which should be something you do if you consider portraying any such women.
If you are doing an impression of one of these lowest class women, your wardrobe would vary depending on who you’re supposed to be. A refugee never wears hoops and can get away with not wearing a corset. Refugee dresses are made of rough, often homespun material, with virtually no embellishments. There wouldn’t be a ballgown either. Where would you carry such frivolity if you’re on the run from the Yankees? On the other hand, a prostitutes and actresses clothing could range from looking like a refugee to looking like an overly decorated peacock because prostitutes and actresses could be dirt poor or ridiculously rich. A ridiculously rich prostitute wouldn’t need to follow armies through the field though. Your best bet if you’re going for a low class impression is to get a simple dress with minimal embellishment (called a camp dress), a corset and corded petticoats as opposed to full-on hoops. We’ll get into fashion later.
I don’t have an exact term for it and I don’t believe “middle class” was a term used in the 1860s because we were still coming out of a time when people were either extremely rich are extremely poor without much in between. However, I consider a middle class woman to be one that was provided for enough by her father, brother or husband that she was not working but she was not comfortably rich either. In my opinion based on what I have read from the time, these were the most common women in America at the beginning of the Civil War. Many of them ascended to hire positions through the war, while still many more plummeted to the lowest class during the war due to the hardships of being without their men.
Chances are, you are going to portray someone in this category. You would not be employed. Your father, brother or husband would basically be your lord and master no matter how old your or how intelligent your in your own right. He would provide for you and your children. As an unmarried woman, you would be under your father’s control. That control would transfer to your husband upon marriage. You would have no property rights upon marriage. You would never serve on a jury. You have no right to vote. You are completely represented by the man in your life (I say brother because if you were unmarried at the time of your father’s death, your brother, if old enough, would then be responsible for you). These average women could have any range of education depending on how their fathers chose to provide for them. Many middle class women were very educated and could speak multiple languages because it was considered fashionable to emulate the higher classes, which were expected to be extremely educated in such things. A middle class woman would do everything she could to appear higher socially, so she would be very inventive, she would know how to stretch her family’s dollars, she would be clever with fashion as to look higher class than she was, and so on. In many ways, a middle class woman of the 1860s had to be more clever and inventive than her sisters in the other classes.
These women were very likely to be the ones who volunteered in various relief and aid societies that sprung up throughout the Union and Confederacy during the war. While the higher class women would be more organizational and figureheads in such organizations, the middle class women to be the ones doing the work. As the war went on, female nurses far exceeded male nurses who previously dominated the field. A female nurse was required in most cases to be married and older than 25 or 30 in order to prevent indecent encounters between single women and lonely soldiers. Many times women were only considered for nursing positions if they were only looking as to further discourage indecent behavior between the sexes. This is something you need to consider if you are hoping to be a nurse in reenactments. Are you married in your impression? If not, it may not be completely accurate for you to portray a nurse. You don’t actually have to be married in reality to portray a married woman. All you have to do is get an 1860s appropriate ring and add marriage to your impression by saying your husband is off to war.
Middle class women were also quite often the wives of officers just based on the pay they received. If you are portraying an officer’s wife, you would be very concerned about the men serving under him and perhaps act as a surrogate sister or mother to them. You would make sure they had enough knitted socks, winter gloves, hats and so forth. You would organize relief in the form of food packages, and various other things in care packages from home, much like women do today for serving soldiers. If an officer’s wife visited in the field, part of her responsibility would be to visit with the soldiers serving under her husband and boost morale.
If you are doing a middle class impression, you would have dresses made of better materials and a bit more embellishments. You would wear hoops more often than not, absolutely wear corsets, but you would not have the richest things. You would have the best fakes you could afford though (fake jewelry, for example, was called paste jewelry). We’ll talk about fashion later.
This would be the smallest percentage of women in the 1860s, both North and South. It is true that the North had more economical wealth spread over a larger amount of people but the South had its wealth concentrated in a very small sliver of the population – the Southern aristocracy. During the war, these women would be wives of planters, wives of men in the Confederate government, wives of the top men in the Confederate Army, and wives of opportunists making money off the war. The planter class – those people who lived on large plantations and generated income from slave labor – collapsed first in the war. Once the planter class collapsed, the economic structure of the South basically collapsed along with it, leaving the top percentage of people in the extremely vulnerable position of poverty that they had never experienced. Early in the war, your impression, if you are doing someone of the upper class, you would still portray a sense of security in your wealth. Mid-to-late war, you would not feel so secure in it. Late war, you probably wouldn’t have very much wealth left, although you would try to give that impression.
In the North, the wealth was not so concentrated on such a small group of people but spread out more evenly, although there were pockets of extreme while in the Northeast. Northern families did not see economic collapse on the catastrophic scale that Southern families did, so if you are portray no woman of a wealthy Northern family, you would not necessarily feel the insecurity in that wealth like a Southern woman would. While Southern wealth was made from mostly inherited landowning agricultural earnings, a lot of Northern wealth was made from politics, industry, business, real estate, and so forth. Northern women had better access to European fashion, although many northeastern families were descended from puritanical culture that was not so flamboyant and flashy with their wealth. I have seen documentation from Northern women who traveled to the South in the decade prior to the Civil War and made comments about how Southern women dressed in much brighter colors and decorated their clothes more. So it’s important to keep in mind, when you’re developing your impression, that there are cultural differences in 1860s North America that should be entertained.
The life of a woman in the upper crust of society in the 1860s was mostly focused on managing the household, socializing, managing children, and so forth. When the war came along, these women used their positions (because they were well-known figures in their communities) to raise money for regiments coming out of their states, they entertained officers, soldiers, politicians, and did whatever they could to boost morale. This was much like the women in the class is below them but the wealthy women did it on much bigger scales. Social hierarchy was extremely important to these women. The less you had to do for yourself because of having enough servants meant that your husband was more successful than others. Women of wealthy positions were expected to be more charitable, although the classes did not mix as much.
I suppose when outsiders think of the Civil War, they jump to Gone with the Wind right away, which would be the closest thing to the top 1% to 3% of society. Again, do not use Gone with the Wind as a fashion guidebook. Women of the highest class would have had the best of everything available at the time. Remember the war created a blockade around the South, so even the most wealthy women were having to turn old dresses inside out, redo them, and be very inventive because there just weren’t any new materials coming in until after the war. Northern women were not affected so much in that manner but much of the nation’s resources were redirected to the war effort, so they did suffer for things that they had before.
I do not recommend constantly being a high class woman prancing around with her parasol and huge hoop skirts at reenactments all the time. Think of it this way – would you go camping today in a beautiful Chanel suit? No. You would put on your junkie clothes because you know you’re going to get dirty and rough it. The same mentality should be applied to women in the 1860s. A woman during the war would not visit and army camp wearing a Worth dress because she would ruin it out there in the wilderness (Worth was to go-to couture designer of the 19th century). It’s a good rule of thumb, even if you are portraying a wealthy woman, to ask yourself what would you do in a given situation today – whether it’s camping in the field, cooking, cleaning, doing artistic things, chasing children, etc. – and then translate that into 1860s terms. Chances are your answer from approaching it that way would not be to walk around dressed like Scarlet O’Hara all the time. There is a time and a place to wear your biggest, most beautiful dress, and a time to be more practical. Most activities in camp should be more practical. I think it’s okay to wear the bigger dresses, only if you’re wealthy, when you’re watching a company drill or on parade because part of your responsibility would be to boost their morale. A pretty girl always boosts the morale of any soldier.
Continue on to The Lady Civil War Reenactor: Part IV now….