The American Civil War is a conflict frequently described as “brother killing brother”; however, that forgets the one thousand or more women who fought.
During Iowa Wesleyan University’s Brown Bag LEcture Series on Tuesday, March 19, Barb Dunder, Civil War Re-enactor with the Co. D. 3rd Iowa Cavalry and a veteran, spoke about a handful of women on record who served during America’s bloodiest conflict.
“There’s solid documentation on about 450 (women who served) and semi-documentation on around 300 more,” Dunder said.
With those kinds of numbers, Duder suspects the actual total is over 1,000 with many female soldiers never identified.
Dunder began the presentation in the garb of a Civil War soldier. In the first 15 minutes, she demonstrated how the fashion of the time made it easier for women to hide their gender.
“Any time we look at history, we have to look at it in the cultural perspective of when they were living,” Duder explained to the 73 attendees. “In the Victorian era, if it wore pants it was a man. The way (women) did it was they cut their hair and they put on pants and they moved forward.”
Soldiers during the Civil War were sometimes buried in mass graves. Union soldiers did not typically undress their dead, and many women survived through the war without being discovered.
One woman, Sarah Wakeman, died during the Civil War disguised as a male soldier and was buried under the name “Lyons Wakeman.” According to Duder, it wasn’t until over 100 years after the war that her identity was discovered in family journals.
“Unfortunately, what has happened over time is that history disappears because it’s not told in our own voices or the history is just removed altogether,” Duder said. “(During the Civil War) women were property, whether the woman was white or black. Because we were silenced as time went on, the history was lost.”
Women are still fighting for their right to the history of the Civil War, Duder said.
“We still fight for a place on the battlefield as Civil War living historians,” Duder said, “I’ve had fellow re-enactors not be allowed to participate on National Park Service battlefields. Sometimes we have to fight to be within that company.”
The companies that bar women from being involved often cite historical accuracy. Some argue that if there is no firm record of a woman being in a specific battle or part of a particular company then female re-enactors cannot be involved. The history of which women where at what battle “is oftentimes impossible to document” since the women who did serve undetected didn’t want their secrets revealed,” Duder said.
“They didn’t want to be identified as women,” Duder said. “They wanted to be identified as soldiers, and they joined for the same reason men did. They joined for the money, they joined because they were patriots and it’s the same reason women join the military today.”
Duder’s character, Brady Patrick Imes, who enlisted to escape a bad home life, is what Duder calls an “amalgam” of other women’s stories. Duder says that her goal is not about embodying another specific woman, but being able to represent the women whose stories have been lost to time.
“There has been talk about ‘Can women do this job? Can women be special forces?’” Duder said. “We’ve been doing it. There have been women warriors since the beginning of time and they did what it took to protect family and land. The same reason we fight now.”
The next Brown Bag Lecture will be held on Tuesday, March 26, at noon in the Chadwick Library and feature Joy Conwell discussing the history of Senator James Harlan.