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Women played role in Civil War battles

The U.S. Army has changed quite a bit in the past 150 years. The weapons are different. And so are the uniforms, the drills and the salutes.

But the main difference is the manner of warfare.

“It’s like waiting your turn to shoot; you’re like sitting ducks,” Yvette Blake, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Army said about Civil War re-enactment battles.

Saturday, she went back in uniform—this time, a scratchy wool costume to portray a Union soldier in the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness, a Civil War fight which took place in Spotsylvania and Orange counties.

As a black woman, Blake may not seem like a typical Civil War enthusiast. But she is historically accurate.

Historians know that at least 400 women donned uniforms and fought in the War Between the States, said Linda Snook, a re-enactor who also teaches Civil War history at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

And black women also joined the war, fighting in the U.S. Colored Troops. Blake joined the 23rd USCT infantry re-enactors two years ago.

And for that group, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness is a pretty big deal. During that battle, the 23rd USCT played a little-known yet pivotal role.

The black soldiers were supposed to guard the supply trains. The Union Army may have welcomed the black troops, but they didn’t yet trust them to play a bigger role in the war efforts, said Kevin Williams, a member of the re-enacting group.

On May 15, 1864, an Ohio cavalry came under assault and needed help. The black soldiers were the closest, and they stepped into battle at Catharpin Road.

“We won their respect, and the army cheered us,” Williams said.

That story didn’t make it into many textbooks. And the re-enacting regiment started as a way to share the story of the unit’s bravery.

“I like history, and I like people to know history,” Blake said. “I grew up in Newport News and in school, we learned about Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, but we didn’t hear stories like this.”

The Rev. Hashmel Turner had also never heard of the 23rd USCT regiment, until a few years ago. In 2011, the Fredericksburg preacher and former city councilman, learned of the unit’s role in the war.

“This is a story that needs to be told,” Turner said Saturday. “Freedom took more than the stroke of the pen of Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. It took the additional step of donning the uniform and fighting for freedom.”

The story of women soldiers is also not well-known, Snook said. Female soldiers were often young and lacked distinctive curves.

Soldiers went months without bathing, which helped the women escape detection. And the physical demands of marching and fighting usually kept women from menstruating, Snook said.

Sometimes women were discovered when they were injured or killed in the war. And a few became pregnant, which would have made it difficult to disguise their gender.

One war record notes that a Union major gave birth on the field, Snook said.

While historical records back up the presence of women on the battlefield, it can sometimes be hard to convince male re-enactors to let females in the unit.

When Beth Brown decided to become a re-enactor in 2010, the Pennsylvania farrier had a hard time finding a unit that would let her join.

“Not every group welcomes women,” she said. “You have to find a group that will let you play with them.”

She convinced Carl Popadick, who immediately saw Brown’s presence as historically accurate.

Slowly, women are becoming more commonplace on the reproduction battlefields. Saturday, there were several women dressed in uniform, some sporting fake facial hair to blend in with the mostly male troops.

Snook started her re-enacting in more feminine roles—many re-enactors don hoop skirts to portray the camp laundresses, cooks and nurses.

“That got old fast,” she said. “I like taking the field, as we call it When I first started, you almost never saw a woman on the field. But I saw a lot of women out there today. More than I’ve ever seen before.”

Amy Umble: 540/735-1973


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