Battle re-enactor finds herself at war with U.S. Park Service


Each time Lauren Cook Burgess dresses in a Confederate soldier's uniform, she takes the same pains to hide her sex as the 400 or more women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War.

She binds her breasts, wears her hair short, pulls her cap down low over her face and speaks in a husky voice.

But Ms. Burgess made one mistake when she showed up with her musket and fife for a living history program at Antietam National Battlefield in 1989. She went to the ladies room.

When she came out, she found herself at war with the U.S. Park Service instead of the Union Army.

Two Antietam rangers who saw her refused to let the fife player from the 21st Georgia Volunteer Infantry participate in the park's living history program.

"They asked me to take the uniform off or leave the park," says Ms. Burgess, a 35-year-old college administrator from Fayetteville, N.C., who was infuriated by the ultimatum. "I was so mad that I wasn't going to take it off."

Instead she marched out of the park and, in February, filed a sex discrimination suit against the U.S. Department of Interior in U.S. District Court in Washington.

Ms. Burgess claims that the rangers forced her to leave the park because she is a woman. The Park Service contends Ms. Burgess was barred because her uniform was not appropriate for a re-enactment of a battlefield hospital.

The legal skirmish has divided Civil War re-enactors, a subculture of people from all over the country who devote their weekends to marches, firing drills, encampments and other demonstrations of 19th-century military life.

"This is a hot potato," says Marylander Dave Pridgeon, an Edgewood man who commands the 21st Georgia. "There are those who think that women have no place in the ranks. There are those who think she's correct to go after the Park Service."

Much of the debate revolves around the question of historical accuracy. Re-enactors who want to exclude women in uniform from the field say they weren't there during the Civil War and shouldn't be there now.

Ms. Burgess begs to differ.

Most women, she concedes, were the nurses, grieving widows and camp followers portrayed at living history re-creations and in the much-watched PBS television series "The Civil War." But hundreds of women also disguised themselves as men to enlist in the Union and Confederate armies.

Union nurse Mary A. Livermore wrote in her memoirs, "My Story of the War," that at least 400 women fought in the war, though she suspected the real number was far higher.

So do many historians, but nobody really knows, says Dr. Linda Grant De Pauw, a professor of American history at George Washington University and the president of the Minerva Center, a non-profit group that focuses on women in the military.

"In the 19th century, somebody with pants and short hair was a man," Dr. Grant De Pauw explains. And because there were so many young boys fighting in both armies, women faded into the ranks far more easily than they would today.

Civil War letters, memoirs and newspaper accounts are littered with references to women soldiers, including:

* A corporal startling comrades in the 10th Massachusetts by having a baby at their winter camp in Falmouth, Va.

* Two drunken soldiers in the 15th Missouri shocking the men who pulled them out of a river when they turned out to be women.

* A member of the 15th Iowa committing suicide after her unit learned she was a woman.

L The women enlisted for many reasons, Dr. Grant De Pauw says.

Some were determined to fight alongside a husband, brother or son. Others burned to defend the cause of abolition or state's rights. A few were already living as men before the war to support themselves with the kind of high-paying jobs denied to women.

Jennie Hodgers continued living as a man after fighting in the 95th Illinois Volunteer Infantry under the name Albert D. J. Cashier, according to an article on her life published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

She spent four years at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Home in Quincy, Ill., before dying in 1915. She was buried with full military honors.

At least three women were at Antietam, the Sept. 17, 1862, battle that left 23,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing on the single bloodiest day in U.S. military history. One of the wounded Union soldiers, Mary Galloway, was nursed by Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross.

But the existence of women soldiers made no difference to the Antietam park rangers, Ms. Burgess charges.

"They said they wanted to portray the norm," she says. "They called me a yahoo and told me I knew nothing about the history of the period. It was insulting."

The Park Service, however, insists it does not prevent women or anyone else from participating in its living history programs as long as their portrayals are accurate.

"We have a very serious commitment to authenticity," says Duncan Morrow, a spokesman for the Park Service. Ms. Burgess was told to take off her fife player's uniform because it was inappropriate for the re-creation of a battlefield hospital, he said.

"It was a question of whether she was suited to this particular event, and the judgment came down that she was not," Mr. Morrow said.

But Mr. Pridgeon, the commander of the 21st Georgia, said that Ms. Burgess' uniform never came up during a heated, hourlong meeting he attended with her, her husband, Fred Burgess, and the two park rangers, Ted Alexander and Paul Chiles.

"There was no hedging about why she wasn't allowed to participate," Mr. Pridgeon says. "It was a living history, and she wasn't allowed to participate because she was a woman."

Mr. Chiles, the chief historian at Antietam, cannot comment publicly about the dispute because of the lawsuit. But he points out that there were 126,000 soldiers at Antietam and only three were women.

"We're talking about one in 42,000," he says. "We're not talking about the typical soldier in the Army of the Potomac or the Army of Northern Virginia."

While the park presents a special program on women at Antietam every spring, its other living history re-creations portray the lives of typical soldiers "rather than the oddball or the unusual," Mr. Chiles says.

The overwhelming majority of soldiers at Antietam were white men, he says.

Black units like the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, which was the subject of the movie "Glory," did not fight at Antietam, and it would be wrong for the Park Service to imply that they did.

"We're trying to present what's accurate," he says. "We're trying to teach history out here. We're not doing Hollywood."

Mr. Pridgeon, who supports Ms. Burgess' right to participate in living history re-creations, says spectators would have a tough time telling she is a woman.

In fact, at 5 feet 7 inches and 135 pounds, Ms. Burgess says she looks far more like the average Civil War soldier than most of the middle-aged men on the field.

The average Civil War soldier was an emaciated young man of about 18.

"Women do a better job of looking like young boys than an older guy does," she says. "You see a lot of potbellies out there, a lot of beer guts."

But Mr. Pridgeon and other re-enactors are worried that the Park Service will stop holding living history programs if they are pushed too far. They wish Ms. Burgess' lawsuit and the publicity surrounding it would go away.

That's unlikely, says Ms. Burgess, who insists the Park Service has left her no other choice.

She and her husband, also a member of the 21st Georgia, love the music, marches and military history associated with re-enactments. They have no intention of giving it up, Ms. Burgess says.

Last year, the couple and their unit participated in a living history program to mark the 125th anniversary of the Confederate Army's surrender at Appomattox.

The re-creation, which took place on federally owned park land, was sponsored by a private organization that specifically excluded women.

"I went anyway, and nobody noticed I was a woman," Ms. Burgess says. But she is tired of being afraid that someone will discover her sex.

"You do feel like a fugitive, and that's not right," she says. "I have as much right to be out there as anyone else."

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