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Women Soldiers
Of The Civil War

by Suzanne Milewski


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 (About the author: Suzanne Milewski has a degree in broadcasting from Kent State University, along with a minor in advertising/journalism. She also has a diploma in executive secretary/word processing, and has done work in TV, secretarial, newspaper proofreading, etc.)

I’ve always loved history, especially about the War Between The States (known as the Civil War).

I grew up in Northeast Ohio and had wonderful history teachers in school. We learned about the issues that brought on the war, including states’ rights. I also did my own research by reading, listening to television programs, talking to people, etc.

Living where I did, I heard all about the North’s side and also about the Underground Railroad, etc., but did not hear as much about the South’s point of view.

I moved to southern Ritchie County in 1999 and heard lots of stories about people whose family had fought for the South. This fueled my interest in the war. In 2005, I moved to Parkersburg.

It wasn’t until approximately March of 2009 that I finally stopped in at TransAllegheny Bookstore in Parkersburg. I asked for books regarding the war from the South’s point of view. The worker I talked to was Fred Cornell, who told me that he was in Civil War re-enacting. I did not know there was such a thing.

Fred told me he was Lt. Colonel of the 17th Virginia Cavalry, Co. F. During one of my visits, he said that there was going to be a battle re-enactment in May at Mountwood Park, not far from where I lived. He suggested I come.

I told him that since my divorce in 2002, I really did not do much or go places by myself, but would try to find friends to go with me. I thought it would be fun to go, but definitely had to find someone to go with me.

As it turned out, I couldn’t find anyone. It was almost time and I was not sure what I’d do. Then, all of a sudden, I had a compelling urge to go to the re-enactment, whether anyone went with me or not.

It was very interesting to me, and when the battle was going to start, it started to rain. As the rain came down harder, they kept on re-enacting. It ended up turning into a big thunderstorm with heavy winds.

All the while I was taking pictures and getting soaked by the rain. Suddenly, I heard the Lord say to me, “Do this!” I knew He meant He wanted me to do re-enacting. I stopped a second and said, “What?! I never do anything by myself . . . how can I? . . . What about money? . . . What?!? . . . Are you crazy?!”

He said again, “Do this!” I kind of chuckled to myself and said, “Ok! I will!” I knew better than to argue with God!

I finished watching the battle and went home, eager to go back the next day. I did go and watch that battle. I was so excited to talk to Fred as soon as I could and see what he had to say about me joining.

Meanwhile, I told my Dad what I had done and was going to do. He was pleasantly shocked that I would do that by myself, yet very excited for me.

My Grandma Baum, who had at least three great-uncles die while fighting with the Ohio Volunteer Infantry, was also excited and happy for me. It did not bother her that I was Confederate. So, I had my family’s blessing!

That Wednesday, I talked to Fred and said, “I really would like to do re-enacting, but I’m a secretary and do not earn much money.”

Fred just kept looking me straight in the eye and said, “You can do it!”

I said, “I can do it!?”

He then told me to get gray or blackish gray wool pants from Goodwill, use my black Justin Roper riding boots, and wear a button-up Henley in off-white. He would let me borrow an extra coat, someone would lend me a kepi, and also a rifle and other needed items. He asked when I could come to a battle.

 I told him, “I see you have a battle in Philippi on the 30th.”

He quickly said, “Be there!”

So, Philippi, in 2009, was my first Civil War re-enactment. I had never handled a re-enacting rifle and knew nothing about re-enacting, so I was given a brief thorough lecture. Less than an hour later, I was lined up with the soldiers and picked to go out with five others to skirmish. I was so nervous, yet proud to be portraying a Confederate Civil War soldier.

It was so much fun!

As of this year, I now own several of the things I need for re-enacting. I spend many weekends a year traveling to and from battlefields near and far.

I love portraying a soldier, meeting and teaching people history, and spending time in the out of doors. It “fits” me and who I am. I can’t see myself not re-enacting!

Yes, I’ve had a couple soldiers of rank talk down to me or refuse to shake my hand, but they are truly the exception. Most soldiers of all ranks treat me as an equal and welcome my participation.

Yes, the wool outfit makes me sweat a lot during the warm weather, and during the cold weather not having a “heavy” coat, I may get quite cold. When wool gets wet, you stay wet and you do not smell so nice.

All the minor inconveniences are just that--minor.

I’ve been asked why I, as a woman, do re-enacting. I get asked, “There weren’t women in the war, were there?” Oh yes! There were women in the War.

Not just as camp helpers doing laundry, cooking or nurse work. They were actual soldiers. They all had to pass as “men,” which took skill and constant monitoring of how they looked, acted and how their voice sounded.

 They had to take on male mannerisms and never let down their guard.

One slip up and they could be “discovered” and removed from the unit. You would think the women would be discovered when it came to the physical given for entrance into the military, wouldn’t you?

Well, physicals were not administered like they are today. Potential soldiers were often examined in a superficial way. Such as making sure you had at least one top tooth that met a bottom tooth so that you could rip open a gunpowder cartridge, and being asked if they had “good health.”

In the book, “I’ll Pass for Your Comrade,” by Anita Silvey, she addresses why women became soldiers, what they had to do, what happened to some of them, etc. Some women wanted to join up so they could avenge the death of a loved one.

Others joined because their husband or lover was entering the army and they did not want to be separated from them. Still others joined because they just wanted adventure or truly believed in “the cause.” All had their own reasons.

The Smithsonian has discovered 400 women that were known to be soldiers in the war.

They faced the same life and death situations and daily hardships as the men. After facing death and seeing all the horrors of war, some women that were removed from their unit for being discovered, found ways to join up again.

Toward the latter years of the war, women that were discovered were allowed to stay on as soldiers due to the fact that both sides really needed soldiers, and many women were skilled marksmen and very good at riding horses.

(Publisher’s Note: I first met Sue Milewski at a worship service during a Civil War re-enactment of the Battle of Sycamore that was held at Calhoun County Park. The service was at a “brush shelter” near the pond. There were very few seats when I arrived, but a smiling face with an empty seat beside it made me feel welcome. I sat down in the empty seat and we immediately became friends.

She was not a camp follower, but one of the soldiers. I observed her training, and she was a serious student. Later on, she proved that she could keep up with the other soldiers in battle.

I have attended other re-enactments in which Sue was taking part. She is enthusiastic about presenting historical facts through living history to children and their families.)

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