Documentary in works on female Civil War re-enactors

In the beginning, J.R. Hardman just wanted to be a soldier. She’s wound up commanding a whole moviemaking campaign.

About three years ago, the Minnesota transplant attended a Battle of Atlanta commemorative event here. Intrigued, she fell into conversation with a leader of a group of Civil War re-enactors and asked him what she needed to do to join his unit.

“He said, ‘Oh, you should go to talk to my wife over there,’” Hardman, 29, recently recalled of the first time she realized some re-enactment groups don’t want women in their ranks as soldiers. “‘She’ll get you a dress with a hoop skirt.’”

Sir, no sir!

Hardman eventually found a spot as a private in a different re-enacting unit, the 53rd Georgia Company K Quitman Guard. By then, the University of Southern California film school graduate knew a good story when she saw it. Throw in some juicy historical precedent — at least 400 women are thought to have fought in the Civil War, all disguised as men — and the idea for a full-length documentary about female re-enactors was born.

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Filming has already begun on “Reenactress,” which director Hardman is raising money to complete via that most modern piece of weaponry, a Kickstarter campaign. It runs through the end of July, with rewards — being mentioned in the end credits, an autographed movie poster — commensurate with the amount pledged toward the overall goal of $27,009. (With nine days to go, the campaign was halfway there.) Hardman even offered to shave her own head if someone pledged $777, and someone quickly snapped it up.

“I would rather make the movie than have hair for a while,” Hardman chuckled last weekend at the Atlanta History Center, where she portrayed a soldier in the living history event “Returning Home: Life After the Civil War.”

Having done so more than 15 times in various types of re-enactments, Hardman says the documentary will cover her journey “from totally clueless to being sort of an expert on the topic” of female re-enactors who dress up in historically accurate men’s uniforms. It will also feature thoughtful interviews with people who like the idea of these female soldier re-enactors and those who don’t. And offer a look at the various women who take on the role of men, from those who make less effort to disguise their gender, all the way up to more hard-core types who purposely stop smiling and refuse to pluck their eyebrows in order to blend in.

Initially, Hardman seemed an unlikely candidate to join their ranks. Growing up, the Twin Cities native who still retains a hint of a “Fargo”-esque accent mostly thought about the Civil War in academic terms. Work brought her to the South: She’s director of operations for Atlanta-based Campus Moviefest, the world’s largest student film and music festival.

Founded by four Emory University students in 2001, CMF travels to colleges around the country, where students get a week to create and showcase their own short films. In 2012, Hardman found herself near Gettysburg, Pa. She decided to visit the seminal Civil War site and was unexpectedly moved. That July, she went back to observe the annual Battle of Gettysburg re-enactment.

Broiling in the sun, Hardman purchased an authentic Civil War-era hat from a vendor.

“Nice hat,” someone said. “Are you a re-enactor? Do you want to be?”

It turned out to be the commander of the 6th New York Artillery, a self-described “family-friendly” re-enactment unit that was OK having women soldiers in its ranks. After her Battle of Atlanta rebuff, Hardman reconnected with the 6th New York for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam in Maryland.

Back in Atlanta, she posted to a re-enactors’ online forum about her desire to join a unit closer to home. Not every response was positive. The most commonly heard arguments against female re-enactors range from patronizing “concerns” about their ability to handle the marching and camping involved, to the more well-reasoned point that the relatively tiny number of women who actually fought in the Civil War amounts to a statistical anomaly.

On the other hand, authenticity is a major reason the 53rd Georgia agreed to take Hardman as a private.

“The reality is, they were there,” Frank Groce, an Air Force veteran and captain of the 53rd Georgia, said about women soldiers during the Civil War.

Indeed, “Reenactress” will tell the stories of female soldiers like Jennie Hodgers, who fought as “Albert Cashier” in the Civil War and continued in that guise until her death in 1915. And of their equally determined modern-day counterpart, Lauren Cook Wike, a re-enactor from North Carolina who in the 1990s won a sex discrimination lawsuit against the National Park Service, which had barred her from participating in an event at Antietam National Battlefield dressed as a soldier.

Given all that, is it any wonder Hardman’s willing to shave her head for Kickstarter bread?

“We need to keep working on this project,” said Hardman, who’s aiming to finish the documentary by the end of 2016, “because if a subject is hard for people to talk about to each other, that’s exactly why you should be talking about it.”

You can contact Hardman at reenactress@gmail.com.

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