Taking the field in disguise? Here’s how to do it right!
My Rifle on My Shoulder or Going for a Soldier
A guide for females
If you are a woman seeking to portray a soldier, your job will be doubly difficult. You must learn the manual of arms, how to drill in formation, and the care and feeding of your weapon, but you must also be a master of disguise, a secret agent for your sex! If you are detected, you risk being forced into skirts, and, worse yet, you endanger the standing of the unit in the eyes of its Battalion and yourself in the opinions of your fellow men folk. If you are successful, you will gain a new understanding of the daily life of a soldier and a newfound respect for the sacrifices they made on distant battlefields. However, not every woman will be a successful soldier. Make no mistake; taking on this challenging role requires careful study, much preparation, and rehearsed responses. Just as an actor gets in the head of his character, so must you enter the world of men.
The mirror is your friend
Disguising your feminine physical features is a big element in being a successful soldier. If you can succeed at this, you will have surpassed the biggest hurdle to becoming a man. However, some women are going to look like women no matter what is done (outside of major surgery!) To you, I say, perhaps this is not for you! You will feel more comfortable as a lady than constantly worrying about your detection as a man.
Let’s start from the top down!
The face and head is the most tell-tale place to recognize feminine features. Women with long hair have great trouble hiding it, and a beautiful face easily draws unwanted attention. A good hat is a starting point for disguise. Avoid wide-brimmed styles that frame a face, such as a slouch hat. Rather, go for a Kepi, or forage cap. You can pull the brim low on your brow and the forage cap has an expanding top for hiding hair in. These hats also come down fairly low in the back.
Cutting the hair short is the best thing, but not for everybody, especially if you are just trying this type of experience out. If you do cut it, be sure to think about a versatile cut that can imitate the men’s “hat hair” from this period. It is longer than guys wear today. Look at CDVs for inspiration and consider pomade, as it was a frequent style aid of the time.
Hiding hair that is long is challenging. If you are blessed with masculine looking wisps at the nape of your neck, you can easily put up the bulk of your hair under your cap and leave these to look like the fashionable styles of the men. If you don’t have those, putting all your hair up under the hat only screams “woman” to the troops. Some experiment will have to be done at home to arrange the hair in a boyish bowl cut, a messy bob, or some variation. A wig can be employed, but do remember how hot it gets out there. Sometimes a fall (known as a hair weave to the AA community) of human hair can be dyed to match and then sewn on the band of the hat. The fall is then trimmed to look like bangs, sideburns, and messy shag in the back. This is a most convincing option but requires the services of a willing hairdresser who has preferably worked for the theatre community. Do not put your hair in a pony-tail or braid down the back! That style went out with the Revolution and only increases your feminine looks! Men of this period, especially in the military, tended towards shorter hair as a preventative of lice and other itchy vermin.
The face is another area where femininity is difficult to hide. Do not pluck your eye-brows if you hope to have a chance here! A bushy brow is an excellent way to look more mannish. If you are very fair, get dirty. Most soldiers mucked about in filth as part of the job and had few opportunities to wash. A few well-placed dirt splotches can hide the snowy complexion. Eyebrow pencil can also be used to discreetly suggest a 5 o’clock shadow. Outlining the jaw bone in particular can make one look more angular. Please practice this one at home until it looks convincing. Nothing looks worse than a woman with a scrolled French pencil mustache!
If you long for the real thing, drag kings suggest acquiring crepe wool used for doll hair in a similar shade to your own. Cut it up very fine with sharp scissors. Use spirit glue on the area of your face you wish to cover. Wait until the glue is tacky and then dust the area with the wool on a large make-up brush to imitate stubble. Again, I would try this one out at home as it can be very tricky to duplicate in the field. It was also a method that was unavailable to our ancestors attempting to pass as male. If you are too old to get away with peach fuzz, invest in a quality facial hairpiece from a theatre supply company. Test it out at home to make sure it will stay on and that you can get used to it!
Next we have the neck. Some ladies are blessed with an Adam’s apple. If not, a high neckstock, or cravat, can hide that fact and make you out for a cultured gentleman as opposed to the lower class of men in the ranks. A handkerchief tied about the neck is also viable and can be soaked in cool water on hot days for comfort.
For hiding chest features decidedly female, a binder is the best way to go. Sports bras may flatten you, but not to the satisfaction of trying to pass as male. Ace bandages wrapped around the torso do the job, but can often shift during activity. You can easily make your own binder by wrapping a sturdy piece of cotton around your torso tightly. Secure with hooks and eyes and add shoulder straps to keep it in place. Make sure you can breathe in it! (Of course, those of us better endowed in this area may find no convincing way to hide what is God-given, and may as well refrain from going a-field. But you never know until you try!) A proper binder is not only period, it protects your modesty should a marauding field surgeon attempt some sort of chest operation on you as you play dead. He will see the binder and, if he’s smart, leave you alone. If he’s not intelligent enough to figure out what you are wearing, and more importantly why you are wearing it, you can “revive” and scare him off, or at least convince him you are not a willing patient.
Next out from the binder, a shirt that is cut in the usual style will do nicely. A vest, looser fitting so as not to outline your new “pecks”, is the proper thing to wear to further disguise your torso. The vest should reach below the waist into the upper hip region so as not to draw attention to your waist. Actually, the shirt was considered underwear by most Victorian sensibilities and vulgar indeed was the man who went about without a vest covering his unmentionables! You are only being proper by wearing one. An additional thing that can be done with the vest is to add cotton padding (quilt batting, do make sure it’s cotton!) around the waist area to fill in a narrow waist. It also aids those with larger chests making the waist the same size as the bound chest.
The shoulders pose a dilemma that is easily overcome. Use shoulder pads tacked in your uniform to give the illusion of broad shoulders. The uniform itself should be larger than your normal size and should fit loosely down to the hips with little or no shaping. Forget that wasp-waisted officer look! How many of those do you actually see out there anyway? Experiment with types of jackets to find which hides your hips the best. If you are pear-shaped, try a frock coat, if you are a stick, try a shell jacket. If you have an hourglass figure, what are you doing in the ranks! Just kidding, try a sack coat. Make sure your sleeves are a bit long at the cuff and exaggerated at the elbow to avoid outlining the arm. Long sleeves can hide your smaller hands and, during action, can easily be rolled up out of the way. They can also be used as “gloves” to grip a hot barrel.
Pants, according to the style of the times, should be very loose. You don’t need to stuff, or otherwise add a “package”, just make sure there is enough bagging in the crotch to suggest that there is. Be sure to look at the backside, too. Too often the front looks ok while the back shows a firm bum that is decidedly un-male! If you can do without suspenders, I highly recommend it for utilizing the privy. If you need them, practice with them at home under the vest until you can quickly button and unbutton without problems. The pants should fall to touch the arches of your shoes and fold a little there. You don’t want to trip, but you also don’t want to expose dainty ankles.
Footwear should be the same as any other enlisted man. If you have small feet, try one size larger (you must be able to walk in them, however) and try using bulky socks to take up the excess room. If you have large feet, so much the better!
To conclude the visual portion, the more practice you do in front of the mirror at home, the more comfortable you can feel out there in the field. Look at all angles. Ask yourself if you are convincing to the public, to your fellow men. Converse to what some officers say, you cannot just jump in the ranks. It takes practice and many dry runs at home. If a group of local ladies wish to do this, organize a military training day where you can evaluate your impressions and keep up on the drill.
Walk like a man
In order to succeed as a male, you cannot act feminine. You must observe closely the daily interactions of your fellow men. How do they walk? How do they gesture during conversation? How do they grab the coffee pot? How do they sit? Stand? It has been said that the best soldier women during the civil war were nothing more than good observers of the men around them. If you hope to pass, you must not only look male, you must act male as well. This is most crucial outside of ranks when each man becomes an individual again.
The walk is vital. How else do you hope to get anywhere? You are, after all, a foot soldier! It helps to think about the differences in the way men and women walk. When a woman walks, she moves her hips back and forth with every step. This is what men find so alluring, as when a man walks, he cannot move his hips. It is as if they are fixed. I am sure you have all seen celebrity males trying to do Latin dances on TV, with miserable results. The only way for a man to move his legs freely without swiveling those hips is for him to bounce up and down with the swing of his leg. Noticing this, try to keep your torso and hips as one piece when you imitate the man-walk. When you try walking like this, you will notice that you must bounce to swing the next leg forward, causing your head to go up and down as you walk. Now, men have perfected many variations on this kind of walk, they can strut, they can add a sort of limp-hop thing (some people find this sexy, I kid you not) they can take long, lanky strides, or more “cultured” dignified steps. Then there is marching and the glide step, ways of group locomotion. Once in the ranks, you don’t need to worry about the way you walk, just maintain shoulder contact to the men next to you and move with them. You may have to lengthen your stride to do so if you are much smaller than they. On your own, however, when going to sutlers, privy, etc, that is when you would utilize your new walk. Practice this in the company of trusted men and women until it becomes natural and unexaggerated.
Stance. Men stand differently. This is an easy thing to imitate as no motion is involved. Often with slumped backs and hunched shoulders, this works to your advantage as it helps hide the front of the chest. Notice how they place their hands. If you have dainty ones, endeavor to hide them as much as possible. You must not gesture with them; hide them in your pockets, behind your back. Putting hands on hips is a very feminizing gesture, often a negative one for the male. Please avoid it! Notice the foot placement when standing. They are usually far apart, perhaps one leg is bent while the other straight.
Sitting. Men often try to take up as much space as possible when sitting, while women try to take up as little space. Thus, the world works. Often with legs spread wide, the man sits and leans forward instead of back, placing his forearms on his thighs. He may cross legs, but not as women do. He places his ankle on his thigh. If you have nice legs, refrain from crossing them at the knee, as this only shows the curves to an advantage. Crossing at the ankles is also a decidedly female contrivance, meant to seem unassuming and passive. Men also like to cross their arms and lean back, rarely sitting up straight.
Often at events, men sit on the ground. Observe this. Women seem more flexible, yet, they do not sit in repose as easily as men do. Men lay on their sides, one knee bent, the other straight. Their elbow props them up while their other arm rests on the bent knee. Men don’t usually kneel on the knees, which is why a woman being proposed to knows what’s going on the instant a man takes that position. They often sit “Indian style”.
Grabbing things. When a woman takes hold of an object, she often slides her hand gently on it, feeling it first with her finger tips. A man grabs with his palm. Since you will be gripping that rifle a few times, this is good to know. Forget all notions of graceful movement, fluent motion, or efficient action, men execute jerky, sudden, rapid, and short maneuvers designed to get the job done. It may not be pretty, but it works. (This could be a reason most men do not understand or like dancing. It’s too “pretty”, and doesn’t really serve much of a purpose.)
The handshake. Become familiar with and proficient at the methods that men use to greet each other. A firm, but not aggressive handshake reinforces the male persona. If at all possible, avoid moisturizer on your hands as well. Executing the male hug is also a good thing to know how to do. The hips will be as far away from the other male as possible while the hug, instead of being planted square on, may be off to the side, especially in situations of carrying equipment. It is often brief and consists of a squeeze and a pat on the back. You want to be sure your binder is doing its job for this one!
Eye contact. Men often acknowledge one another by a slight tilt of the head while maintaining eye contact. This is most often seen as men pass each other while on the march, or just walking around. Men also do this when conversing. If you don’t meet the gaze of your peer, you may be seen as disrespectful, or extremely timid (read: “wimpy weeny-boy”). Learn not to shy away from eye contact. Men make eye contact regularly. Hey, if they aren’t looking at your eyes, what could they be looking at? Don’t give them the chance!
The manual of arms. You should endeavor to learn this as thoroughly as possible to become a good soldier. To the man of history, learning this was essential to his survival on the field and extremely important. You should be the best you can be at drill, loading and firing, cleaning and caring for your equipment, and the absolute picture of military deportment and perfection. Just as the men around you seek these things, you must seek them as well. Let no one say you did not know what you were doing out there! Not only is it a real danger, it holds back the entire unit. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and that had better not be you!
Man of few words
This is a difficult, but a necessary trait to have command of. Most of us need major help in this area. Besides smoking for a lifetime, (which I don’t recommend) a good way to deepen the voice is to practice using less air support when speaking. Less air going through the vocal chords produces a lower sound. More air moving faster produces a higher sound. Every woman does have a lower voice range they can tap into to sound male. For me, I often find it after a weekend of reenacting when I’m tired. I get lazy, breathe less, and therefore, speak lower. Again, you will have to do some practice to find what works. If you are having a great deal of trouble with this, it is advisable that you try not to speak at all. You really shouldn’t speak anyway when on the field, and off the field, you can be the shy, quiet gentleman.
The one time you will have to speak is when counting off in ranks. This is a toughie, as you are supposed to be not only low, but loud. As I mentioned, when air moves faster through vocal chords, as when you try to be loud, it tends to be a higher pitch. There is nothing more telling than hearing a group of men count off, and at the very last rank (the short people) hearing a high squeak! You must practice this one at home! Be sure you are loud and low, but not obviously faking. Use your stomach muscles to provide support rather than simply grunting. You only have to sustain the correct pitch and volume for one syllable, so with some practice, it can be done. If you can find a voice teacher, they may be able to help you with this.
Rehearsing pre-meditated responses to questions is also a wise idea. What will you say if an observant spectator says “I didn’t know women fought in the war”? Thinking of what to say in various situations and committing them to memory can be crucial to maintaining your maleness. What will you say if a lady asks a favor? What if your pards joke with you? What if a lady flirts with you? Let your guard down, and you may slip into female tendencies. Think about it beforehand, and you stand a better chance of responding appropriately.
Expression is another area to refine. Men seldom smile wide like women do, and their eyes are smaller than a female’s, so squinting a lot (you will do this naturally on sunny days anyway) and not smiling at every joke will go a long way in making you seem like a tough guy. Avoid brushing hair out of the face or tossing it. Historically, two women soldiers were revealed when they held out their non-existent aprons to catch apples that were thrown at them. The female instinct to grab at the long-worn apron gave them up in an instant and they were drummed out of camp. If you are a girly girl, attempt to avoid any actions which can indicate this. Your powers of observation are your best aids here.
Don’t be a shirker!
If you are asked to do something by a superior officer, or a lady, or anyone “above” you, do it. Do not question, do not dawdle or drag your feet. Above all, do not use the excuse of “I am a woman, I shouldn’t have to do that.” You’ve just kicked yourself out of the game at that point. To be “all you can be” you must be an eager and willing soldier. Go on picket duty, wash the dishes, haul wood or water. No one said this job was easy. If you want to get a real taste for it, you must do everything that the rest of the guys are doing. If you shirk, you will give a bad name to all other females in uniform. Try to be the best soldier you can be, and you will gain admiration.
Macho, Macho Man
If you have up to this point been a couch potato, you will most definitely want to do some sort of cardio and strength training months prior to your soldiering experience. Run, take dance classes, kick box, lift weights especially with your arms. You don’t want to be the guy who’s the last one up the hill, and you certainly don’t want someone to have to carry you! If you have a spouse, you can train together and spend the time bonding as well as getting fit. I need not explain the advantages of regular exercise in any lifestyle, but if you want to be a soldier, it is essential. You will be carrying at least 20 pounds of extra weight in gear, and you don’t want to let it slow you down, no matter how hot the weather is.
“Taps”. I don’t really know the right solution to this dilemma. Should a woman in uniform remove her hat when “Taps” is played? If she is trying to be a man, common sense would dictate “yes”, but, as removing the hat can reveal her true sex and prove distracting to spectators, some opinions may be “no”. Keeping the hat on while being reverent of the moment seems a fitting tribute to me. I also feel that a bareheaded woman does much more to distract the spectators from observing the solemnity of the moment than the occasional hat-ed guy. However, most military men feel that the most important thing in this situation is the reverence and respect due the fallen during “Taps”. The cap must be removed to pay fitting tribute, no exceptions! The easy solution is to be certain you are dead before “Taps” is played, thus avoiding the situation. If you cannot manage to do this, and are unsure what to do, consult your sergeant.
Hats. Being the primary disguise, keeping your hat on at all times, on and off the field, is crucial to maintaining the male persona. Only in cases of medical emergency, or if “Taps” is playing, should you remove your hat. If you are ordered to uncover during drill, do so if no spectators are looking, but I would otherwise refrain. If your commanding officer might have a problem with this, you can apprise him beforehand and ask permission to disobey that order. Be sure to drink plenty of water in order to be safe. If you do feel as though you are suffering from the heat, tell your file partner you don’t feel well, take a knee, drink some water, remove your hat if you must, and don’t make a big fuss. The last thing you want to do is draw attention to yourself.
Obviously, if you are really in a medical emergency, you DO want attention, and quickly. It is therefore necessary to have informed a man in your ranks that you are a woman so that, in cases of needing medical personnel, the man can apprise the caregivers of your sex before it is accidentally revealed to the whole battlefield. You should also keep a medical sheet on you at all times in an easy to reach space specifically for this purpose.
If in cold weather, you have a better chance to disguise yourself through the use of winter hats, scarves, and gloves. For summer, bandanas were not worn around the head at this time period, but you may consider the use of a Havelock for early war battles.
Male persona. You should pick a suitable name for yourself. If you have a family member already in ranks with you, you may wish to also pick a different last name. Do be consistent. Don’t force the sergeant to remember a new name each week. Only respond to that name and be sure it is used often. It also helps to be sure it is known throughout the unit.
One of the best impressions for a woman soldier, especially a younger woman, is to pass as a young boy, not yet finished puberty. He may occasionally have a high or changing voice, his face is smooth, often he is slight of build and he may have shaggy longish hair and other “feminine” characteristics. He is also apt to be shy around the men, though he imitates them very well. He may not speak often. He may “play” more, he may be scared, and he would hang out with other kids his age in the ranks. Think back to when you, or your sons, were that age and try to “re-live”!
Pick a past for your man and also a suitable reason as to why you, a woman, would want to disguise herself as a member of the opposite sex and then face death in a war. Doing a little research can aid you here. Some women did live as men before the war even started. They could earn a better living earning male wages than as a female domestic worker. Very many went to war to follow a spouse, lover, or family member. Others did it because the pay was attractive. Still others served for love of country. It helps to do a bit of research into this area to better educate the public that may ask such questions of you.
As a soldier, your fellow pards may ask what type of work you did before enlisting. They notice your sewing skills-perhaps you were a tailor. They notice your rapport with horses, perhaps you were a teamster. If you cook well, perhaps you were a cook for the local establishment back home. Keep in mind, too, that at this time period, most nurses were men. The dawn of the female nurse was just beginning during the Civil War. Serving as men, many female soldiers appear to have volunteered for nursing duty.
The unit greatly aids in enabling a female soldier by understanding the challenge they have to face and being supportive. Using the male name, referring to the person as “he”, commenting constructively on appearance and demeanor, and helping perfect drill go a long way in making a soldier feel comfortable and enhances the atmosphere of being “one of the guys”, which is, after all, one of the major points of becoming a soldier.
Pick a personality for your man. Perhaps you are boisterous, shy, or chivalrous. Perhaps you like to chew, smoke (pipe or cigar, cigarettes were very French and feminine) spit, drink, or cuss (not around children and ladies, hopefully) Perhaps you like cards, or are a gentleman. Maybe you are a boy yet, and not sure of your manly identity. Take care to escort ladies. Remember complaining about men when you were a lady? Now you can rectify the situation!
Strategic wounds. Imitating a head wound may seem like an easy way to disguise female hair, but take care. You don’t want to be the only wounded man in the ranks; it would just single you out. You also don’t want to be unrealistic. A man with a head wound doesn’t usually operate up to snuff; staggering around the battlefield is a sure way to obtain real injuries. Plus, has your unit just come off the field? In a two-day battle, it is probable that many men in the unit would have suffered minor injuries, been “fixed up” and then returned to the front lines. If you are green troops seeing your first battle, you all are probably the picture of health. Plus, extra layers on the head equals increased risk of heat stroke. I would only use this disguise as a last resort.
Dying. By observing the actions of others, you can come to your own conclusion about the best way to “take a hit”. A good way to die for the female is to die face down. Besides preventing sun burn to the face, it protects you from marauding surgeons who want to do chest examinations, you can better cover your head if troops are passing over, or firing over you, and it removes your tell-tale face from spectator view. Be sure to keep that head down, though, and resist the temptation to peek at the battle. Watch the barrel of your rifle and make sure you aren’t missing any piece of your kit. Avoiding screaming when doing this is also best, as it is incredibly hard to scream like a man. So too, avoiding much cheering and “rebel yelling” during the battle is also probably a good thing to prevent your detection. Besides, if you are a young boy, you are most likely scared out of your wits and cheering for blood is probably the last thing you are thinking about doing.
The call of nature. Obviously, you want to avoid answering this when out on the campaign trail, unless you are absolutely out of vision of other soldiers. In the 1860’s, such a mannerism would earn you notoriety as a modest man and was considered usual behavior. Today, men see little reason to hide their natural functions from other men. Often, fellow men will feel the need to relieve themselves and may not do so out of sight. This should not offend you, and if it does, perhaps you should reconsider your military career. Simply avert, or close your eyes until it is safe. Pretending to be completely oblivious and paying attention to something else is also a good way to deal with this. If you make a fuss, you will reveal yourself. Just be cool, and deal with it!
In camp. Thinking of your unit as a flock of sheep, follow the crowd, go with the flow. You will likely have a corps of buddies you prefer to hang out with. Go to the sutlers with them, sit around the fire (in a manly fashion of course) or repose in a shady spot. If you are feeling dapper, go on a picnic with the ladies and be the perfect gentleman. Always wear your hat and vest. Don’t be a grouch and hide in your tent! Help out with meals and camp duties. Giggling, smiling and flirting are feminine characteristics to be avoided at all times! Don’t send mixed signals! I challenge you to maintain your male character while on stage, and that means the whole event! It is difficult, to be sure, but think of the spectators, you don’t want to be detected. Think of the guys, you can’t let them down. Don’t embarrass yourself by letting a giggle escape or by gesturing in a feminine way while talking. Don’t squeak or sigh, truly girly actions.
The dance. Many female soldiers choose to revert to their original sexes for the evening dance. Be sure this is ok with your commanding officer. You may be female for the dance only. The next morning, you are expected to report for roll as usual. I am always amazed by how few women I see during the day and how many I see during the evening! If you attend the dance as a man, woe be to you! Men have hard times finding partners (though all they have to do is ask!) and I have mentioned before the hardship they find in dancing. If you are a good dancer, that itself may give you away. It is hard to observe an example of a good male dancer to emulate, but if you do happen to find one, dancing in his group is the most advantageous to observing him. Again, no giggling, and not much smiling. Do wear gloves. Besides being proper for a gentleman, white gloves make the hands appear larger and therefore more masculine.
Pregnancy. If you are pregnant, I question that you should even be on the field subjecting yourself to such strenuous conditions, but your doctor can best make that determination. Though the original female soldiers did have to deal with this condition, (some were, remarkably, not detected until the moment of birth!) it is not so simple to pass for a pot-bellied male. In a war where troops of neither side were very well fed (by today’s standards) a rotund soldier was rare indeed! Plus, one would presume that someone had detected the female in the ranks, or she would not be in such a state! Given the probability that some injury could happen to you and thus, your unborn, while in action, be a good mother and a bad soldier, stay off the field!
Opposition. Please understand that there will always be some men out there who just do not think that women should be standing next to them on a battlefield. This is just a fact. Not every guy knows that we can document cases of real women fighting in this war. Not every guy feels it is ok for women to be in uniform now. That’s just the way it is. You cannot make everybody happy, but you can take great pains to disguise your feminine traits, learn your drill, and assume a good male impression. There may be some instances where you are detected, as men are more keen on looking for females in the ranks now than they were in 1861, but do the best you can, and you will gain supporters from men who do feel that women can be out there. Honor our ancestors, male and female, who fought in this bloody conflict, and perhaps a new generation will be better informed about the history of their country.
In summary, this takes a lot of work and preparation. A great deal of thought and a little theatrics can help you to succeed in the ranks. But it is extremely difficult, perhaps the most difficult impression, and you may encounter opposition, especially in other men on the field. Do your best, learn as much as you can, and, if in the end you find it isn’t for you, at least you tried it and had a different experience! Good luck to you!
~Pvt Pete MacRae
21st Georgia Volunteer Infantry