by Judith E. Sulik, RDH, MBA
Like everyone else, Lisa Good of Belleville, Mich., enjoys the modern conveniences of electricity, indoor plumbing, and central heat. And, like everyone else, she wouldn't want to live without them. But there is something alluring to her about the 19th century, specifically the Civil War period.
Studying what the people and the country went through during that time sparked her interest in Civil War re-enactments. Her fascination began when she learned that one of her great uncles was a member of the 15th Michigan Regiment. A Michigan native herself, Good began researching his life, which, in turn, led her to the National Archives and more deeply into the history of the Civil War.
She shares: "I love that era, and I've always read as much as I could about those times."
Re-enacting gives her a chance to return to a time long gone and imagine what it was like to live then. She doesn't discount the unpleasant aspects of the age - an era without antibiotics, with frequent amputations sans anesthesia, and before dental hygiene - or even dentistry - as we know it. She focuses instead on what captivates her imagination - the clothes and manners of the day.
She says, "The women were really women then. They wore big dresses that, while very hot, are fun to wear."
In fact, Good's prom dress resembled a mid-1860s dress. She keeps the dress she wears in re-enactments on a stand in the loft of her home, which is decorated with a Civil War motif. Her collection also includes a sewing machine dating back to 1864. So immersed is she in this period that, she says, "Whenever I do things, I wonder how people did it back then. Someday, I'd like to study that age's dentistry and health-care practices."
Civil War re-enactment groups across the country are dedicated to authenticity. Good explains that after doing significant historical research, she created the identity of a Northern woman. During the entire re-enactment, she stays in character as she impersonates this woman. Good says "nothing representing this century" is allowed to intrude. She'll point to a plane in the sky and ask a child what that is flying among the clouds.
She usually participates in two weekend re-enactments each year, the largest being held in Jackson, Mich., near her home. Her goal is to attend one of the preeminent weekend events, the re-enactment at Gettysburg.
Good is part of a civilian group that accompanied the Michigan Soldiers Aid Society and Regiment. The site of the event is transformed into a Civil War camp. People bring horses, and vendors sell every imaginable item pertaining to the era, from matches to eyewear to jewelry and clothing. Participants sleep in tents, build campfires for heat and cooking, and re-create battles. Good explains that, as a civilian woman, she sits on a hill watching as the battle is fought.
She has a thorough knowledge of how women dressed in those days, explaining how "as the day wore on, the sleeves got shorter and the necklines lower." The reason women wore petticoats, pantaloons, chemise, and corsets, she says, is because they didn't launder their clothing very often and the layers protected their outer clothing from perspiration. A corset is on her list of items to buy.
Good makes history come alive; her knowledge of the mores of the period is so comprehensive. For example, she explains that anyone with a tan was looked down upon by society in the 19th century. The fairer the skin, the higher one's status, because it was proof that the woman didn't have to labor out in the sun. Instead, she had "married well," to a man of prominence whose wealth allowed her to stay in the home reading. Wealthier people of the day had indoor plumbing; the rest didn't. Of course, in the South, these contrasts were even starker when slave ownership was added to the household mix.
The husband of Good's character was killed in a battle, so she, like many widows of the time, follows the soldiers and offers help.
She comments, "Many people don't realize that officers had wives with them in the beginning of the war. Like them, I carry a basket as a purse. I shop for provisions and then return to the tent to make dinner over a fire. They drank sarsaparilla soda, not beer. When they ate well, they enjoyed beef, corn bread, and salt pork." When food was in short supply, they had to eat hard tack, "a flour and water cracker, and the soldiers hated it." Good explains, "They fried it in bacon grease and ate it with salt pork. Coffee was a mainstay in the camps, and when they ran out (mostly in the South) they would grind up acorns."
Good re-enacts these women's imagined conversations with the soldiers at the camp, asking about the war's progress and other details. Because women can't participate as soldiers, they coordinate the social events. One of the most significant is the evening ball where everyone waltzes to period music. Often, the ball is held in a ballroom and waltz lessons are offered.
Good, a musician who plays the flute and trumpet, is considering joining the camp's band. Currently, she sings with her church choir and takes her acting skills to the stage whenever she can. She played opposite her husband, Alex, in a two-night Easter play performed before 1,000 people. She and her husband, who also plays the trumpet, play and sing at weddings as well. They are passing their appreciation of music along to their children. Aaron, 8, plays the piano and sings duets with his dad at church. He already has made his stage debut. Adam, 3, is still waiting in the wings.
Good graduated from Wayne County Community College in Michigan with a dental hygiene degree in 1997. Although she has known her husband since seventh grade, he hasn't yet caught her enthusiasm for re-enacting. She thinks he may be coming around though, because he started escorting her to the balls. However, he objects to wearing hot wool in the summer! Good primarily attends events at Cascade Falls Park in Jackson. Typically, participants hold a Sunday church service, and there are fashion shows with prizes. Being a dedicated participant in re-enactments is not an inexpensive hobby.
She notes, "A dress and hat cost $200 because they're hand-sewn. A bodice is $150, and a corset is another $150." Fabric can be bought at the camp, and women make corsets and ball gown bodices there. One dress can be changed from day use to eveningwear.
Good says practicing dental hygiene gives her the freedom to do other things she enjoys. Not surprisingly, her attraction to the Civil War often is the subject of conversations at work. One patient and a co-worker have "visited" her at the camp. She also brings her presentation to the classroom. Civil War re-enacting gives Lisa Good the perfect milieu to integrate her love of history, music, and acting.
Judith E. Sulik, RDH, MBA, is president of Finely Finished Press of Bridgeport, Conn., and is the publisher of No Sinks? No Counters? No Problem! 50 One-Pot Meals To Get You Through Kitchen Remodeling and An Adventure for Your Palate, Coastal Connecticut Waterfront Dining With Chef's Recipes. She can be reached by email at [email protected].
Civil War-related Web sites
- Index of Civil War information on the Internet from the U.S. Civil War Center -
- Photographs from the archives at the Library of Congress -
- Information about Civil War women from the archival collections at Duke University -
- Civil War home page: statistics, documents, battles, genealogy research, associations -
- American Civil War home page: battles, histories/bibliographies, re-enactment groups, resources -
Civil War trivia
- Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women) served in the war as a nurse.
- An enlisted man was paid 50 cents per day for providing his own horse in the war.
- Youths who were too young to serve in the war would slip into military service by signing on as musicians first.
- General Ambrose Everett Burnside is best remembered for introducing the word "sideburns" into our language.
- Cotton was the one thing the North could not outproduce the South in.
- Lowell, Mass., had more spindles turning thread than the entire Confederacy.
- Woodlawn National Cemetary at Elmira, N.Y., is the only spot in the nation where both Blue and Gray soldiers are buried in a mass grave.
- The Winchester Company's records show they produced more than 58 million bullets during the war.
- A barrel of flour (125 pounds) that sold for $6 in New York sold for $25 in the New Orleans market.
- The telegraph destoyed the Pony Express in the Civil War.
- An average of $30 per soldier was the "bounty" paid during the Civil War for deserters.
- Many amputated arms and legs from the Civil war were sent to medical colleges for teaching purposes.
Source: Civil War in Miniature by Roger L. Curry, Jackson, Tenn., http://civilwarmini.com/