The ladies of the Maine Camp and Hospital Association with Senator Susan Collins on Memorial Day
If you read the history of the Civil War, you may get the idea that women were not involved in the war effort. In fact, women played major roles and provided crucial support for both sides during the Civil War. Through military contractors and directly, women provided food, clothing and housing, as well as ammunition and weapons. They ran businesses and farms - roles that at the time were not usually considered suitable for women. They campaigned for abolition of slavery, women's rights and suffrage, and temperance. They worked as clerks and commissaries for government agencies. Through both formal and informal soldiers' aid societies, women provided the care, materials, and funds to moderate the tremendous death tolls from wounds and diseases in camps. They followed Florence Nightingale's example and demanded better sanitation in military camps and better care in hospitals. Dorothea Dix of Maine organized the first group of paid women nurses for the military. Mary Edwards Walker served as a military surgeon, even being awarded a Medal of Honor.
The ladies of the Third Maine portray some of the diverse women's roles of the Civil War period. Roles vary with the interest of the individual, but all are chosen to be appropriate for women from Maine who would be in or near the Third Maine military camp. These roles include nurse, laundress, Maine Camp Hospital Assoc. volunteer, U.S. Sanitary Commission representative, hospital diet kitchen cook, relatives in search of a missing loved one, officer's family members, wives and children following the army after being displaced from their home, and others.
Your only impression of how women appeared at the time may be from "Gone with the Wind". Ladies in the Third Maine make every effort to represent correct dress for the period - those ringlets and that deep décolletage on Scarlet O'Hara are not true to history. Members research the everyday dress, lives, and activities of the Mid-1800: What did they eat? What were the social conventions? How did they celebrate holidays? The Third Maine Ladies are often in demand for presentations to schools and historical groups.
Just like our sisters in the 1860's, the ladies of the Third Maine take the safety and well-being of the troop very seriously. Part of our time at any event is spent ensuring that the soldiers get plenty of fluids and ice on a hot day. Our "cooling station" for the troops returning from the field after a battle scenario is now imitated by other units in the United States Volunteers.
In many ways the military reenactors have it easy. They need only find reputable sutlers and order the appropriate clothing and accouterment. Civilians have many more choices and issues.
The first question to answer is: Who are you portraying? Are you the wife of a common soldier? A nurse? A wealthy woman visiting the camp officers? Different civilian roles call for different clothing. So where do you start?
The best way is to get a simple everyday dress and develop your role as you do more research. The basic items are: a cotton dress, a hoop skirt, boots or shoes, a bonnet or hat, and a shawl or other wrap. A lady of the Civil War era would also wear an entire wardrobe of what were called "underpinnings", but those can be added to your ensemble later.
Ready made clothing is available from sutlers and milliners, but most reenactors make their own clothing or have it custom made. This is both because of the cost and that the close-to-the-body fit that is required is very difficult to achieve with ready made clothing.
Someone just starting out should consult with the ladies in the Third Maine before investing a lot of money into period clothing. Some of what is labeled as period-correct is sometimes not correct at all, and in some cases you can make modifications to inexpensive modern garments to get the right "period look".
Check out this website for an illustration of a period lady's attire: