Clad in warm shawls and stockings, the ladies at Saturday’s re-enactment at Droop Mountain Battlefield would not allow the chilly mountain air to stop them from gathering for the Women of the Civil War tea social.
“The ladies, at the time, had their own societies where they would get together, be partially social and support each other,” re-enactor Phyllis Baxter explained. “We do period appropriate foods to the extent that we can, we try to do a project each time, and then we’ll do some readings. The customs of the time for entertainment – they didn’t have anything recorded. So, when women gathered, they would provide their own entertainment and they would do readings, play music, or they’d sing a song, and everybody would have their piece they could share, so we try to do readings to recognize that.”
“It was a place to come and socialize,” added fellow re-enactor Diane Tennant, “because, a lot of the time, ladies would get tired. They were so busy with the housework and would need a break. If you were an uppercrust person – say a planter’s wife or your family was upperclass – you do something like this, at least, once a week. Other women would do it once a month, if that.”
In sticking with tradition, the women provided plates of meat and cucumber sandwiches, a variety of fruit, cakes and cookies for their guests.
Guests, as well as re-enactors, were treated to a period-appropriate craft under the direction of Tennant.
“It’s a needle book,” she explained. “The women would have to have a place to put their sewing needles, so they would have something like this. This is felted wool [on the inside], and this is regular wool on the outside. They would put their needles in there.
“The ones I read about were elaborately decorated with embroidery and beads, and they would close it with a button. Beads are hard to work with, so we’re trying to do something simple. In the past, we’ve done head coverings to show women how to do their hair. A lot of the time, a lot of us don’t know, and it’s something we can learn to do together.”
As the women enjoyed their refreshments and worked on their stitches, Linda Barnes took center stage for a reading from Rebecca D. Larson’s When a Rose is not a Rose.
“I picked out a couple of short readings dealing with the roles that some of the women took on during the war,” she said. “I’m going to read “The Nancy Hearts,” which is about a group of women who were organized, and one on Francis Louisa Clayton, who followed her husband into the army and dressed as a man.”
Among the women gathered, Dianna Lynch, Natalie Adkins and Stefani Angel – of Chapman’s Battery, 1st Virginia Light Artillery – represented women like Clayton.
“There were women that disguised themselves as men and fought,” explained Adkins, “but it was rare. The wives would sometimes follow their husbands in.”
“You had wives that followed the camp,” Lynch added,” and if somebody died and the unit needed someone, the wives would fill in.”
“This is the first time I’ve been here,” said Confederate Theresa Miller, “and this is actually really awesome. I’ve been to a lot of different places, and they don’t do anything besides very formal gatherings for the women.”
That evening, guests and re-enactors returned to Droop Mountain for a night of dancing to the sounds of the Rich Mountain String Band.
The band – consisting of guitarist Peter Baxter, fiddler Mary Caraher and banjo player Les Caraher – fiddled, picked, plucked and strummed along as caller Phyllis Baxter led the gathered dancers through a night of traditional Civil War dances – including a Grand March, the Soldier’s Joy, a Waltz and the Virginia Reel.
Of the balls’ history, Melissa Evans, of Mercer County, Pennsylvania, described it as a gathering used to socialize.
“They didn’t see each other very often,” she explained. They lived on farms far apart from one another, so when they got together for a social or barn raising, it was a way for the whole gamily to get together.
“We’ve [Evans and her husband] done many balls, but I’m not tonight because I’m in my uniform. They do the Virginia Reel, and that’s a lot of fun. It’s nice because you get to learn it. They teach it like a square dance. They talk you through it, even if you’ve never done it before, and if you’re not the first person in line, you just do what the first person does. It’s a lot of fun.”
Evans and her husband began re-enacting as newlyweds and have been re-enacting for 22 years.
“We weren’t even married for a full year,” she added. “There was a group of fellows, full-timers, who were re-enacting with a group out of Pittsburgh. They wanted to start a group closer to home, so they put up signs in all the local restaurants.
“My husband loves the history of the war and had always wanted to try re-enacting, but he could never find a local group. We didn’t know where to begin, and then we walked into the local diner and saw the sign. We decided to go check it out and have been doing it since.”
When asked why she and her husband continue to re-enact, Evans said, “We do it to preserve the history.
“In Mercer County, fifth grade is around the time when students learn about the Civil War. We’ll go to the schools and set up a little camp so they can see what it was like. Students are always surprised by how heavy the muskets are. We set up a little hospital tent, too.”
Like tea socials, balls have their own etiquette, and Mike Kiss, of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves, does his best to educate his fellow soldiers on the proper etiquette to display on and off the dance floor.
“A man has to escort a lady onto the dance floor,” he explained, “and he has to escort her off the dance floor. I try to teach that to my gentlemen – try to teach them to be that way on the dance floor. They should take the lady by the hand, and she’s always on the right side. They should take her left hand in their right, escort her from where she’s at to the ball, dance with her, and then escort her off the dance floor.
“Now, they can also ask her for another dance, or they can thank her for the dance and move on to the next dance card. You should never leave a lady alone.”
“In that time, husbands and wives didn’t dance together,” Evans added. “They weren’t allowed to touch in public. It was considered inappropriate. So, the husband would go and get his wife’s dance card filled. Sometimes at these things, you’ll see them. They’re just a little card that hangs from a woman’s wrist. But, the husband would go and get that filled out for her. It’s a whole different etiquette, which is kind of neat, because you don’t have that now.”
In addition to the ball and tea social, Droop Mountain came alive with the sounds of battle as re-enactors of the North and the South clashed on Saturday and Sunday afternoon.