The Skirmish
Women on the front lines of (reenacted) history
By Jayne Jacova Feld

Wendy Lucas prepares for battle

Dressed in heavy red coats and tricorn hats, Wendy Lucas and Maria Lemma line up with the other musket-wielding colonists. They are ready to shoot any traitors, as the war of independence plays out in battlefields and towns across South Jersey.

As Revolutionary War reenactors, they look every bit the part of a loyalist soldier, down to their white breeches, waistcoat and stockings. It’s only after they leave the battlefield that onlookers realize these sharpshooters are female. Both are prepared to answer questions about the historical accuracy of women portraying infantrymen.

“I use that as a teaching moment,” says Lemma, a Barrington resident. “While women were not allowed to sign up to serve with the British forces, there are a few documented cases of women fighting with the Continental Army in disguise – discovered only when being treated for battle wounds. Although there isn’t any documentation of women on the British side, I’d wager there were some fighting for England too.”

Her fighting unit was founded 30 years ago by a woman, because no local reenactment units at the time would permit females in their ranks. Named the New Jersey First Battalion of Volunteers (1 NJV), the battalion is composed of several dozen soldiers, a third of them women, and also includes musicians and camp followers. They take part in living history events on both sides of the Delaware River and play out key battles of the British effort to gain control of the Delaware Valley some 245 years ago. Lemma’s battalion is the sponsoring unit of The Skirmish, Haddonfield’s day-long revolutionary war reenactment and colonial festival taking place on June 3.  

The unit is proudly inclusive, says Lucas, who was the only woman soldier when she joined in 2002 and has since made it her mission to diversify the ranks. 

“When we’re doing events, we are there as loyalist soldiers and will do everything we can to hide our gender,” she says. “So people don’t necessarily know it.” 

Until they do, that is. 

“One of my favorite moments happened years ago when we were coming off the field at Monmouth State Park after a long battle,” says Lucas, a Magnolia resident married to 1 NJV’s leader Jay Weatherbee. “We were in a gauntlet of sorts, surrounded by onlookers. I saw the flash of recognition and big smiles as women in the audience realized some of us were women. Later that day, a woman approached us about joining the regiment.”

“The goal of our regiment in particular,” she adds, “is to make sure that anyone can have the experience of representing what history was like and feeling what it was like.”

Although most units now welcome women as soldiers, some still don’t. Lucas says the group will not participate in any event in which the hosts won’t permit female infantry members.

Some reenactment battalions focus on playing historic figures, but 1 NJV is more known for getting battlefield maneuvers right, Lemma says. Like the loyalists they portray, soldiers are trained on 18th Century British warfare strategy, which involves marching within 50 feet of the rebel side in row formation. While one row of soldiers is shooting their muskets, another row is reloading.

“There’s a lot of training initially to learn how to handle a musket,” says Lemma, who was recruited 16 years ago after watching the unit in action at an event in Red Bank. “It’s just a lot of repetition to get to the point that it becomes muscle memory. The more you commit to doing it, the better you get.”

The group welcomes anyone interested in reenactment to try it out, using their loaner gear, before taking the plunge of sewing or purchasing the elaborate costumes and equipment, which can be costly. Lemma recently replaced her original red coat for a new one that cost about $800. 

In terms of showing what it was like for colonists to live in such divisive times, The Skirmish in Haddonfield offers a glimpse of the confrontations that sometimes flared up when tensions simmered over, says Lucas. Unlike battlefield events, The Skirmish portrays a small-scale melee – the result of General George Washington’s charge to his militia to “annoy” the Redcoats on their way to do battle in Monmouth as a way of throwing them off their game.

The Skirmish reenactment is a 20-minute event that takes place on Kings Highway, involving cannon fire, troops facing off and shooting at each other and soldiers on horseback. Other family-friendly activities take place all day, including a yelling contest and colonial dancing.

Despite a few jeers for portraying the soldiers on the wrong side of history, Lemma says, playing a loyalist soldier in battles and confrontations gives her a greater appreciation for the struggle for independence and South Jersey’s place in history.

“Once you are out on the battlefield with your musket, there’s so much going on,” she says. “Cannons are firing, you’re being shot at by the Continental Army. It’s what gets us all hooked.”   


May 2023
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