I feel like I've written volumes on this, but my latest thoughts run along these lines:
First, and most fundamentally, from colonial times at least through the Civil War, American armies relied on a pool of young men without settled prospects or property who signed up for the bounty of land or money and to establish their reputation in the community. They were middle and younger sons, agrarian laborers and apprentices, 18-24 years old, single, with a wide-open future.
That's what we need for an authentic looking unit. That's also the demographic that is still least economically stable, most focused on establishing themselves, and in many ways hardest to recruit for an expensive, time-consuming hobby. Even at the self-labeled "better" events, they are the minority.
Moving beyond age, there are other characteristics of the Civil War soldier that are difficult to obtain today. You want a unit that's reasonably ethnically pure, mostly Anglo-Saxon but with 20-30% Irish, Scots, or Germans. Italians and eastern Europeans, Latin Americans, and the like should be a very small minority, as should any significant mix of the above. If you look at photos of Civil War companies, that's what you see, and the waves of immigration that have washed over our shores in the century and a half since the war provide another reason we don't look like they did.
Beyond ethnicity, there are morphological differences. I'm amazed these days at the number of short and skinny people in old movies from the 30s and 40s. Go back another 70 or 80 years to photos of Civil War companies and you see the same body types. We're taller by several inches and even fit people tend to be 20-40 pounds heavier than our predecessors.
So we virtually have to make compromises to have any units at all and a hobby of any size. I accept this, and I accept any woman who makes as much of an effort to conform to the ideal as I do. When I'm face to face with spectators at a living history, and I take a little break from a lecture on morning reports and red tape, I talk about this and explain why you see a lot more old guys in the ranks of reenactors than you would in a real Civil War army. Believe it or not, that seems to be the first thing they notice.
Compromise is by definition not ideal, but in our case it's a practical necessity. That doesn't mean I don't gag at some of the sights that pop up now and again. But I'm bothered less by women in the ranks than by those occasions when I'm the oldest guy in the ranks. And both of those situations bother me less than the occasions when I'm the youngest guy in the ranks.
Chris Anders and Kevin Air have come up with what I think is a reasonable approach, given the strong feelings on both sides of the question of women portraying Civil War soldiers. I wish more events across the spectrum would follow their lead.
M. A. Schaffner
Midstream Regressive Complainer