WASHINGTON — A woman can wear the pants in the regiment, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, saying the National Park Service illegally barred such cross-dressing at Antietam National Battlefield.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled in the case of Lauren Cook Burgess, a woman barred from dressing as a man in a 1989 re-enactment of the Civil War battle at the site in Maryland.
Lamberth said the Antietam park policy of "categorically barring women from portraying male soldiers . . . constitutes unconstitutional discrimination against women."
"Few Civil War generals achieved victories as decisive or as sweet," Burgess said.
"National Park Service officials often operate the parks as their own personal fiefdoms," said Clint Bolick, a lawyer who represented Burgess for free. "Perhaps this ruling will serve as a warning shot and prevent the need for heavier artillery to safeguard individual rights in the future."
An administrator at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, Burgess said the ruling vindicates her view that women did fight as men at Antietam, the bloodiest day of the Civil War, and that "living history" events should reflect that historical fact.
Five women fought at Antietam, according to Burgess. She said one died in action and another lost her right arm in the Sept. 17, 1863, battle in which 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were casualties. The judge called her "a devoted amateur (who) takes historical accuracy seriously."
Burgess, who has portrayed a woman disguised as a man in more than 15 Civil War re-enactments, was dressed as a Confederate fifer when Antietam park rangers confronted her as she was leaving a women's restroom. They told her she could only complete the weekend re-enactment if she wore a dress because female soldiers were too atypical for the event.
Lamberth said officials could not "exclude or even approach individuals for accuracy reasons" based on their failure to disguise their sex.
The case became a cause celebre among Civil War buffs, who bitterly debated whether middle-aged men with beer bellies had more right than Burgess to portray an 18-year-old rebel soldier. Burgess said she went to extraordinary lengths to complete the masquerade, binding her breasts, wearing her hair short and occasionally using charcoal to give her face a five o'clock shadow.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Sally Rider, who represented the Park Service, declined to comment on the ruling. "Interesting," said Kevin Ohlson, spokesman for U.S. Atty. Jay B. Stephens.
Richard Rambur, the Antietam park superintendent who had argued against the Burgess "impression," has been transferred to another park and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Susan Moore, acting Antietam superintendent, said: "I'll be consulting with our attorneys and then we'll obey whatever the court decision was."