By day, she's an executive assistant, juggling the administrative duties of a busy company president. But in the evenings and on weekends, Betty Barfield slips into her alter ego: With a change of clothes and Southern accent, she becomes the "Widow B."
Her character is a fictitious Civil War personality, a woman widowed by the war and forced to follow the Confederate army with her cookhouse in the hopes of making a modest living. Over the past eight years, Barfield, 56, has won a following for her widow in dozens of Civil War reenactments across the country.
She really cooks and sells the food. And though it was difficult at first, she said, to win acceptance for her role among Civil War reenactors, she now has a loyal following, many of whom stop by her tent for some Southern cooking and hospitality.
"People are drawn to her because of the good food [and her character]," said Al Aronson, of Easton, Mass., who has played the role of a company cook in reenactments since the early 1990s. "She makes everyone feel special."
Barfield, who works with Burdeshaw Associates Ltd., a defense consulting company in Bethesda, became interested in reenacting after attending an event in Florida, where she and her husband, Brad, lived before they came to Gaithersburg.
"I came to watch. It was awe-inspiring, all the pomp and circumstance," she said. "There were 2,000 people acting as a unit. At some point, those people weren't acting; they were their characters."
At the next reenactment, the Battle of Natural Bridge in Tallahassee, several female reenactors outfitted her in period clothing. "That hooked me," she said.
She discovered, however, that reenacting is mainly a "man's hobby," and it took her two years to convince the reenacting community that there was a place for her fictitious character. Most reenactors fashion their Civil War persona after a known individual or family member.
"It was a hard-fought battle," she said, "but what I do is authentic." Although there is no documented record of women cooking for the Confederacy, there were civilians who fed the troops.
Barfield's widow even has a personal servant, played by Maryann Whitten, Barfield's reenacting partner for the past six years. "I was a part of her [Widow B] household until the death of her husband," Whitten said of her character. "I'm not just window dressing. I serve."
In real life, Whitten, 51, is a former teacher and librarian from Rhode Island. She now lives in Gaithersburg.
Reenacting the Civil War is an increasingly popular hobby among history enthusiasts, thousands of whom travel to several reenactments a year across the country. The civilian population is one of the fast-growing parts of the reenactments, according to Barfield.
While researching the roles of women in the war, Barfield discovered that her family history in the United States dates to 1652 in the Wilmington, N.C., area. Her great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier at Fort Fisher in North Carolina. He was captured Jan. 15, 1865, and served out the remainder of the war in a prison in Elmira, N.Y.
"That made reenacting all the more alive for me," she said. She has since joined the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Her husband, also a reenactor, also rediscovered his family roots. His great-grandfather fought in the Battle of Natural Bridge in Florida and was one of 23 wounded.
When Barfield first looked for a reenactment unit in which she could play the Widow B, a name given to her by other reenactors, she was part of the 7th Florida Company E, the South Florida Bulldogs. However, she said, it was decided there was no place for her in the unit. She was soon recruited by another company, 3rd Florida Company A, which allowed her to cook for the company.
At her first event in 1992, Barfield prepared to cook out of an A-frame tent, but a torrential downpour forced her to abandon her shoes, the mud having sucked them right off her feet. Since then, going barefoot has become her trademark. Even bitter cold does not force her to put on shoes.
She has traveled around the country as part of several Civil War units. She initially traveled with her cookhouse equipment, both original and reproductions, in a converted school bus. Now she has a truck and a trailer to haul her assortment of tents and other supplies.
Barfield makes enough to cover her expenses at the 10 to 15 reenactments she does each year. But she is still recouping her initial investment of $10,000.
She has created a site on the World Wide Web, www.cw-reenactors.com, with a message board for hundreds of reenactors who use it to keep in touch and up to date on news of their hobby.
She also is part of the headquarters staff of the Army of Northern Virginia; the headquarters staff of Longstreet's Corps in Northern Virginia; the Confederate Military Forces, an umbrella organization; and the 1st Confederate Division in Tennessee.
Some local reenactors are so loyal to Barfield and her persona that two years ago the Army of Northern Virginia, when confronted with an organization that questioned Barfield's participation, vowed to pull its reenactors out of the event if the widow's cookhouse was not permitted to participate.
Last year, over the course of six days, Barfield and her crew of cooks from across the country fed approximately 5,000 soldiers at a reenactment marking the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. She was up at 3 a.m. making coffee over an open fire. She served eggs, grits and other breakfast foods.
Lunch, however, was not from Civil War times. "I served hamburgers and all the fixings," she said. About 23,000 reenactors were at the anniversary celebration.
"The cookhouse is an official gathering place," said Diana Busche Indiana, who met Barfield at a reenactment of the Battle of Shiloh and stays in touch with her and other reenactors through the Internet. LuAnn Mason, of Vancouver, Wash., added, "It provides a sense of continuity for those who travel long distances."
"Reenacting gives me a sense of my history and the camaraderie of an extended family," said Barfield. Today, she is headed to Chickamauga, Ga., to participate in the reenactment of that famous battle.
CAPTION: Betty Barfield, 56, plays the 'Widow B' in numerous Civil War reenactments across the country. The widow, who often is barefoot, cooks for soldiers to make a living. In real life, Barfield, of Gaithersburg, is an executive assistant for a defense consultant company in Bethesda.