Minstrel Show (March 5, 1865)

A Timothy Gardiner photograph of the Poplar Grove Church (Library of Congress).

A Timothy Gardiner photograph of the Poplar Grove Church (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman is a great source for details about the day-to-day life in the Army of the Potomac. His letter of March 5, 1865, is a prime example. He describes a ride along the lines and he attends a minstrel show at the Poplar Grove Church, constructed by the 50th New York Engineers under the command of Ira Spaulding.

Lyman mentions two resignations. One is Jacob Henry Sleeper, a fellow Bostonian who had commanded the 10th Massachusetts Battery. He had been wounded in the army at Reams’ Station. The other resignation was Maj. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg, who led a division of the cavalry. Greg, cousin to Pennsylvania’s governor, was a capable commander who had stopped Jeb Stuart on July 3 at Gettysburg. The reasons for his resignation still remain something of a mystery, although he may have resented the way Philip Sheridan had been promoted over him.

David McMurtrie Gregg (Library of Congress).

David McMurtrie Gregg (Library of Congress).

. . . Well, the rain held up and some blue sky began to show, and I mounted on what I shall have to call my Anne of Cleves—for, in the choice words of that first of gentlemen, Henry VIII, she is “a great Flanders mare”—and rode forth for a little exercise. Verily I conceived we should rester en route, sich was the mud in one or two places! She would keep going deeper and deeper, and I would strive to pick out a harder path and would by no means succeed. Nevertheless, I made out to find some terra firma, at last, and, by holding to the ridges got a very fair ride after all. I found not much new out there, towards the Jerusalem plank: some cavalry camped about, as usual, and a new railroad branch going to supply them, and called Gregg’s branch. Gregg, by the way, has resigned. He is a loss to the service, and has commanded a cavalry division very successfully for a long time. I don’t know why he went out, since he is a regular officer. Some say it is a pretty wife, which is likely, seeing the same had worked in that style with others. Then there is Major Sleeper, resigned too. He has served long and well, and been wounded; so I say, what a pity that he should not stick to the end. It is human nature to expect a full performance of duty, when once a man has done decidedly well. These branch railroads are like mushrooms, and go shooting out at the shortest notice. The distinguished Botiano was entirely taken down by the performances of this sort. Just at the time of our new extension to the left, he went for a few days to Washington. When he got back, he was whisked over five miles of new railroad, including a number of bridges! This upset him wholly, and it was hard to make him believe that there hadn’t been an old line there before. Now where do you suppose I went last night? Why, to the theatre! Certainly, in my private carriage to the theatre; that is to say, on horseback, for may high powers forfend me from an ambulance over corduroys and these mud-holes! Rather would I die a rather swifter death. To explain, you must understand that good Colonel Spaulding commands a regiment of engineers, a fine command of some 1800 men. As they are nearly all mechanics, they are very handy at building and have erected, among other things, a large building, which is a church on Sundays, and a theatre on secular occasions. Thither the goodly Flint rode with me. On the outside was about half the regiment, each man armed with a three-legged stool, and all waiting to march into the theatre. We found the edifice quite a rustic gem. Everything, except the nails, is furnished by the surrounding woods and made by the men themselves. The building has the form of a short cross and is all of rustic work; the walls and floors of hewn slabs and the roof covered with shingles nailed on beams, made with the bark on. What corresponds to the left-side aisle was railed off for officers only, while the rest was cram-full of men. The illumination of the hall was furnished by a rustic chandelier, that of the stage by army lanterns, and by candles, whose rays were elegantly reflected by tin plates bought from the sutler. The entertainment was to be “minstrels”; and, to be sure, in walked an excellent counterpart of Morris, Pell, and Trowbridge, who immediately began an excellent overture, in which the tambourine gentleman, in particular, was most brilliant and quite convulsed the assembled engineers. The performances were, indeed, most creditable, and there was not a word of any sort of coarseness throughout. A grand speech on the state of the country, by a brother in a pair of gunny-bag trousers, was quite a gem. He had an umbrella, of extraordinary pattern, with which he emphasized his periods by huge whacks on the table. I think the jokes were as ingeniously ridiculous as could be got up, and that, you know, is the great thing in minstrels. Brudder Bones came a little of the professional by asking his friend: “What can yer play on dat banjo?” “Anyting,” says the unwary friend. “Well, den, play a game o’ billiards!” “Can’t play no billiards! kin play a tune,” cries the indignant friend. “Well den, if yer kin play a tune, jis play a pon-toon!” All to the inextinguishable delight of the engineers. After the play the good Colonel, who is one of the salt of the earth, insisted on my taking pigs’ feet as a supper.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 310-12. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

paperback scanThe paperback edition of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg is now available! You can purchase it through Stackpole Books, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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