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.

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Birney and Sleeper (November 12, 1864)

Personnel of the 10th MA Battery (and a guest), taken in December 1863 at Brandy Station. Pictured (left to right)  are Capt. Samuel A. McClellan, Capt. J. Henry Sleeper, Capt. O'Neil W. Robinson, and artist  Alfred R. Waud. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Personnel of the 10th MA Battery (and a guest), taken in December 1863 at Brandy Station. Capt. J. Henry Sleeper is second from left and artist/correspondent Alfred Waud is on the right. The other two men are Capt. Samuel A. McClellan (left) and Capt. O’Neil W. Robinson. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman offers one of his finely observed letters today. We get his impressions of the late David Bell Birney and his account of a visit with Capt. Jacob Henry Sleeper of the 10th Massachusetts Battery. Sleeper was from Boston, where his father had been a founder of Boston University. His battery was attached to the II Corps. Sleeper had only recently returned to his unit after recovering from a wound he received at Reams Station, a battle in which his battery lost four guns.

The "thin, pale, Puritanic face" of David Bell Birney.

The “thin, pale, Puritanic face” of David Bell Birney.

We have the usual play of rumor about cabinets — everybody seems inclined to heave out Stanton: some to heave him up to the Supreme Court — some to heave him down to unknown depths of nothingness. Many would fain fancy Ben Butler in the chair of War, where he would be certain to make things spin either for good or for bad. How he will get on, across the James, I know not. He lost a strong man in Ord, wounded; and in Birney, dead, also: Birney was one who had many enemies, but, in my belief, we had few officers who could command 10,000 men as well as he. He was a pale, Puritanical figure, with a demeanor of unmovable coldness; only he would smile politely when you spoke to him. He was spare in person, with a thin face, light-blue eye, and sandy hair. As a General he took very good care of his Staff and saw they got due promotion. He was a man, too, who looked out for his own interests sharply and knew the mainsprings of military advancement. His unpopularity among some persons arose partly from his promotion, which, however, he deserved; and partly from his cold covert manner. I always felt safe when he had the division; it was always well put in and safely handled. The longer I am in the army, the more I see that great bodies of men take their whole tone from a few leaders, or even from one. I climbed on a horse and took a ride to visit Captain Sleeper, whose camp I easily recognized by its neat appearance. He always has things in a trig state about him. His own domicile was a small log cabin, with a neat brick chimney, very smooth-looking, but made in truth of only odd bits of brick, picked up at random and carefully fitted by a skilful Yank. The chimney-piece was of black walnut, made indeed from the leaf of an old table, discovered in the neighborhood. As to his tongs, a private, of prospective views, picked them up sometime last summer, and had carried them, ever since, in waggon! For arras he had artillery horse-blankets. The Sleeper is now more content, having his battery full, new sergeants appointed, and a prospect of officers. His only grief is that with three years’ service and many battles he is only a captain. You see Massachusetts has not her batteries in a regiment and can’t have field officers. So Sleeper’s only hope is a brevet.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 266-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.