American Civil War: In the latest post, Brendan goes sleuthing to uncover the story behind some unusual Civil War images. With the help of photographs captured by wartime Irish American photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, he reveals the fascinating story behind a wartime amateur theatrical club, revealing the identity and wartime experiences of a “Deadeye in Drag”.

“Civil War camp theatrical skit”- Eastham Historical Society Local History Collection, via Digital Commonwealth

It’s not your typical Civil War image–two figures, presumably men, one of them in a baggy, crumpled overshirt, and the other wearing a dress, posed for a nineteenth century photographer. The caption reads simply “Civil War camp theatrical skit.”

Soldiers’ memoirs and diaries often contain references to “stag” or “gander dances” in which men sometimes donned women’s garb to dance in female roles at a camp ball. And soldiers in winter quarters or on garrison duty frequently passed the time by performing plays, which typically required male soldiers to play female characters. In an environment in which women were scarce, men simply found creative ways to amuse themselves amid the drudgery of a soldier’s life.

So who are these particular theatrical performers? The first clue is that the photograph, in the possession of the Eastham Historical Society, comes from the collection of Atkins Higgins, who was a member of Company B of the U.S. Engineer Battalion. An accompanying photo, identified as Atkins Higgins himself, appears to match the man in the overshirt in the first image. That part was easy enough.

I perused the images in the Library of Congress’s collection, and, with the assistance of the Civil War Photo Sleuth’s facial recognition software, I’m now confident I’ve found a match.

Timothy O’Sullivan’s photograph of the Essayons Dramatic Club of the U.S. Engineer Battalion included in Gilbert Thompson’s journal. Thompson’s notes identifying its members not only sheds light on our mystery belle, but also reveals multiple Irish immigrants and first generation Irish Americans (of which more in a later post!). Our “mystery belle” is seated in the front row, third from right, while Thompson himself sits in the center row, fourth from right. Gilbert Thompson journal, Library of Congress.

Moreover, Thompson’s beautifully written journal includes a treasure trove of information about the day-to-day lives of the men of the Engineer Battalion, including details about dramatic performances, popular music, dances, and other ways Thompson and his fellow soldiers kept themselves entertained when they weren’t campaigning.

A composite image comparing the “mystery belle” with two identified images of John H. Brown (bottom left and bottom center) from the Thompson journal and three other details of Brown from Timothy O’Sullivan images in the Library of Congress’ collection.

Thompson recorded that in February 1864, the Essayons Dramatic Club hosted its very first performance–the play Toodles, in which John H.  They also held at least one “gander dance” of their own. (3)

Gilbert Thompson’s sketches of the Essayons Theatre building constructed by the U.S. Engineer Battalion at their winter camp at Brandy Station, Virginia, 1863-64. Gilbert Thompson journal, Library of Congress.
The program for the opening performance of Toodles at the Essayons Theatre, Brandy Station, Virginia, 26 February 1864. Gilbert Thompson journal, Library of Congress.
Another remarkable image of a member of the Engineer Battalion dressed in women’s clothes. Gilbert Thompson journal, Library of Congress.

So who was John Haven Brown? Records show that Brown worked before the war as a cordwainer and storekeeper in his native Stoneham, Massachusetts. He enlisted at the age of 19 in the 1st Company, Massachusetts Sharpshooters, also known as Andrew’s Sharpshooters. Composed of about 100 elite marksmen recruited from Eastern Massachusetts, Andrew’s Sharpshooters were armed with hefty target rifles complete with telescopes over the barrels for long-distance aiming. Brown saw heavy service with his company through the Peninsula and Second Bull Run campaigns. By September 1862, their target rifles were swapped out for breech-loading Sharps rifles, much to the chagrin of many of the sharpshooters.

On September 17th, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam, the unit was attached to the 15th Massachusetts Infantry and was, in the words of one soldier, “badly cut up.” Private John H. Brown was among the wounded. After recovering from his injury, Brown transferred to the U.S. Engineer Battalion, where he was designated an artificer, a specialized role for an enlisted engineer. Brown’s new unit served with the Army of the Potomac through all its major campaigns; it played an important role bridging the Rappahannock under Confederate fire at Fredericksburg, and helped in rebuilding roadways, clearing obstructions, constructing bridges, and building fortifications.

Brown mustered out in September 1864 at the end of his term of enlistment. After the war, he became a manager of the Gutta Percha and Rubber Manufacturing Company and was active in the Grand Army of the Republic. John H. Brown died in Berkeley, California, in 1922, survived by his wife Martha and daughter Mary. (4)

John H. Brown (right) photographed beside Gilbert Thompson by Timothy O’Sullivan. Library of Congress.

Gilbert Thompson, whose work was so invaluable in identifying Brown and his comrades, became a well-known topographer after the war, participating in the landmark Wheeler Survey of the American West in 1872. In 1888, he co-founded the National Geographic Society, providing the first map supplement for National Geographic Magazine the following year.

Atkins Higgins. Eastham Historical Society Local History Collection, via Digital Commonwealth.

Corporal Atkins Higgins, a.k.a. “First Farmer,” was a native of Eastham, Massachusetts, and a carpenter by trade. He enlisted in Company B of the U.S. Engineer Battalion in 1861 and mustered out at the expiration of his service in December 1864.

References

  1. Eastham Historical Society Local History Collection (via Digital Commonwealth); Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; Civil War Photosleuth (www.civilwarphotosleuth.com)
  2. Thompson, Gilbert, The Engineer Battalion in the Civil War; Gilbert Thompson journal (Library of Congress)
  3. Gilbert Thompson journal (Library of Congress)
  4. Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the Civil War; Banks, John “’Badly cut up ‘ at Antietam, Sharpshooters have striking story” in John Banks’ Civil War Blog (http://john-banks.blogspot.com); U.S., Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914, John H. Brown obituary in San Francisco Examiner, 22 Aug 1922
  5. Gilbert Thompson journal (Library of Congress), Gilbert Thompson entry in Wikipedia
  6. Eastham Historical Society Local History Collection, U.S., Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914, Ancestry.com

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