A memory. I am remembering a day at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Mass. The Society holds one of the great collections of early American manuscripts and artifacts, everything from John Quincy Adams’ diary to Paul Revere’s pistol.
I was there to look at less famous relics, but ones just as exciting to me: letters and diaries written by Union soldiers that served in New Bern, N.C. during the American Civil War.
At that time, I was finishing The Fire of Freedom, my book on the life and times of Abraham Galloway. During the Civil War, Galloway often stayed in New Bern, where, among other things, he operated as a Union spy, moving back and forth across enemy lines.
I was hoping that the Union soldiers’ diaries and correspondence might shed more light on his life.
At first, however, I had a strange reaction to those old letters and diaries: I was struck by the soldiers’ frivolity.
Except during two brief Rebel assaults, New Bern was relatively quiet duty after it fell to Union troops early in 1862. Many of the Union troops stationed in or around the old seaport had a good deal of free time on their hands when not making raids into Confederate-held parts of eastern N.C.
In their letters and diaries, the Union soldiers come across as incredibly young and gay, lighthearted and innocent.
One of the Union regiments, the 44th Massachusetts, had a band that played every night. Other regiments had glee clubs. The soldiers played baseball. They held dinner parties and dances.
They also staged musicals and minstrel shows. One group of soldiers even wrote and staged a comic opera!
The Queen of Sheba
I found the letters of a Union private named Edward J. Bartlett especially interesting. Ned Bartlett (his family called him “Ned”) wrote home about a masquerade ball that his regiment, the 44th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, held at its campground in January 1863.
“There were nuns and knights and fools and darkeys,” Ned wrote his oldest sister, Martha, back home in Concord, Mass. “One fellow in our company, a very tall and handsome fellow went as the Queen of Sheba.”
The Queen of Sheba was not the only gender-bending soldier at the ball.
“All the fair faced pretty boys went as girls,” he told Martha. “Their hair was parted in the middle, curled and frizzled and fixed up with ribbons, with bare neck and arms.” They were, he said, rather fetching.
Dismal Swamp Promenade
Bartlett was still in New Bern a month later, when, not to be outdone, the 44th Mass. was back with a new entertainment—an even grander masquerade ball, under the auspices of what the regiment’s soldiers called the “44th Regimental Dramatic Association.”
Printed on a typeset announcement, the order of dances included names borrowed from the regiment’s history, among them a quadrille called the “Dismal Swamp Promenade.”
They followed the ball with a “grand Original Opera,” Il Recruitio, written by several of their own, and a dramatic performance.
Home of My Boyhood
Another passage from Ned Bartlett’s letters also struck me. One night, he wrote his sister about a quiet moment in his barracks.
“Sleeper and I are writing home,” he told Martha. A soldier named Osborn was reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which had just been published and translated into English the year before.
Another soldier, a boy named Devons, was whittling a briarwood pipe. A group of soldiers were singing in the background.
Bartlett writes, “They have exhausted all the songs from `John Brown’s Body’ to `Speed Away’ and [are] now on `Home of My Boyhood,’ a solo by Corp. Slover which is a splendid thing.”
Bartlett’s letters describe lovely scenes, but I have to confess that at first they bothered me.
I was thinking of course about Galloway. Born into slavery, he had known precious few days when his life was not at risk. (He lived a brilliant, but very brief life and, as a New York Times correspondent said of him, he “laughed loud and often.” But he died at the tender age of 33, and he would never know days without struggle and danger.)
While Bartlett’s company staged musicals and sang sentimental songs about home, Galloway was risking his life behind enemy lines.
While Union soldiers staged their comic opera, he was helping enslaved families to flee the Confederacy, reuniting families broken apart by slavery, and organizing the former slaves into a political force.
While the Yankee boys dressed up as “darkeys” at masquerade balls and staged minstrel acts, Galloway made plans to rescue his mother from slavery in Wilmington, N.C. (which he did).
But I did not—could not—stay reproachful long. And to be honest, on reflection, I felt a little ashamed of my earlier feelings.
As the day wore on, I thought more about what was coming for those young men, so many of them only 18 or 19 years old. It was a long war, and many ended up in places far worse than New Bern.
None would stay innocent, and many would acquire, at far too young an age, a knowledge of the deepest sorrows in life.
On battlefields. In army hospitals. In prison camps.
Long before I walked back out onto Boylston Avenue, my heart had softened toward those Yankee boys. In the end, I enjoyed reading about their masquerades balls, their glee clubs and their opera.
I found a great, deeply moving sweetness, given the war all around them, in the birdhouses that they built around their tents.
I came to think of their sentimental songs and masquerade balls, their humorous skits and their poetic readings, not as a disregard for the war’s seriousness, or its cruelty and suffering, as I did at first, but as an insistence on holding onto a little tenderness in the war’s midst.
Galloway had his destiny, they had theirs, I told myself. Let them dance. Let them sing. Let them dress up like the Queen of Sheba if they want. Let them love and be gay while they can.