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”.
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.”
While the image might fly against some prevailing assumptions about the Civil War era’s notions of masculinity, it was not uncommon for men of the period–particularly military men–to dress as women. 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. Identifying his fabulous companion proved more difficult, though not nearly as much as I imagined. As luck would have it, the Engineer Battalion, particular members of Company B, were photographed extensively by Irish American photographer Timothy O’Sullivan in August-September 1864. 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. Not only was this soldier in Company B, but he was also photographed as a member of the Engineer Battalion’s Essayons Dramatic Club, which, as it turns out, formed the basis for what used to be one of the oldest amateur theatrical production companies in the United States. (1)
This discovery led me further down the rabbit hole–I was thrilled to learn that the battalion’s official history and the journal of Major (then Private) Gilbert Thompson include a variant view of the Essayons Dramatic Club with captions identifying its members. 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. Using the Essayons image and an identified CDV (also from Thompson’s journal) as a guide, I was able to identify our likely “mystery belle” as Private John Haven Brown, Company B, Battalion of Engineers. (2)
Thompson recorded that in February 1864, the Essayons Dramatic Club hosted its very first performance–the play Toodles, in which John H. Brown was cast as Mary Acorn and Atkins Higgins as First Farmer. While it’s hard to say for certain, it is possible that our mystery image shows these two men costumed for their roles in this very play. The Essayons performed several other plays during that winter, including Irish Assurance and The Limerick Boy, whose titles alone hint at the Irish influence upon American Civil War era theater. They also held at least one “gander dance” of their own. (3)
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)
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. Thompson died in 1909 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. (5)
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. He was likewise involved in the GAR and other veteran organizations, and died in Reading, Massachusetts in 1915. He was survived by his wife Althea and at least three children. (6)
- Eastham Historical Society Local History Collection (via Digital Commonwealth); Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; Civil War Photosleuth (www.civilwarphotosleuth.com)
- Thompson, Gilbert, The Engineer Battalion in the Civil War; Gilbert Thompson journal (Library of Congress)
- Gilbert Thompson journal (Library of Congress)
- 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
- Gilbert Thompson journal (Library of Congress), Gilbert Thompson entry in Wikipedia
- Eastham Historical Society Local History Collection, U.S., Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914, Ancestry.com