The Grave and the Gay: The Civil War on the Gilded Age Lecture Circuit

The Grave and the Gay: The Civil War on the Gilded Age Lecture Circuit

This is our final field dispatch from correspondent James Marten. We have greatly enjoyed his contributions to Muster and it has been such a pleasure having him on our team. We will be announcing his replacement in 2019, so stay tuned!


For decades before and after the Civil War, thousands of lecturers, “elocutionists,” ventriloquists, and other performers toured the country, entertaining audiences in churches, fraternal lodges, opera houses, auditoriums, and countless other venues in towns large and small. Some of the best-known figures of the Civil War era traveled this circuit, often making hundreds of dollars per lecture. They included Frederick Douglass and Blanche K. Bruce, Anna Dickinson and William Herndon, Mary Livermore and John S. Mosby. In the 1880s and 1890s, these lectures provided one important thread of memory for the military history of the Civil War.

A notice of a Livingston appearance in Brooklyn in 1885. “Both Sides of Army Life,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 3, 1885.

Although he was not one of the “star” speakers on the circuit in the late 1880s, Rev. E. Livingston Allen, unlike most of his more famous colleagues, left a complete version of his lecture, which he self-published as Both Sides of Army Life: The Grave and the Gay. It provides a sense of what many of the military-oriented lectures would have been like. It is filled with rhetorical flourishes and alliteration, cadences that work far better when heard than when read silently, and italicized and capitalized passages marking important thematic and emotional points. One can almost imagine the red marks, underlines, and circles on the script from which Allen would deliver his public lectures. Taken as a whole, Both Sides of Army Life checks several “boxes” in what had become a common veteran’s memory of the war, focusing on the patriotism of the volunteers, memorable battle scenes, oddball soldiers providing comic relief, and reconciliation between the sections. Although it’s hard to know how often he gave the lecture, he did present it several times in New York and Brooklyn in 1885.[1]

Allen, a long-time Methodist minister in New Jersey and New York, was also active in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). At the age of eighteen he quit studying for the ministry to enlist in the Thirteenth New Jersey, serving as a corporal in Company K until the last few months of war, when he was promoted to sergeant. Although the regiment did not suffer heavy casualties–Allen himself was wounded three times–it did serve with distinction, fighting at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Atlanta Campaign, and the March to the Sea.[2]

Allen’s talk began with several paragraphs on past wars and on Fourth of July orators who inculcated ardent patriotism and emotional attachment to the American flag: “All this with reference to the flag and eagle was sentiment; but it educated Young America patriotically.” Once the flag was attacked, “this sentiment was to become crystallized into the solid steel of military activity, and was to be proven the VERY EMBODIMENT OF INVINCIBLE FORCE!”[3]

Allen briefly described the assembling of “the boys” into the regiment and their rush to the Maryland front, where incredibly, they first loaded their guns as they went into battle at Antietam. Allen peppered his talk with military terminology, and with phrases that are a little jarring to read but which must have drawn audiences in with his dramatic use of repetition and alliteration: “As the gray dawn was pushing back the blackness of night, revealing the blue of day, we were ordered by the gray-haired Mansfield to push back the grey of treason and show the enemy the pure blue of loyalty.” The battle scene that followed was both particular to his experience yet also generic—similar scenes appeared in virtually every first-person account of combat. As the Thirteenth pressed forward, they passed a young soldier from the 107th New York, “with both limbs broken by a solid shot; and he, in his agony, knowing death must soon come, was calling, Mother! MOTHER! MOTHER! Brave hearts trembled–strong men wept–indescribable emotions swept over mind and heart–Forward! FORWARD! the command rose higher, and on we went.”[4] Most of the battle scenes offered similar drama and effects—his description of Chancellorsville captures perfectly the confusion on the Union right flank.

The monument to the Thirteenth New Jersey at Gettysburg. Courtesy of Stone Sentinels.

Allen’s talk featured a number of iconic facets of military reminiscences: rich, often funny characters, a no-hard-feelings approach to the enemy, and a few references to humorous incidents occurring at the height of battles–including a moment during a battle in Georgia when the regimental color guard (which included Allen) takes cover behind a rock and spends part of the battle eating blueberries. One fellow member of Company K, Sam C. Davis, who the “boys” inevitably nicknamed “Jeff,” was a “cross, crabbed, cranky, crusty, cantankerous” fellow–again, with the alliteration–who seemed most upset in the middle of crucial battle when a bullet ruined the fry pan crammed into his knapsack. Another of Allen’s stock characters, a German named John Icke, offered a little ethnic humor when Icke remarked on the quantity of rations provided in winter quarters in early 1863: “See vat Hooker feeds us mit: he is fattenen us up fur de schlauter-house.” Later in the war, the company gets a recruit named Young–nicknamed, of course, “Brigham”–whose uniform is ill-fitting and whose cap is worn at an awkward angle, and whose feet were so large that they kept the fire from warming him. Always hungry, he became the camp thief, stealing provisions from company stores at every opportunity, until he was caught, court-martialed, and fined.[5]

The reconciliationist impulse of the Gilded Age allowed Union soldiers to admire the bravery of their erstwhile enemies, which Allen does on several occasions. At Chancellorsville, in the face of concentrated rifle and artillery fire, the Confederates advanced “without flinching . . . close up the gaps made in their ranks, and, with their eyes, and hearts, and purposes fixed on the batteries, they reach the guns as the artillerymen fire the last shot, while the horses are being attached to take them away.”[6]

Allen’s narrative is shot full of striking images. There was the soldier who wills himself to make his escape by climbing onto a departing cannon despite two broken limbs; he’s found after the retreat finally stops, dead, but still clinging to the cannon. There is the soldier fined $10 a month for fleeing during a battle, who was convinced the bullets were singing “Where is he? Where is he?” while the shells called “That’s him! That’s him!” There is the sentry who sets off a commotion when he fires into the dark at what turns out to be an army mule, rather than an enemy patrol. Allen also includes set piece incidents that appear in many other narratives, included soldiers bravely rescuing wounded comrades and moments when survivors were powerless to help wounded men caught between the lines crying for help and water. And there is the obligatory scene of encountering a young slave, who ends up the butt of a soldier’s joke.[7]

After describing a few more oddball soldiers, Allen spends the bulk of the last few pages of the lecture on more serious subjects that captured the pathos of sacrifice by Union troops, the tragedy of the contraband refugees who followed Sherman’s army through Georgia, and the relief and pride the army felt when the war finally ended with the rebellion crushed. He finishes with a narrative of the regiment’s mustering out and welcome home, a report on the charitable and educational activities of the Grand Army of the Republic, and a tribute to the men and women who had supported the troops on the home front.

Allen lived into the twentieth century, although his date of death is unknown. He was reported to be in ill-health in 1892–he was only forty-eight, and it’s not clear if his health problems were related to his war-time injuries–but he was ministering to Methodists in Cape May Courthouse as late as 1902.[8] Although the pastor had spent a long life serving God, he, like many other Civil War veterans, had never forgotten the two or three years he had spent serving his country.

 

[1] Brooklyn Eagle, October 3, 1885; New York Times, October 18, 1885.

[2] Record of Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Trenton, NJ: John L. Murphy, 1876), 658.

[3] Rev. E. Livingston Allen, Descriptive Lecture: Both Sides of Army Life, the Grave and the Gay (np: The Author, 1885), 1. Interestingly, James “Corporal” Tanner, a much more famous lecturer—and a non-commissioned officer who, like Allen, enlisted at the age of eighteen—used an almost identical title for his most popular talk.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Ibid., 3, 4.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Minutes of the Fifty-Sixth Session of the New Jersey Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (Camden: Gazette Printing House, 1892), 59; Churches of Salem County, New Jersey (Salem: Salem County Clerk’s Office, 2015), 100.

James Marten

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette University. His most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014). He is a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

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