Monday, October 24, 2011

Abe's Mini-Me?

This is from the excellent Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War.  I've seen this photo many times, of course, but I've never noticed (maybe because he was always cropped out?) the Lincoln look-alike sitting on the grass in the background over on the left.  Who the heck is that guy?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Here is the steed that saved the day.

Okay, not only do I like the Library of Congress because they're collecting this blog, and because their National Jukebox is a great website, but this week they're publishing a terrific coffee-table book, The Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War.  I've spent much of the last few days browsing through an advance copy, and it's pretty great.  The timeline itself is excellent--nearly day-by-day entries covering important events over the length of the war, cross-referenced to related events on other days--but the real treasure trove is the collection of illustrations, some of them full-page, from the Library's vast and authoritative archive. 

The picture above (click on the picture to enlarge it) is from the book.  It's a lithograph called "Sheridan's Ride," done by a Harper's Weekly illustrator named Thure de Thulstrup.  This is from the Timeline's entry for October 19, 1864:
On his quest to crush Jubal Early in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Phil Sheridan rides into legend at the battle of Cedar Creek. After achieving victories at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill (see September 19 and 22, 1864), Sheridan has departed his camp for a strategy conference in Washington when Early attacks so unexpectedly that the army Sheridan has left securely encamped begins a pell-mell retreat. Sheridan’s return to the front on his warhorse Rienzi helps turn the morning’s humiliating defeat into an afternoon of over­whelming victory — and it generates a patriotic poem, “Sheri­dan’s Ride,” that is a pre-election rouser in the North. The Union is now firmly in control of the Shenandoah Valley — and the area is showing the effects of the “hard war” policy Grant has directed Sheridan to embrace (see July 30, 1864).
The book doesn't include the poem, so here's a link to it.  While I'm at it, here's a link to the John Philip Sousa piece commemorating the ride, in a perfectly swell 1902 recording at the National Jukebox, complete with galloping hoofbeats.  Sheridan's twenty-mile ride that day became so famous that it became possible to buy portraits just of Rienzi, the horse he rode; my great-grandfather had one on the wall when my family lived with him when I was a little boy.

The poor horse is still available for photo shoots, as Sheridan had him stuffed and he's standing in a glass case at the Smithsonian. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Black Confederates? Not so much.

Elizabeth Margolius, who is directing Opus 1861 for us this spring, and I are in a workshop this week for the show, listening to an amazingly good bunch of singers and musicians play through the songs we've chosen in the structure we've tried to build, and talking about the songs and their context and so on.  One thing that's come up is the ongoing disinformation campaign to convince us all that there were black Confederate soldiers fighting for the South.  Thousands of them.

One of the singers recently saw an episode of Antiques Roadshow from 2009 that featured a Civil War tintype showing the above picture of a white man and a black man together, both armed and in Confederate uniforms.  The white's family history related that they were friends who served together.  Both men had the last name Chandler:  Andrew Chandler had owned Silas Chandler, but had freed him a year before the war, and both had enlisted in a Mississippi regiment of the Confederate army.

I don't doubt that Andrew Chandler's family historians are sincere, but the claim that Silas was an enlisted Confederate soldier is clearly preposterous.  The picture is more plausibly explained by the fact that many Confederates brought slaves along with them into their units, and frequently had them dress in uniforms like mascots.  Posing with his mascot, and letting the mascot hold arms like he's a real soldier, was apparently a diversion Andrew Chandler had time for.

The Confederacy outlawed using blacks as soldiers, until the Confederate Congress legalized it in an act of sheer desperation eighteen days before Lee surrendered.  Of course they wouldn't want black soldiers.  The South feared a widespread slave uprising, which was why John Brown's raid had galvanized them so.  Why on earth would they want to train thousands of blacks to use weapons and organize themselves into fighting units?  What happens after the South wins the war and then wants all these armed warriors to go back to picking cotton?

It turns out another PBS show, History Detectives, aired a segment about the Chandler tintype just last week and destroyed Andrew Chandler's descendants' version of things.  Andrew could not have freed Silas in 1860, because the Mississippi constitution at the time outlawed freeing slaves; it couldn't be done.  The 1860 census recorded zero free blacks living in the county where Silas resided.  The application Silas filed in 1916 for a Confederate pension when he was indigent and too infirm to work was on the form given to those freedmen who, while enslaved, had been used as servants by their enlisted masters ("What was the number of the regiment or name of the vessel in which your master served?").  And the roster for the regiment in question still exists; it lists Andrew as serving, but not Silas.  As for the weapons Silas holds in the photo, the Atlanta expert in Confederate photos consulted by History Detectives pronounced them "a photographer's prop."

The tintype is an unimportant curio, except that it's being used to further the agenda of Confederate apologists.  The Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy have placed on his grave a Confederate Iron Cross and a Confederate battle flag in order to claim him as a Confederate soldier.  This is just plain ugly.  The groups are part of a movement among "neo-Confederates" to establish the myth of black Confederates as history.  Their object, of course, is to make slavery seem to be not the main cause of the war:  if the South were fighting to preserve and extend slavery, would so many blacks have enlisted to help it?  So the movement spreads as fact, among other lies, the howler that Stonewall Jackson commanded two black battalions.

Their disinformation campaign has been conducted mostly on the internet, but briefly crept into actual print last year, when a fourth-grade history textbook used in Virginia schools repeated the Stonewall Jackson falsehood as fact.  The book's author, Joy Masoff, is not a neo-Confederate, merely an ignoramus (her book also got the number of Confederate states, and the year the U.S. entered World War One, both wrong).  After a public outcry, school officials pulled the book.  Its publishers say that from now on they are going to start having people who actually know things read their books before they send them out. 

As for Silas Chandler, in 2008 fifty-two of his descendants signed a petition to get the Confederate paraphernalia removed from his grave.  An excerpt from a letter explaining their position:
In a cynical attempt to further their political objectives, the descendants of Silas’ oppressors have decided  to place an iron cross and a confederate flag on Silas’ grave.  This is equivalent to the descendants of the Gestapo placing a swastika on the grave of a Holocaust victim.  The placing of the confederate flag on Silas’ grave is a gross affront to the memory of Silas, and nothing more than  an attempt to rewrite history.
 On October 3 of this year, eighteen days ago, Myra Chandler Sampson, one of Silas's great-granddaughters, posted the following reply when a commenter on an article about Silas asked if they had received an answer from either the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the United Daughters of the Confederacy:
Not yet.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Civil War plays elsewhere, not in Chicago

It's old news by now--but still shameful-- that there is no federal Civil War Sesquicentennial organizing committee (though the admirable National Park Service has events planned at the Civil War battlefields it administers), and if online journalist Robert McNamara's round-up is up to date, only twenty-five states (plus D. C.) have official commemorations planned (five of the eleven states from the old Confederacy, twenty of the twenty-five loyal states).  Nothing west of Iowa and Missouri, though the states of Kansas, California and Oregon, as well as the territories of Colorado, Dakota (not yet itself divided into North and South), Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington, all contributed soldiers to the Union army.

So it will be interesting to see how widespread the production of Civil War plays will be during the next four years.  Outside of Chicago, there is somewhat of a natural accumulation of them in places that were in the war's geography, but let's hope that by 2015 the country's theatres will have outshone the embarrassingly absent official entities.

Off to a great start is Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, whose story theatre musical Civil War Voices, based on period diaries and letters, is on tour through Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey.  Back home they are in the midst of their run of The Road to Appomattox, a world premiere by Catherine Bush that pairs the story of a modern day married couple considering divorce with the story of Lee preparing to surrender to Grant.

Elsewhere in Virginia earlier this year was Rappahannock County by Ricky Ian Gordon and Mark Campbell, another musical based on Civil War diaries and letters, which premiered at the Virginia Arts Festival in April as a joint commission by the Festival, the University of Richmond, Virginia Opera, and the University of Texas at Austin.  It played the Texas leg of its premiere last month.   

In the Shenandoah Valley, Wayside Theatre (which is run by my old Body Politic Theatre colleague Warner Crocker--Hi, Warner!) began its 50th anniversary season with the 1999 pastiche Reunion ... A Musical Epic in Miniature, about a post-Civil War acting troupe staging a show about the war.  One of the reviews for Reunion went out of its way to deny that slavery was the chief cause of the war, cautioned its readers that the play had a "Northern point of view," and regretted that "a Virginia audience should be prepared — some of them, anyway — for hearing their ancestors referred to as traitors."  Yes, the war is still with us.

Up north, Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man, originally produced by Manhattan Theatre Club in February, is being co-produced by the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield, Michigan and Plowshares Theatre, an African American company in Detroit.  It's about a Jewish Confederate who returns home after Appomattox and finds his home occupied by a pair of his former, now newly freed, slaves--also Jews, having been raised in the faith of their master's household.  It closed October 2 at JET and is scheduled to re-open at Plowshares in January.

Missing in action as far as I can see so far is James Still's The Heavens Are Hung in Black, which seemed two years ago a contender to be done all over the country during the sesquicentennial.  It was commissioned by Ford's Theatre, no less, and premiered there for the Lincoln bicentenary in 2009.  The play depicts Lincoln during five months in 1862 from the death of his son Willie through the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  It had a second production, also in 2009, at Indiana Rep, where Still was resident playwright, but seems not to have had a third one yet.  Of course, 2012 will be the sesquicentennial year of the events it depicts, so maybe there'll be a major production of it then.

A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel, though there is at least one production scheduled this year, also seems to be underperforming what appeared to be its potential not long ago.  It premiered in 2008 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, and went on to productions in Boston, Chicago (at Northlight, so really in Skokie) and Palo Alto.  It's a sentimental imagining of Christmas in 1864 Washington, featuring a raft of period Christmas songs, so it seemed poised to become an annual event at theatres at least through 2015.  But the only production this year I can find online is at History Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota.

I'll post information on more Civil War shows here in Chicago and around the country as I learn of them.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Lovely but Hard-to-Find Play, Now Available to You at the Touch of a Button

Our production of Augustus Thomas's The Copperhead this past April, the first show of our Civil War project, was apparently the play's first production in decades.  It had been a Broadway hit in 1918, and spawned a movie version in 1920, but we were never able to find out its production history beyond that.  I emailed Samuel French, its erstwhile publisher, to ask if they could let us know when the last licensed production occurred.  They wrote back that once the play had passed into the public domain, they stopped keeping records of any productions.  I had assumed that would be the case, which is why I had asked about licensed productions, but my follow-up email pointing this out went ignored.

I bring this up by way of saying The Copperhead is a terrific play that more people should do.  Most American drama from its period, not written by Eugene O'Neill, has lapsed into obscurity.  This is largely because we're embarrassed by the remnants of 19th-century melodrama  that cling to most early 20th-century American plays.  The Copperhead has its share of these remnants, but--there is no higher praise in the theatre--it works.  Our director, Kathy Scambiatterra, had it played straight--no nudging the audience to assure them that we're all more sophisticated than the script--and when the play's climax needed to move the audience, there were tears in the house every night.

I'm posting a pdf of The Copperhead's script here.  If you're with a theatre company, download it and consider it for production.  There are no royalties involved, so to a degree the expenses of a large cast and period costumes and props are offset.  Your company might (should, in my opinion) want to do at least one play connected to the Civil War during the sesquicentennial, and The Copperhead is a lovely script.  There'll be no other show in town like it.  Here's a link to a round-up of the reviews we got, so you can see the range of how the script was perceived.