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  • Civil War Memories on the Nineteenth-Century Amateur StagePreserving the Union (and Its White Manly Parts)
  • Bethany D. Holmstrom (bio)

One summer night in 1868, nineteen-year-old Laura Cooke attended a production of The Drummer Boy, or the Battle of Shiloh in Sandusky, Ohio. Her father, Jay Cooke, referred to as “the financier of the Civil War,” was behind a wartime bond program that greatly increased the Union’s coffers and allowed him to build the family a summer home—Cooke Castle—on nearby Gibraltar Island in Lake Erie.1 Samuel Muscroft, a veteran as well as the author of the evening’s production, appeared in the lead role as the hero Mart Howard, while Sandusky residents and veterans took on the majority of the other roles. Laura Cooke noted her reactions in the margins of a program during the show.2 After writing about her frustration that they only got a few minutes of music before the curtain (as well as jotting down when she took a nap during act 2), she also recorded her reaction to the violence depicted on the stage at Norman Hall that June evening.3 In act 4, on the corpse-strewn battlefield of Shiloh, a Southern patriarch dies and renounces his loyalty to the Confederacy as his ex-slave Uncle Joe (played by a local white veteran in blackface) bemoans “Massa” Rutledge’s fate: “He done turned rebel, but he was a good Massa to me” (fig. 1).4 Closing the act is a tableau of the decoration of soldiers’ graves, which would become a major rite of mourning in the United States. It is here that Cooke responded to the production in an intriguing (and problematic) way. She scribbled in the space available at the close of the act’s program listing: “Too awfully sad + true to life—heart breaking,” and then noted later that her theatre companions (including her brother Jay Jr.) began to cry upon the death of the drummer boy [End Page 4] at the hands of the rabid Confederate villain in Andersonville Prison in act 5 (figs. 2 and 3). This reaction raises several questions. What did Laura Cooke, the daughter of a wealthy financier, a mere twelve years old at the war’s outbreak, know of the “truth” behind war? What battlefield scenes had she witnessed firsthand to attest to the authenticity of this tragedy? And, assuming that she had not actually witnessed the overwhelming carnage of the war—the bodies piled at Shiloh, the conditions in the squalid prison camps—what had she seen and heard that led her to believe that this dramatic representation of battle was indeed “true to life”?

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Figure 1.

(Left to right) Uncle Joe (played by Capt. Harry McMullen) and Frank Rutledge Jr. (W. D. Jobson) before the war. Junior turns out to be the villain of this play, The Drummer Boy, or the Battle of Shiloh. These images were taken at a studio (thought to be Gordon & Wilson’s Indianapolis Photographic Temple of Art), presumably during (or immediately before or after) playwright Samuel Muscroft’s visit to Indianapolis to direct his play with the local Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) organization and other citizens at the Metropolitan Theatre, June 10–20, 1868.

(All images accompanying this essay were originally in sepia tint and are from the Robert Gordon Album, c. 1868, 1906, Manuscript and Visual Collections Department, P0474, William Henry Smith Memorial Library, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis.) Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

[End Page 5]

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Figure 2.

(Left to right) Tom Elliot (Robert Gordon), Mart Howard (Sam Muscroft, playwright/director), Johnny Howard, the drummer boy (Master Eugene Taylor), and Will Smith (Lafe Robinson). Johnny is murdered by one of the “rabid” Confederates in the prison during this scene.

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The Drummer Boy was one of many amateur plays written by/for Union veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) organization in the decades following the war. Some theatre historians have provided important insights into these amateur plays. Rosemary Cullen refers to these texts as...


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