The Civil War and Musical Institutions in the South

New Orleans falls to Farragut

New Orleans falls to Admiral Farragut, 1862

Last week’s post examined how the Civil War affected performance of music in three Northern cities: Boston, New York, and Chicago.

This week’s is devoted to musical institutions in the South, looking at New Orleans, the state of Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia.

Disruptions to Northern musical institutions came as a result of citizens’ preoccupation with war news, the number of musicians called to military service, and in New York, the exodus of foreign opera stars. These same concerns also disrupted musical life in the South, but the South knew at least one major disruption that the North did not suffer. Nearly the entire war took place on Southern soil.

New Orleans

Today New York is the acknowledged cultural capital of the United States. Before and during the Civil War, it was certainly one of the leading musical cities, but if there was a cultural capital, it was New Orleans. New York first heard opera (not counting heavily arranged “English” opera) in 1825 and did not have a financially successful company till much later.

Operatic performance started in New Orleans in 1796, while it was still under Spanish rule. Opera has been performed there continuously ever since. John Davis assumed leadership of the Théâtre d’Orleans in 1819 and built a permanent opera company. James Caldwell started a rival opera company in 1824, and both companies presented opera until 1842, when Caldwell lost two different theater buildings to fire.

A considerable change in New Orleans’ concert activities occurred at the end of the 1830s. Before 1836, there were usually fewer than half a dozen concerts, and all of the performers were local residents. By the end of the decade there were that many in a month. World famous performers began to visit. Other excellent musicians chose to make New Orleans their home.

Chief among them were conductor and composer Eugène Prévost and organist and composer Theodore von La Hache, who composed more patriotic songs during the war than any other Southern composer. Concert and operatic performance reached a peak both in quality and quantity in the 1850s.

Shortly after war broke out, President Lincoln ordered the blockade of all Southern ports. The blockade of New Orleans lasted only one year. On April 28, 1862 the city peacefully surrendered to Admiral David Farragut, and Union soldiers occupied it for the remainder of the war. New Orleans was thus spared the ravages of battle, but the citizens’ attention focused on basic survival and receiving news from the front. Numerous musicians fled New Orleans when the occupation began and contributed to the musical life of their new homes.

The French Opera Company had just opened a new house during the 1860-61 season and featured renowned soprano Adelina Patti. The following year, during the blockade, it attempted another season, but it began late and ended after the first production. Eugène Prévost, the company’s conductor, hoped to attract singers for a 1862-63 season, but wartime conditions made it impossible. He chose to return to France for the duration of the war.

For the rest of the war, the new theater sat empty except for scattered benefit concerts, which occasionally included performances of complete operas. New Orleans clearly still boasted plenty of resident musicians.

The last concert before the blockade and siege began occurred on February 5, 1861 to benefit young orphans. The siege did not end the city’s concert life. Two more benefit concerts took place in May. The fall saw more than usual concert activity, because ordinarily focus turned then to the new opera season.

These concerts often featured a full orchestra and chorus, but no international stars. The blockade made it impossible for any to get to the city. They also included performance of patriotic songs.

Gilmore monster concert occasion, New Orleans

Inauguration of Michael Hahn, April 1864, the occasion of Gilmore’s first “monster concert.”

The end of the blockade marked the beginning of Union occupation, and the Union military banned performance of songs of the Confederacy.

After Prévost left town, La Hache and other remaining conductors worked hard to keep concert life alive. Occasionally, one of the theaters pulled off a complete opera.

During the occupation, General Nathaniel Banks invited the renowned band director Patrick S. Gilmore to help secure peaceful cooperation between the Union military and the citizens.  He did so in part through involving local musicians in the performances of very ambitious concerts, including the first of his “monster concerts,” which included a chorus of 5000 local school children.

On another concert Gilmore’s band played his own popular song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which equally well received on both sides of the conflict, and some of his marches. Local soloists, both vocal and instrumental, performed.

After the Confederacy conceded defeat and the war ended, it took until about 1871 for the New Orleans music scene to reach its level of prewar activity and excellence. Musicians who had left returned. Musicians who had never lived in New Orleans moved there.

It wasn’t for lack of musicians or places to play that held musical life back that long. Although the city remained physically unscathed by the war, it was in financial ruin, full of orphans, widows, and wounded soldiers who lived in poverty. Nearly all orchestral concerts were presented for their benefit.


Sherman marching through georgia

Sherman’s army at work in Georgia

Up until Southern states began to secede in late 1860, theaters thrived in Southern cities and touring companies found enthusiastic reception in smaller towns and villages. After the election of 1860, attending the theater no longer seemed as important.

Attendance declined, and most theaters closed earlier than usual in the spring of 1861. Any theaters that remained open when Fort Sumter was attacked closed soon afterward.

Many actors and all but one of the theater managers responded by moving to the North. Early in the fall, however, the Confederacy felt strong and secure enough for regular theater seasons to resume.

Atlanta’s theaters could assemble only a few professional actors. Until they could find new managers and train new actors, they could mount only miscellaneous productions. Amateur companies had to supply the bulk of the major performances.

W.H. Barnes organized the Atlanta Amateurs, which continued to perform in Atlanta and nearby communities even after the city had formed another professional troupe. They existed mainly to raise money to support the Confederate cause. The Atlanta Southern Confederacy boasted that the group had raised more money to support their soldiers than any similar organization in the South.

The same season, Alfred Waldron, Sr. of Charleston, South Carolina, organized his six children (three girls and three boys) and some other children into a theatrical company known as The Thespian Family or The Queen Sisters and took them on tour.

At first, they could only present simple comic entertainments, but soon enough they developed into an Augusta, Georgia-based professional company (with the addition of adult actors) that played an important role in rebuilding legitimate theater there.

When New Orleans fell to the Union in May 1862, many of its actors and actresses exiled themselves to other Southern cities. Four in particular had prominent roles in the redevelopment of theater in Georgia.

John Davis had been at work trying to revive theatrical life in New Orleans when it fell. He saw a performance of The Queen Sisters in Augusta and joined them for several months. They benefitted greatly from his experience and expertise.

Brooklyn-born Eloise Bridges had begun her career in New York, but moved to New Orleans to marry a merchant there. She made her Georgia debut on July 24, 1862 in Atlanta. After two performances there, she appeared twice in Macon.

These early performances made her one of the leading stars not only in Georgia, but throughout the Confederacy. After the war she returned to New York and performed with some of the nation’s leading actors.

Harry Macarthy, composer of one of the Confederacy’s unofficial national anthems, “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” became one of the best song and dance comedians in the South as the war progressed. Along with his wife Lottie Estelle, he, too, lived in Georgia almost to the end of the war, and then moved to the North.

At about the same time, Waldron settled permanently in Augusta. He leased the Concert Hall and used it as the headquarters for The Queen Sisters. In late 1862 or early 1863 John Hill Hewitt moved to became The Queen Sisters’ resident playwright.

A nationally known song writer, Hewitt was always best known for his music, but he also wrote poetry and plays. His plays served a purpose in Augusta, providing fresh repertoire for the company and morale-boosting entertainment for the citizens and returning soldiers of lower Georgia.

Eloise Bridges’ husband C.H. Erwin established a professional theater company that played at the Atlanta Athenaeum in April and May 1863. Atlanta saw only miscellaneous entertainments through most of the rest of the season. In the fall the Union army commandeered the theater as a hospital.

Macon, on the other hand, had not been touched by the war. Refugees from other parts of Georgia flocked there for its comparative peace and plentiful provisions. The theater business thrived in Macon, as well as Augusta and Savannah, from the summer of 1863 through the summer of 1864, although Southern theaters had traditionally taken the hot summer months off.

As Union troops came closer to those three cities, the theaters in Augusta and Savannah, like Atlanta’s earlier, became hospitals. Theatrical performances continued in Macon, which was out of the direct line of Sherman’s march, even after President Jefferson Davis fled Richmond and General Lee surrendered his army.

Throughout the war, some people complained that any kind of entertainment was a frivolous luxury under wartime conditions. The public as a whole, however, actively supported the theater. So did the government in its own way.

Actors were not subject to as strict conscription requirements as the population as a whole. The press likewise encouraged theater and covered it extensively. Even as late as the spring of 1864, the Augusta Daily Constitutionalist praised President Davis for exempting some theater companies.

Even at its best, however, the quality wartime theater in Georgia suffered. Between poor transportation and lack of materials, all companies found it difficult, if not impossible, to assemble all the necessary sets, costumes, and makeup.

If actors neglected to memorize their lines carefully or if the managers did not adequately take care of the business end, they tended to hide their inadequacies behind the excuse of wartime conditions. While the various companies mounted many excellent performances, audiences too often had to endure a level of carelessness that would have been intolerable under normal circumstances.


Evacuation of Richmond

Evacuation of Richmond, April 1865

Richmond replaced Williamsburg as the capital of Virginia in 1779, when it was only a small village.

By 1845, within the lifetime of many of its residents, it had grown to become significant economically, politically, and culturally not only for Virginia, but for southern states in general.

By 1860, it was one of the leading seaports in the country, as well as the center of the tobacco industry and southern ironworks. After the Confederacy established Richmond as its capital, capturing it became the Union’s most critical military goal.

It had not become a major cultural center before the war. Its most important resident ensembles were wind bands. Cornetist James B. Smith conducted the most important of them, sometimes but not consistently known as the Armory Band. It comprised 12-14 brass and percussion players. I

It presented Richmond’s first outdoor summer concert one evening in Capitol Square in June 1850. The novelty must have confused a night watchman, who zealously prevented the public from entering the square.

Smith’s band accompanied local military units to Baltimore and Philadelphia to general acclaim in 1855. One of Smith’s rivals, violinist E. Loebmann, joined forces with him in 1856, and Smith boasted that their string band would be second to none in Richmond. By the time the war started, Smith and the Armory had parted ways, but he continued to lead cotillion and military bands throughout the war.

Cotillions and fancy dress balls began in Richmond in 1846 and remained popular throughout the war, with enough of them to keep numerous bands busy. More of them took place during the war than during any comparably long prewar period.

Concert life in Richmond also started in the late 1840s, provided mostly by visiting artists. Many nationally and internationally renowned singers and solo instrumentalists delighted audiences until the war started. Local musicians often assisted in these concerts. Famous visitors included violinists Ole Bull and Henri Vieuxtemps (the latter accompanied by piano virtuoso Sigismund Thalberg) and singers Adelina Patti and Jenny Lind

Opera in English first came to town in 1848. Another troupe came the following year and performed excerpts to illustrate Italian opera. Renowned impresario Max Maretzek’s touring group gave Richmond its first full-length operas in Italian (I puritani and La favorita) in 1851.

Companies from New Orleans and New York also visited. . Richmond did not have either an opera company or concert orchestra of its own, although it did have a regular chorus, the Sacred Music Society. Visiting performers rarely stayed more than a week. Traveling minstrel shows appear to have started visiting Richmond at about the same time as the earliest opera troupes.

Richmond’s leading theatre, the Marshall Theatre, presented a variety of Shakespearean dramas, farces, and musicals. It burned to the ground on January 1862, but was rebuilt in a little over a year.

That it could be rebuilt so quickly while the country was at war indicates either that the city’s economy was still in reasonably good shape or that replacing it was politically necessary in the national capital.

Opening night audiences for the new Marshall Theatre in February 1863 witnessed numerous actors, actresses, ladies and gentlemen of the ballet, a vocalist, and a solo dancer, with orchestral accompaniment.

From that time on, both Franklin Hall and the Marshall Theatre offered performances almost uninterrupted until the end of the war. Most, but not all of the entertainments ranged from light to frivolous.

Several auditoriums offered variety shows, minstrel shows, instrumental groups, and song and dance performers. Minstrel shows were especially popular during the war.

Visiting artists stopped coming to Richmond during the war. Local professionals and amateurs gave at least nine concerts, mostly as benefits for soldiers and their families, before February 1862, but none took place for a year and a half after that.

In 1863, a New Orleans singer named Bertha Ruhl among other musicians moved to Richmond to escape living under occupation. Beginning in the fall of 1863, Ruhl started to present concerts, assisted both by fellow exiles and local musicians.

In 1864 concert programs began to include non-musical entertainment. Concerts of high-quality music ceased entirely between April and December 1864. The last concerts of the Confederacy took place from January to March 1865.

The Union army, led by General Ulysses Grant, broke through Confederate defenses and captured Richmond on April 3, 1865. Much of the business district burned in the process. Unlike many other Southern cities, Richmond recovered rapidly after the war’s end.

John H. Baron. Concert Life in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans: a comprehensive reference. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013.
Iline Fife, “The Confederate Theater in Georgia,” in Music in Georgia, ed. Frank W. Hoogerwerf, 189-99. New York: Da Capo, 1984.
Albert Stoutamire. Music of the Old South: Colony to Confederacy. Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1972.


The Civil War and Musical Institutions in the South — 2 Comments

  1. Bertha Ruhl, known across the South as “Madame Ruhl”, was the choir director and soloist of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond and was present on April 2, 1865, when a messenger from General Lee delivered a note to Jefferson Davis telling him that Grant’s army had broken his lines at Petersburg and that the capital should be evacuated.

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