Music in General Stuart’s Camp

Here’s a striking passage about music and war in General Stuart’s Confederate camp, 1862, from John Esten Cooke’s Wearing of the Grey


Behold the scene now, reader, as I looked at it, on that evening of December in 1861. We are in a bleak room, with no furniture but a desk, a chair, and a camp couch. At the desk sits Stuart, writing away with immense rapidity, and stopping now and then to hum a song.   On the couch, near the fire, are the ladies the younger smiling, the elder frowning. Around stand the staff, and at the door are the laughing faces of couriers, who look on and listen. In front of them stand the sable musicians, and the great performer of the breakdown- ebony-hued, dilapidated in costume, awaiting orders, and approaching the performance with serious and unmistakable satisfaction.
Stuart calls out from his desk, without turning his head, and the process of charming away the evil spirit commences. The guitar is played by the General’s body-servant Bob, a young mulatto of dandified appearance — the air, indeed, of a lady killer –and an obvious confidence in his own abilities to delight, if not instruct and improve, his audience. Bob laboriously tunes his instrument; gazes thoughtfully at the ceiling, as he absently “picks upon the string;” and then commences singing the popular air, “Listen to the mocking-bird.” He is accompanied in the chorus by the sable ventriloquist, who imitates all the feathered tribe in his throat; and lo! as you listen, the room seems full of mocking-birds; the air is alive with the gay carol of robins, larks, jay-birds, orioles; the eyes of the ventriloquist roll rapturously like balls of snow against a wall of charcoal, and the guitar keeps up its harmonious accompaniment.

The young lady listens and her eyes dance. Her cheeks grow more rosy, her smiles brighter; even her elderly companion relaxes somewhat from her rigidly hostile expression, and pays attention to the music. The “Mocking-bird” ends, and is succeeded by the plaintive “Alabama! Alabama!” –the guitar still thrumming, the ventriloquist still accompanying the music with his bird-notes. Other songs succeed, and then General Stuart turns round with a laugh and calls for a breakdown. Thereupon the dilapidated African, who has up to this time remained motionless, advances into the arena, dropping his hat first at the door. Bob strikes up a jig upon his guitar, the ventriloquist claps, and the great performer of the breakdown commences his evolutions, first upon the heel-tap, then upon the toe. His antics are grand and indescribable. He leaps, he whirls, he twists and untwists his legs until the crowd at the door grows wild with admiration. The guitar continues to roar and Stuart’s laughter mingles with it; the ventriloquist not only claps with ardour,  but also imitates his favourite songsters. The dancer’s eyes roll gorgeously, his steps grow more rapid, he executes unheard-of figures. Finally a frenzy seems to seize him; the mirth grows fast and furious; the young lady laughs outright and seems about to clap her hands. Even the elder relaxes into an unmistakable smile; and as the dancer disappears with a bound through the door, the guitar stops playing, and Stuart’s laughter rings out gay and jovial, the grim lips open and she says:

You rebels do seem to enjoy yourselves!

These were the exact words of the lady, reader, and I think I can recall a few words of General Stuart, too. He had been busily engaged with his official papers all this time, at his deskfor he never permitted pleasure to interfere with business-and the gay scene going on in the apartment did not seem to disturb him in the least degree. Indeed, upon this, as upon many other occasions, I could see that music of any description aroused his mind, and was an assistance to him — the banjo, singing, anything –and by its aid now he had hurried through his work. Thereupon he rose, and approached the ladies, with gay smiles and inquiries, if they were amused:

They had heard his musicians; would the ladies now like to see something which might interest them?

Irresistible appeal to that sentiment which is said to be the weakness of the fair sex-curiosity!

“They would like very much to see what the General spoke of;” and thereupon Stuart pointed to a coat and waistcoat hanging upon a nail on the wall over their heads. The clothes were torn by a bullet and bloody.

The young lady looked, and her smiles all disappeared.

“What is that, General?” said the elder.

“It is the coat and waistcoat of a poor boy of my command, madam,” replied Stuart, “who was shot and killed on picket the other day-young Chichester, from just below Fairfax Court-House. He was a brave fellow, and I am keeping these clothes to send to his mother.”

“Poor boy!” from the young lady; and from the elder a look of unmistakable sympathy.

Stuart then gave an account of the fight; and his voice, as he spoke of the death of the boy, was no longer gay — it was serious, feeling, and had in it something delightfully kind and sweet. Under that gay exterior of the young cavalier there was a warm and earnest heart — as beneath the stern eye of the man was all the tenderness of a woman. It was plain to me on that evening, and plainer afterwards when a thorough acquaintance with the great leader made me fully cognizant of his real character. There was something more charming even than the gaiety of Stuart it was the low, sad tone in which he spoke of some dead friend, the tear in the bright blue eye which dimmed its fire at the thought of some face that was gone.

So, between mirth and pathos-between the rattling guitar and the bloody coat of the dead boy — the ladies were fairly conquered. When Stuart gallantly accompanied them to the door, and bowed as they retired, the elderly lady smiled, and I think the younger gave him a glance full of thanks and admiration. …

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