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Drama Club: 1864

Drama Club: 1864

August 1864. Petersburg, Virginia. "Essayons Dramatic Club, a group of the U.S. Engineer Battalion." From photos of the main Eastern theater of war, the siege of Petersburg. Wet plate glass negative, photographer unknown. View full size.

From the Army Corps of Engineers Web site: For more than a century the Corps of Engineers had its own drama club. The Essayons Dramatic Club, one of the oldest amateur theatrical production companies in the U.S., was founded Jan. 27, 1864 by the Engineer Battalion, then serving with the Army of the Potomac and wintering at Brandy Station, Va. The battalion built a small theater and organized an orchestra, and Feb. 26 the troupe presented "Toodles," its first play.


Standing, third from the left

with the mustache and kepi at a jaunty angle -- he's mine. Sigh.

Sure, they all laughed.

Then came the day they ran out of ammunition at Spotsylvania, and kept the enemy at bay by throwing damaged chairs, dilapidated tables, sofas with one leg, washstands with two legs, chairs with three legs, ninety-three watch-boxes, forty-three wheelbarrows, and a door-plate with the name of Thompson upon it.

They didn't know but they would be needed, and then how handy it was to have them in the camp.


Clearly he is the very essence of Pregnant Farmer's Daughter. Also, he has the vacant stare (often mistaken for a state of deep thought) of a community theater Method actor.

Casting call

Guy on the far left is obviously the one who plays the (pregnant) farmer's daughter.

Community Theatre 1864

Second row, third from left: costumer/choreographer. Bottom row: pretty much all actors. Center row, far right: frustrated actor having to do tech because the director didn't cast him. Top row, last four men on the right: musicians. Center row, fifth from left: music conductor. Top row, far left: plays all female roles. You should see his Lady Macbeth. Top row, fifth face from left: Director. Center row, near the middle, guy with the jaunty cap: plucky comic relief. He also bugles. Top row, left half of row: stagehands/techies. The meanest looking one is the stage manager. The one with Tom Selleck's mustache paints the scenery. Top row, fifth face from right: Singer. His "Danny Boy" leaves not one dry eye in the house. Guy to his left plays the fiddle. Center row, third from the right: likes to talk endlessly about all the Shakespeare he did in college. They all hate him, but he's the only decent Hamlet they've got.

Essayons de nouveau.

"Essayons" is the imperative form -- it means "let's try," not "we try."


The fact that they named themselves "Essayons" is interesting. Not only is that the motto of the Army Corps of Engineers, but it means "We try" (from the French verb "essayer," to try). One wonders if that hinted at the quality of their performances.

Mary and Tabitha

I wonder which beardless, smooth faces played the female roles of Mary Acorn (the Farmer's daughter) and Mrs. Tabitha Toodles??

Total Toodles

You can read the full text of "Toodles" here. Where the American text differs from the British, they have both side by side. It's no W.S. Gilbert, but it's a good chuckle, especially Mrs. Toodles and her compulsive shopping.


"Toodles" started its life as "The Farmer's Daughter of the Severn Side, or, Mr. and Mrs. Toodles: A Domestic Drama in Two Acts" by R.J. Raymond, performed in London in 1832. I haven't seen a composer credit -- it's likely popular tunes were used for the music.

In 1848 William Burton rewrote it into a very popular new American version in which Mr. Toodles was the star, and retitled it "Timothy Toodles." It seems to have been usually known simply as "Toodles," though.


It's hard to think of a less likely name for a play to be performed by these tough-looking characters than "Toodles."

At Ease

I love this picture! It presents such a human face of the men of the Civil War. They are not in dress uniform and display a relaxed camaraderie with each other that seems so warmhearted. Granted, they are the Dramatic Club of an Engineer Battalion, but still, I don't think i have seen a group portrait like it.

Drama Club?

I always wondered why they were called theaters of war.

Reporting for duty, Sir!

Wonder if the boy on the box needs an understudy? Cuz I would be happy to audition for his, um, part.

[Is "Toodles" that kind of play? - Dave]

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