From Circus To Army, Performing Patriotism 1861-1865

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
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#1
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We'll never know if the strong man-bareback -acrobat portrayed here was one of the performers who exchanged a way of life risking death in tights for another, risking death in wool uniforms. He could have been. There were quite a few who proverbially ran away to join their circus- then went away to join the war.

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We see a lot of ' occupational photos, who we were before war's uniforms made everyone indistinguishable. These ads count for quite a few soldiers' occupational 'photograph'.

" I had made around 200 dollars selling things to eat to bounty jumper's substitutes so I offered to pay 150 dollars to the Southern sargeant in charge if he would let me take five of friends along with the sick prisoners who were going north. "

George Middleton, 3rd Indiana Cavalry, Co. E, at Belle Island. He'd enlisted in the 33rd Indiana, brought home as underage by his father but persisted despite being 16. His father had given him a horse and a blessing, sending both to join brother William's regiment. His father was a little busy anyway. He owned a circus. We see occupational photos frequently- who we all were when the world hadn't gone crazy. Under uniforms marched butchers, bakers, candlestick makers- and farmers, grocery store clerks, canal boat wranglers, miners, shoemakers, tin smiths- and a few clowns, bareback riders, acrobats, professional strong men and tiger trainers. And tight rope walkers.

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The most wonderful era ads are those depicting a circus coming to town- these are all taken from newspapers dating 1861-1865. " Genrl Sherman ' was a bareback rider, not the guy who was South somewhere tearing up the town.

" I was in Belle island for 8 long months.... " Detailed to cut meat until the meat ran out, George speaks of sweet potatoes and black eyed peas and cooking all day and all night- and ' the boys got to making money ', meaning re-creating the green bits of paper needed to buy food from the guards. He speaks of good men who were guards and one or two jerks.


Talk about wasted talent- if we'd had a special forces you could put some of these careers to excellent use. George Middleton, like a lot of circus performers sure could ride. The cavalry at least was good fit, if nothing else. With only one camel around, since he could ride those, too, George was stuck with horses. George fought his way from Fredericksburg, through Cedar Mountain, South Mountain, Antietam, back to Fredericksburg for the battle, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before being captured in August, 1863 somewhere in Virginia. He ended up in Libby, then Belle Island- where his circus wiles paid off then paid the way home. He didn't leave much from the battles where, by all rights he should have been at least wounded and saw troopers fall by the dozen, his best stories were of getting the heck out of Belle Island prison.

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With gifts like these no wonder George did well, living though all those cavalry battles


Circus's coming to town were a HUGE, big deal. Billboards were followed by the 40 horse carriage followed by the parade through town. Through time, circus's became has-beens of a pretty darn glittering past. A few are still around, most either went broke through lack of interest hence ticket buyers or devolved into those slightly tawdry carnivals we only pay attention to as part of Fall's state and local fairs. We should pay them more respect- it's a crazy cool history.

One of the public access books written by another ACW vet states this is the first, circus billboard, Illinois, 1863. More on him next post.
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The quarantined story is also this vet's, from an Iowa regiment to tell.


Have always wondered, when seeing these advertisements, why so many exotically gifted performers were in the circus with an entire war on. Well they weren't in the circus through those years. Like butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, they marched off to war, too. My favorites are the clowns. George, being born in sawdust, did his time as one. Can you imagine his mess mates swapping information, first night in camp? " What did you do before enlisting, George? "

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@LoyaltyOfDogs , see the little guy ' drilling ' with musket and bayonet? Dogs in camp is one thing, tight rope walking, drilling, acrobatic dogs? Wonder if any ran away to join the army.

I have no genuine, deep interest in ' the circus ', intense interest in who we were. George's story isn't singular- who else stripped off spangles and tights to enlist? Bumped into a few, love to hear more. These acts were real- acrobats really did dive from horseback through flames, stand on someone's head while both rode the same horse at a gallop, really did trapeze acts so breathtaking, with no wires you'd wonder how anyone lived any longer than a soldier being shot at?
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Vet Gil Robinson and a few others ride in tomorrow.
 

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JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Messages
18,385
Location
Central Pennsylvania
#3
Bravo, Professor Hutchinson!

Right? You know, I'd had an idea some of these extreme ' illustrations ' of circus acts were hugely fictional, maybe to attract ticket buyers and impossible. Reading era accounts by both performers and witnesses, have a feeling quite a few really were as astonishing as portrayed.

Ran out of time today- continuing with vets who were circus performers tomorrow. I hope.
 



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