Friday, June 21, 2013

A Military Ball in Winter Camp, February, 1864

A Military Ball 
Our Army of the Potomac, taking advantage of the cessation of hostilities during the winter, indulges now and then in a festive entertainment. The presence of soldiers’ wives with their husbands in camp gives, of course, the crowning charm to these gatherings. We present our readers this week, on page 116, a sketch of a ball lately given by the Third Army Corps. The upper compartment of the picture will give our readers some idea of the difficulties which failed to prevent the arrival of visitors. Below this is the dancing- hall, made up of tents, and decorated with flags and evergreens. Another portion of the sketch gives a view of the supper-room. While the fortunate soldiers who have partners are at supper with their ladies, those not so successful are engaged in what is called the “gander” dance, which our artist has faithfully represented on the same page.
This ball was quite a success; a score of Generals attended; and it was altogether an event to break up the monotony of every-day dreariness in camp. It was the first opportunity that gave the ladies staying with their husbands in camp a chance to come together. "A Military Ball." Harper's Weekly [New York] 20 Feb 1864, p. 122

It looks like the difficulties of travel included stormy weather and mud. Is that an omnibus of ladies? And more buses in the background.

 The ballroom looks huge. There are chandeliers and spirals (helixes, actually) of evergreen twining down the chandelier supports. It looks like they've made corps badges edged in evergreen hanging from the roof. Of course, the American flag makes a handy decoration. 

There are gentlemen standing around the edges of the floor. There are a few gentlemen who appear to stand in the middle of the floor. (I hope that's artistic license.) The ladies dresses look relatively simple, which probably makes sense. These are not the sort of dresses you would see in a New York ballroom. Three of the front couples are dancing sedately, with lower arms and relaxed postures. Two other front couples have very high hands and one of those gents is clearly neglecting to tuck his feet together. He's probably one of those wild dancers who make the polka so exciting and dangerous.

The table in the supper room is laid with complete place settings, so I suppose this is not a matter of gentlemen filling plates and taking them to the ladies. It is probably a seated meal. I wonder where the chairs are? The decorations are substantial. They look like small (or not so small) trees down the length of the table. There is a pyramid of something rising out of a compote dish. This is likely a "pièce montée," an arrangement of pastries or confections that serves as a centerpiece to decorate the table. We can see bottles of wine ready to fill the wineglasses at the place settings.

The "gander dance" includes men dancing in couples and a fellow in the front dancing solo. It appears that they waited out the earlier dancing when there were ladies present, and then came out on the floor when the ladies and their escorts went out to the supper room. Since there are no dresses to damage, or ladies to endanger, the men can dance with considerably more enthusiasm than the in the earlier ballroom picture.

The floor seems to be made of wood boards. It certainly doesn't look like they are dancing on grass or ground. Even though the hall was a temporary structure made of tents, it looks quite comfortable.

A modern tent ready for a Civil War reenactment ball

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