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History's Headlines: Civil War piano man

It was at roughly 4:00 p.m. on June 15, 1863 when the Williamsport, Pennsylvania telegraph in the local telegraph office began to pound wildly. The words it tapped out were clear. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had crossed into Maryland where it was assumed he would quickly take Hagerstown. But the three columns of troops were clearly headed for bigger game: Harrisburg. The state capital was in the sights of the invading army. Confusion gripped the crowd that gathered in the streets. A placard of the news quickly gathered folks around it. Among them was a tall, slender man with a high forehead and bushy mustache. That he was not a local was clear but many in the crowd must have recognized him as Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the pianist who was set to give a performance that night in the town of 5,000.

Known for his flamboyant piano pieces that mixed Black, Latin and Caribbean rhythms with patriotic airs, the New Orleans native was sometimes attacked for his performances for lacking dignity. But by and large the public loved them. And an artist who had been praised by no less a figure than Frederic Chopin could not lack confidence.

Despite his Southern roots- he had cousins in the Confederate Army- Gottschalk, who had grown up with and seen up close what he called “the horrors of slavery,” was a strong supporter of the Union cause. The spirit of national movements in 19th century Europe was progressive, he wrote, but the South’s movement only offered the regressive force of slavery for its existence. Gottschalk played several concerts in Washington where President Lincoln and his wife, along with General Grant, were in the front row. Gottschalk noted that at first glance Lincoln was not a handsome man. But something in his eyes suggested “the expression of goodness and something of honesty in his countenance… that caused the exterior to be forgotten.”

But on that June day Gottschalk had one thing in his mind, get his manager to cancel the concert set for Harrisburg. “It is evident, “ he wrote in his journal “that people who expect every moment to be bombarded are not in the state of mind to listen to music…to say nothing of the pit we might run into by rushing into the lion’s den.” But all Gottschalk could get from the man was to think about all the money they could get by going to the state capital.

What followed was a harrowing journey recorded in a piece of masterful reporting by Gottschalk in his journal. Their train from Williamsport is stopped on a bridge over the Susquehanna outside Harrisburg. Wanting to take a chance, Gottschalk, his manager, and singer Amelia Patti get out of the car and walk along the railroad bridge. “The river’s deep and tremulous waves murmur beneath our feet,” he writes. Reaching the station, they find piles of open trunks, their trunks among them, and Gottschalk’s two prize Chickering pianos that they fear will soon be bombarded to splinters by Lee’s artillery.

At Jones’ Hotel where they stop for dinner Gottschalk sees the African American staff, “who know the fate reserved for free Negroes of the North who fall into the power of the Confederates.” It is not an idle fear. Historian James McPherson notes in his authoritative “Battle Cry of Freedom” that as they marched into Pennsylvania, “southern soldiers seized scores of black people and sent them south into slavery.”

The massing of so many railroad engines fascinates Gottschalk. “The station is full of locomotives. I have counted 30 of them at a time,” he writes. “They look frightened like the people around them. Puffing, out of breath, rushing forward, striking and bellowing at each other—I seem to see a horrible troop of antediluvian animals flying before a geological flood.”

Finally, a decision is made: the manager will stay in Harrisburg to save what he can. Gottschalk and Patti go to the passenger railroad station, where the rich are arriving in carriages and the poor are pushing wheelbarrows. An artillery battery charges past, just missing Gottschalk. Troops are moving everywhere, Gottschalk notes, young soldiers that he judges cannot be more than 17 or 18.  Herds of bellowing cattle, mules, horses and human beings gathered in equal fear under what Gottschalk called “the blinding dust, the burning sun.” Finally, Gottschalk and Patti get on a train which consists of eight cars and at least two thousand people. For the next 8 hours they crawl toward Philadelphia. There is no water. Other sanitary conditions can be imagined. Men are standing, women and children are sitting on each other. Even Gottschalk, who is used to the vagaries of American rail travel in the 1860s (he had spent more than one night on an overcrowded train in a baggage car with the coffins of Union soldiers), found it too much.  “We are like herrings in a barrel,” he writes. But Harrisburg did not fall. Lee’s army was to face a different destiny at a country crossroads called Gettysburg.

A few weeks later Gottschalk was back on the road and on March 31, 1864 their tour, after finally making that long-delayed performance in Harrisburg, took them to the Lehigh Valley towns of Bethlehem and Easton. Despite a calendar that said spring, the weather was cold with rain and snow. “Despite all that the Northerners say of it,” Gottschalk wrote in his journal, “I have not yet been able to find any charm,” in the season. Gottschalk, who found most American towns without much charm, fell in love with Bethlehem from the first. “It is a very picturesque village,” Gottschalk writes. “The principal street runs uphill and like all the interior towns of Pennsylvania it looks oldish and quiet. The houses are low, the windows and doors narrow. We finally found the village hotel (probably the Sun Inn). What most strikes the intelligent tourist who visits the United States to seek something other than his fortune, is the absence of all tradition; everything glitters like new-made furniture.”

Gottschalk was particularly pleased with the Sun Inn. “Here, at least, I find one of those good old taverns such as existed in the last century. The master and mistress of the hotel (two good old people) come to receive us on the porch.”

Apparently, most of Bethlehem liked Gottschalk as much as he liked it. “Magnificent concert,” he noted in his journal. “The hall full. The whole village was present…After the concert a dance at the hotel.”

Although Gottschalk does not mention the venue for his performance, and we know Moravians of the day generally frowned on theaters, writer Matthew Henry in his 1860 History of The Lehigh Valley notes that there were several “very fine Public buildings” one of which was called the Concert Hall that was used for that purpose.  This is most likely where Gottschalk appeared.

About 200 of those present were the students of the Moravian Female Seminary. They also made up a large number of those who attended the dance. The next day Gottschalk took a tour of the seminary and was impressed. He notes he spent most of the day signing autographs. The only people that apparently did not like either him or his music were an elderly couple he referred to as, “the professor of the place and his wife.” Apparently, they laughed their way through the concert and never once applauded. Who exactly this person was, was unknown for years but is now believed to have been Francis Wolle, Moravian minister and the principal of the Moravian Female Seminary. Despite the Wolle family’s long tradition in music, he cared more for doing research on spiders.

“I am puzzled,” said Paul Larson, retired Moravian College music professor and authority on the Wolle family, “He was not musical at all.” Ironically during Gottschalk’s visit, Francis Wolle’s son, J. Fred Wolle, future creator of the Bach Choir, then a toddler of 2, was sleeping nearby.

Gottschalk’s Easton concert was also a huge success. Unfortunately, someone had sold 600 tickets for a hall that only had 400 seats. Gottschalk waded through the crowded aisles only to find someone sitting on his piano chair. It took all their persuasion to get him to move.

Returning to Bethlehem many of the young ladies, whose parents had come to town and were staying at the Sun Inn “obtained permission to spend the night with their relatives at the hotel and danced to a late hour,” records Gottschalk. The next morning Gottschalk and his party left for the station. From the seminary’s windows the students waved good-bye. “There was nothing to see but waving handkerchiefs,” recalled Gottschalk.

Waiting for his train Gottschalk noted a number of men, conscripts or draftees parting from their wives and children to join the army. Many of them were crying along with their families. Gottschalk slipped a couple of dollars in one child’s pocket and joined his party on the train for Baltimore.

In the latter part of 1865 Gottschalk was accused of having a scandalous affair with a student at the Oakland Female Seminary in Oakland, California. He left the United States for Brazil, dying in 1869 in his hotel room in Rio de Janeiro of an apparent overdose of quinine. He was 40 years old.

In 1870 Gottschalk’s body was returned to the U.S. by family, friends and fans and was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York under an elaborate monument, titled The Angel of Music. Vandalized in 1959, it was restored in 2012.

Many of his works were lost or destroyed after his death. But today what survives has been recorded and Gottschalk is recognized a pioneer of American music.


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