Following the Battle of Mine Run, the Army of the Potomac went into winter encampment at Brandy Station. For five months, 100,000 soldiers endured winter hibernation, awaiting the next major operation against their long-time foe, the Army of Northern Virginia. (If ever the Army of the Potomac needed a new book, it needs one about the Brandy Station encampment, a giant city of log shacks that housed an unusual mix of anxious, idle veterans and uncertain, newly-drafted conscripts and substitutes.) Brandy Station became the place where the bluecoats readied themselves mentally and physically for the tough campaign that followed. This is where the Army of the Potomac did its “spring training.” We might say that if the Army of the Potomac was a caterpillar that became a butterfly, then Brandy Station was its cocoon.
But I digress.
Plenty of mayhem prevailed at this winter encampment. Perhaps few sections of this log city were as chaotic as the 3rd Corps bivouac. In the spring, General Meade planned to break up some of his smaller corps and meld them into others. As a means of showing solidarity (and protest against Meade’s decision), the 3rd Corps officers hosted a series of balls and celebrations, proof that their crucial bonds of affection might be forever sundered if Meade disbanded the Corps. In the end, the 3rd Corps officers lost their bid for independence, and both of the corps’ two divisions went into the rival 2nd Corps.
For the enlisted men, the frequent parties meant lots of opportunities to get drunk. Of course, balls were no fun unless the soldiers had girls with whom they could dance. Acquiring girls was no easy task. Officers possessed the means to pay for their wives to come down and visit. The enlisted men had to convince the local populace to go as their dates. A few women from Culpeper County accepted their invitations, but not enough to pair with every lonely bluecoat. Few girls wished to travel to the encampment and risk being labeled a Union fraternizer. Without women, the enlisted men did the next best thing: they dressed their youngest soldiers in drag. When the 3rd Corps balls happened, it was not uncommon to see soldiers wearing dresses and bonnets, slathered in make-up. In March, Brig. Gen. Joseph Carr’s Brigade had no fewer than fifty soldiers dressed as women, each one “escorting” another soldier dressed in ordinary attire. Charles Perkins, a musician with the 1st Massachusetts, wrote home, “Evans of [Company] K dressed as woman made very good one too. He went with Sergt. Kelly, who was one of the managers. . . . some of the ladies (men) were got up well. Corpl. [Lydston] of Co. D was in my judgment the best got up lady on the floor. There were others very good, 2 drummers from the 11th & some from other Regt’s. I came away with Joe at 3 o’c in morning. Pretty tired. Turned in at once[.] I should state also that Joe’s skeleton skirt consisted of 3 barrell hoops suspended.” Another soldier noted that several real women attended Carr’s ball, but “the boys girls was much better looking.” Jealous, the real women left before the ball ended, leaving the fifty cross-dressers as masters of the dance floor.
To our own twenty-first-century sensibilities, to hear about soldiers dressing up and playing the part of the opposite gender might seem a little bizarre, but this was the common method of dealing with the absence of women. However, there seemed to be another point to the whole affair, that is, to introduce alcohol into congregation and make as many people look as stupid as possible. Perkins reported happily that he observed “several cases of drunkenness” at Carr’s ball. More to the point, the enlisted men made one officer look especially foolish, Major William H. Hugo, the commander of the 1st Excelsior. Hugo drank too much, allowing the costumed enlisted men to trick him. The soldiers of the 1st Massachusetts introduced him to Corporal Edward W. Lydston of Company D, telling Hugo that “she” was a girl from Culpeper. Hugo believed it, and Lydston played the part well, batting his eyes and acting coy, a fact that drove the randy major to pursue “her” with greater gusto. A member of the 1st Massachusetts’ staff wrote, “There was a major [who] fell in love with a boy [who] belongs to Comp D of our Regiment who was the bell of the evening. He is a young fellow and fair and no one could have told him [apart] from a handsome girl. The major was introduced to him as a girl from Culpeper and was really smitten after her or him all evening.”
Eventually, Hugo pursued Lydston into a back room, and when the major began to get a little too amorous, Lydston let the cat out of the bag. He lifted his skirts, revealed his maleness, and said, “Do you like how I look, now?”
I’d like to see the letter that describes how Hugo reacted to this, but I imagine that I’ll never find such a gem. In any event, Hugo became the butt of jokes for weeks to come. I think that was the goal all along.
This Harper's Weekly image depicts the 3rd Corps ball at Brandy Station. We can assume that some of the women depicted here are actually men wearing ball gowns.