- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

On the eve of the Civil War, the circus (or menagerie, as some versions were called) was an increasingly popular cultural phenomenon across the United States.

Companies would arrive in large towns and cities, set up their tents and provide entertainment ranging from exotic animal performances to collections of human oddities.

The outbreak of military hostilities, however, created an immediate crisis for many of the traveling troupes, which originated mostly from Northern states. Many of the groups suddenly were “marooned in a hostile Southern land,” according to historian and circus critic Earl Chapin May. One of the most notable was the Spaulding and Rogers Circus, with its Floating Palace and accompanying fleet of smaller ships.

Dr. Gilbert R. Spaulding, a former pharmacist from Albany, N.Y., and Charles J. Rogers had pioneered the notion of a circus on water as early as 1852. The entire act was contained within a sizable amphitheater on board. The Spaulding and Rogers Circus also was a pioneer in travel by railroad, having completed such a tour in 1857 before continuing on by boat.

Though other shows traveled by river, wagon or rail, Spaulding and Rogers was perhaps the first major circus to perform on the water. The setup on board included facilities for caring for the animals, quarters for staff and administrative areas, and it had the additional benefit of enabling management never to worry about blowdowns (the bane of every tent user from any era). It reportedly cost $42,000, or nearly $1.2 million in today’s dollars.

Though undoubtedly a brilliant business idea, the Spaulding and Rogers floating circus became a victim of the proverbial curse of “wrong place, wrong time.” While in New Orleans after a chain of performances in 1861, the large “mother ship,” the Floating Palace, was seized by the newly proclaimed independent Confederate authorities for use as a hospital ship.

To make matters worse, the circus troupe was ordered to leave the Confederacy. There was a decidedly suspicious and sometimes hostile attitude toward many of the Northern circus troupes that were caught inadvertently below the Mason-Dixon line. (Would it not be an ideal place to burrow a spy, who could with legitimate reason travel widely to observe and report back?)

Spaulding and Rogers, however, were true entrepreneurs and refused to give in to despair. They managed to hire out a smaller steamboat, changed their name to the more judicious Dan Castello’s Great Show (named after a clown with overt Southern connections) and literally “flew the Palmetto flag” while the circus band played “Dixie.”

One presumes, too, that certain acts, such as the Yankee Sampson, were played down or renamed as well. Circus historian Janet Davis notes that many other circus performers, including the famous clown Dan Rice, were called traitors for playing in both regions during the war.

The troupe worked its way up the Mississippi River, stopping at towns to earn what the performers needed, making certain they were “heartily for Jeff Davis and the Confederacy.” They eventually worked past the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, where Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was advancing his army closer and closer to Vicksburg, Miss.

At this time, the troupe adjusted its loyalties as necessary, hoisting the appropriate flag based on which side nominally controlled the area. On one side, it would play “Yankee Doodle” and on the other, “Dixie.” When it was safely on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, management elected to move the troupe to South America for the next season to escape the war.

The remarkable “escape” of the Spaulding and Rogers Circus was only a sidelight, however, in a long and remarkable partnership that dated back to 1848. Among accomplishments that often are attributed to the team are: first to use quarter-poles in tents; introduction of the pipe organ to circuses; invention of knock-down seats; first use of Drummond lights for night performances; use of multiple performing teams simultaneously in different locales; and the movement of an entire circus by rail for the first time.

The acts were gaudy and fascinating, typified by a carriage holding 50 musicians pulled by 40 horses.

Americans, North and South, fell in love with circus shows, in no small part thanks to Spaulding and Rogers. In 1863, Harper’s Weekly carried the following joke: “Why do young ladies in love like the circus?” The answer: “Because they have an itching for the ring.”

The circus had by this time entered into common parlance. Not even a terrible, devastating Civil War could stop Spaulding and Rogers or the march of the circus into popular culture. Though there were other floating circuses, by far the largest and most famous was the Floating Palace.

Jack Trammell teaches at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. His publications include a Civil War novel, “Gray.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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