History's Headlines - Civil War Piano Man
by Frank Walen - CRWT Board Member
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…
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