Entertaining the Troops

In July of 1845, maneuvers were underway in Washington that would ultimately result in Texas becoming the twenty-eighth state.

With war with Mexico all but inevitable, President Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to move his 3600 man Army of Observation from Fort Jessup on the Sabine to the hamlet of Corpus Christi, located on the bay of the same name. 

Not a Whig – James K. Polk and His Presidential Mullet

This move made war even more inevitable, because though Mexico had recently recognized the independence of the Lone Star Republic, it still held that the border was not the Rio Grande, but the Nueces.

From the Mexican point of view, that put Corpus Christi in Tamaulipas, not Texas.
For the next eight months, the army camped on the beach below the town, preparing for the war, while fighting the elements, the local fauna, and the worst enemy of all: boredom.

Corpus Christi mushroomed from a trading post to a town of over 2000 entrepreneurial souls, most engaged helping the soldiers prosecute the war on boredom by means of vice.

The Army of Observation at Corpus Christi – 1845

One officer of the 8th Infantry later called Corpus Christi, “the most murderous, thieving, gambling, cutthroat, God-forsaken hole in the Lone Star State or out of it.”

In an attempt to provide wholesome entertainment for their men, the officers spent their own funds to erect an 800 seat playhouse, the Army Theater.

James Longtreet, a junior officer in the Army of Observation who would go on to be a major general in the Confederacy, had this to say about the theatrical endeavor in his memoirs:

“The officers built a theater, depending upon their own efforts to reimburse them. Our dramatic company was organized from among the officers, who took both male and female characters.
In farce and comedy we did well enough, and soon collected funds to pay for the building and incidental expenses. The house was filled every night.

General Worth always encouraging us, General Taylor sometimes, and General Twiggs occasionally, we found ourselves in funds sufficient to send over to New Orleans for costumes, and concluded to try tragedy.”That tragedy they concluded to try was Shakespeare’s Othello, with Lt. Theodoric Porter cast as “the moor of Venice.”

The part of Desdemona originally went to Longstreet, but the sight of the burly six-footer in a dress was quickly turning the tragedy into a farce, so the role was recast.

The new Desdemona was was a twenty-three year old lieutenant called “Beauty” by is fellow officers for his pretty face and slender, girlish figure.

Lt. “Beauty”

“Beauty” would go on to have some success in a later war and spend eight years in the White House.

He was Ulysses S. Grant. (He was born Hiram Ulysses Grant. Accounts differ as to why it was changed at West Point, but HUG is a poor set of initials for a future army commander.)

Alas, no audience would ever see “Beauty” as Desdemona. Porter, playing Othello, complained that, “male heroines could not support the character nor give sentiment to the hero.”

The company paid to have a proper actress sent from New Orleans.

By late March of 1846, the army had moved on to establish Fort Brown (Brownsville) on the Rio Grande. The camp followers followed and Corpus Christi depopulated. The Army Theater was torn down.

Though Grant would never be a thespian, he always loved the stage, attending plays at every chance. It might possibly have cost him his life, were it not for his wife.

President Lincoln had invited the Grants to share his box at Ford’s theater on the night of April 14, 1865. The general declined because Mrs. Grant could not abide the company of Mary Todd Lincoln.

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