Originally published for a Texas Civil War group.
The Temple of
Social Dance in the South
Dancing has long been a favorite recreation among all classes in the
South, whether it was at fine ball or at a simple frolic after a house raising.
The types of events varied between the economic classes and were modified
both by frontier conditions and by problems brought about by the War Between the
Although this article looks at dance as part of the Southern experience as a whole, Texas presents a special problem. Most of the South was only a little more than one generation beyond the wilderness, but the population of Texas had almost tripled in the decade just before the war. Within the new state were grand plantations with origins before the Texian Revolution as well as homesteads still under attack by the Comanches. On the cutting edge of the frontier the pioneers might be considered democratic, with a man's stature measured by his use of the rifle. Following soon behind this group of men and women, however, came the speculator, lawyer, planter, and the more educated frontier middle class, who had grown up in the more settled and more stratified Southern states to the east. They came with ambition to better their economic and social positions, and during this "golden decade of Texas plantations" many sought to emulate the old aristocratic Virginian ideal, with more or less success. Never, however, were the lines drawn between the classes in Texas with the strictness that one might expect to find in the older districts of tidewater Virginia or South Carolina.
Social dance in the South can be divided between the "ball" and the "dance" or "frolic." A "ball" can be defined as a formal dance, attended generally by the upper middle and upper classes, to which at least fifty persons were invited. The Texas Rifles Ball would definitely fall into this category both because of its size and because of the formal attire, particularly of the ladies. Our ball also has some of the more charming characteristics of the frontier Texas situation, exemplified in the choice of musical instruments, the choice of some of the dances, and the varied social and economic backgrounds of the personas of the reenactors.
The primary purpose of a ball, or of any dance, was enjoyment, but other more subtle goals might be pursued at the same time. One etiquette manual stated that "the advantage of the ball in the upper classes is, that it brings young people together for a sensible and innocent recreation, and takes them away from silly, if not bad ones, that it gives them exercise, and that the general effect of the beauty, elegance, and brilliance of a ball is to elevate rather than deprave the mind." The Nashville Daily Gazette supported balls because they brought "our young men under the gentle, softening, humanizing influence of the more beautiful and holier portion of creation and thus profitably occupies the hours which might otherwise be spent in less innocent relaxation."
For many young people, the formal ball set them squarely in the center of the courtship arena. The antebellum years had brought to many women of the upper classes the stifling restrictions of the genteel lady who became the focus of the Southern code of manners and morality. At the same time, she was given an increasing freedom to choose a husband based on love. Indeed, the short period of her late teens, her "belle" years, became the only time she exerted any real power over the direction of her own life, and many girls exploited it to the fullest. One 1855 novelist referred to the ballroom as "the first battlefield of our young Amazons who go forth to conquer the male sex. Their success or failure is determined within these walls." Concerned fathers tried to limit the field of suitors. William Howard Russell of the London Times compared the Southern gentleman to a "denomadized Arab" who "guards his women with Oriental care." A Swedish governess in South Carolina wrote that her employer "takes the greatest pains in selecting the company his daughters keep." All of the young men at a private ball would have been carefully chosen to be from a proper social set, with proper backgrounds, proper manners, and proper morals. The higher the social class, the greater care would have been taken to assure that whomever the young woman chose, neither she nor her family would have been disgraced.
At this point it might be helpful to define the Southern antebellum social classes. For this I will use the outline of Daniel Hundley, a Southerner by birth, who wrote Social Relations in Our Southern States in 1860. He listed seven groups: 1) the Southern gentleman, 2) cotton snobs, 3) Southern yankees, 4) the middle class, 5) the yeoman class, 6) poor whites, and 7) slaves. According to Hundley, the Southern gentleman came from an aristocratic heritage. He was university educated and was usually a wealthy planter although if his father's estate was to be divided among many heirs, he might have turned to law, politics, the army, journalism, or a learned profession. He was always hospitable, courteous, and more anxious to please than to be pleased. He was motivated by public spirit and patriotic pride. "He is a man every inch, bold, self-reliant, conscious, knowing his own convictions of duty, and daring to heed them." Both he and his lady were, in a word, extremely "well-bred."
Cotton snobs and Southern yankees might very well have matched the gentleman in wealth, but wealth alone was not a determiner of social class. The cotton snob was rarely well-educated and could be called second generation money with a bad attitude. He was showy, haughty, loud, and "underbred," one of a group "whose money enables them for a time to pretend to the character and standing of gentlemen, but whose natural inborn coarseness and vulgarity inevitably lead them to disgrace the honorable title they assume to wear." The Southern yankee, on the other hand, valued money over everything, including family, duties to his community and the welfare of the land and his slaves who worked it. He had no conscience and thus failed on several counts to constitute a gentleman.
Hundley had kinder words to say about the middle class in which he grouped prosperous farmers, smaller scale planters (up to fifty slaves), traders, storekeepers, artisans, mechanics, manufacturers, school teachers, country lawyers, doctors, and ministers, who were primarily of Scotch-Irish and English Baptist descent. They were more modestly educated, industrious, church going, "whole-souled, generous to a fault, and extremely hospitable"—men of "the stoutest independence." They were often moral gentlemen as opposed to polished gentlemen in the fashionable sense of the word. Many of the men that Texas would esteem most would actually come from the middle class rather than from the "Southern gentleman" class according to Hundley's definition.
The yeoman was one step below the middle class. Hundley classified him as a small farmer with very few if any slaves. He was proud, independent, sociable, family oriented, religiously conservative, poorly educated if at all, and deadly with a rifle. Many visitors to Texas, including Olmsted, tended to lump the Texas yeoman in with the poor white, although two of the main distinctions appeared to be the yeoman's ambition and his attitude to work.
Poor whites generally lived in hilly or mountainous regions with poor soil, or in the case of Texas, possibly the river bottoms. They lived off of hunting, fishing, and small garden patches tended by women. According to Hundley "they are about the laziest two-legged animals that walk erect on the face of the Earth." Few could read or write, but all of the men tended to vote at elections.
The slaves varied in classes as did the whites, but they would have attended white-sponsored balls and dances only as servants, and so they will not be discussed here.
Who, then, would have attended a Southern antebellum ball? Certainly the Southern gentleman and his lady, although according to Hundley's definition a proper ball might only be assembled in Virginia or South Carolina where the classes had fairly well solidified based on colonial positioning. In the newer Southern states, however, there would have been many fewer social aristocrats in the sense of at least second if not third generations of money and manners. Cotton snobs and Southern yankees might have been invited depending on the type of ball and the politics of the situation. Certainly many members of the middle classes would have been invited if they had shown an interest and an aspiration to advance further up the economic and social scale, particularly if they had adopted the mores and manners of the upper classes in their area, and added to that the touch of humility that was lacking in the cotton snob and a measure of openness and generosity missing in the Southern yankee. Besides, there was often a fluidity between the aristocracy and the middle class brought about by intermarriage up or a slight loss of fortune down. Even ambitious yeomen, who worked hard, educated themselves, studied manners, and perhaps received a boost from a military or political career, could expect a place at the ball beside the gentleman, although as a rule the average yeoman probably preferred his own informal style of dance to be discussed later.
Who would not have attended a ball?
1) Those who were beyond the social pale of a particular area. They might have been poor whites, free blacks (although in places like New Orleans they might sponsor their own events), Hispanics in towns like Nacogdoches, and notoriously bad characters regardless of income.
2) Those who could not afford to buy tickets to subscription balls.
3) Those who could not afford the proper formal, often very expensive clothing required.
4) Those who did not have the proper social graces and would therefore have felt uncomfortable.
5) Those who were in deep mourning. Widows were not allowed to accept any social invitations for the first year after their husbands' deaths, and then could only gradually resume their places in society. Parents mourning for children and children mourning for parents were forced to abstain from society totally for at least two months.
6) Those who could not dance the very ornate dances of the upper classes which often required special instruction.
7) Those women who were obviously pregnant.
8) In some social circles almost all married women were excluded under the theory that "unmarried young persons attend parties, and after that they should attend to their families" leaving the ball to the belle.
9) Those who were older, except if they had children of marriageable age: "after five-and-thirty, it is laborious not only to dance, but even to look at dancing."
10) Those whose religion prohibited dancing. This would have included devout Methodists and Baptists who expelled members of their congregations for dancing, as well as Presbyterians. The objections went further than simply the close physical proximity of male and female and included condemnations of the waste of time and money, the materialistic competition, the late hours, and health concerns involving the low cut ball gowns, entering the cool night air before being sufficiently cooled, becoming too excited both mentally and physically, and using up the oxygen in the ballroom.
Resolutions passed by the East Texas Conference, Methodist
Episcopal Church, South.
THEATRES, BALLS, CIRCUSES, FAIRS.
Resolved, 1. That, in the judgment of this Conference, the
attendance, by our ministers or members, upon theatres,
circuses, balls, and dances of every description, is a palpable
violation of our general Rules which forbid "the taking of
such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord
Jesus," and that the Discipline should be rigidly enforced
in all such cases.
2. That, as Suppers, Fairs, and Concerts are becoming
very common in order to raise money for various benevolent
objects, and as some of our people go to these entertainments
and justify themselves on account of their benevolent
character, this Conference unqualifiedly disapprove of them,
and will not countenance the attendance of our people upon
R. S. Finley,
J. B. Tullis,
J. W. Fields.
The economic classes invited to balls depended to some extent on the type
of ball that was planned. The most
democratic variety was the political ball, held in conjunction with a campaign
barbecue, an inauguration, or perhaps a ball held in honor of a visiting
governmental or diplomatic leader. One
would probably not have discriminated against either potential or proven
political supporters. Another
example of a more open event would have been a patriotic ball such as one
celebrating San Jacinto Day or Texas Independence Day at which veterans of
various economic classes might have been honored.
Other public balls included those sponsored by fire companies or military clubs, often as fundraisers. Popular holidays included Christmas, New Year's Day, St. Valentine's Day, and the Fourth of July. San Augustine, Nacogdoches, and Douglass all held balls in conjunction with the horse race season. Military balls would have involved officers stationed at a particular post or the members of a militia group. A general subscription ball was one organized by a group of men who issued select invitations and charged a fee, often five dollars.
Private balls were held in honor of a guest, wedding, birthday, or christening. Masked balls were usually private in the interest of preventing gate-crashers. A fancy or fancy dress ball required a costume but not a mask to be worn by each guest, or at least each female, sometimes using a theme such as various types of flowers. Other fancy dress balls allowed a wide freedom of choice for costumes, so that guests arrived as various nationalities of peasants, members of the court of Louis XIV, mythological figures, or even a "gentleman of the twentieth century."
Ideas and models for balls came from a number of places. The most famous Southern ball was the very select St. Cecilia, a series of three dances held in Charleston during the social season each January and February. The managers were young men "of family and fashion" who often escorted their young female relatives. Chaperons also attended but only in a ratio of one to every ten girls. Another source of the ball ideal were articles and illustrations from magazines like Harper's Weekly and Godey's. In the last few years before the war, Harper's included extensive coverage of the Napier Ball in Washington and festivities in New York honoring the Japanese delegation and the visit of the Prince of Wales. Still another source of ideas was the romantic novel of the day in which the hero first truly sees the young heroine in her glory at her first ball, they flirt and/or suffer from some dreadful misunderstanding, and then later after conquering some obstacle thus proving their love, they marry and live happily ever after.
The basic suggestions for organizing a ball are given in Hillgrove's Ball Room Guide:
Hints for the
Organization and Management
of Balls, Soirees, Etc.
To get up a ball or soiree in a genteel and thorough manner, the
interested parties should hold a meeting, and attend to business
1. Hire a room, with convenient dressing chambers attached.
2. Engage music.
3. Draw up and have printed circulars, invitations, cards of
admission, order of dancing, etc.
4. Give invitations or sell tickets, according to the object of
the ball, or as it may be convenient.
5. Appoint floor managers, whose duty it shall be to form the
sets, and to see that they are complete; to find places
for all persons who may wish to dance; to direct the
musicians when to commence, and to decide all
questions which may arise during the ball.
6. The appointment of a committee of reception to welcome
7. Arrangements for supper.
8. The appointment of doorkeepers, dressing-maids, etc.
9. The return of money and all unsold tickets before the
night of the ball.
10. The rendering a correct account of receipts and expendi-
tures, with the balance of money, to the Treasurer,
who shall appropriate it as directed.
from Hillgrove's Ball Room Guide: A Complete
Guide to the Art of Dancing. NY: Dick &
Fitzgerald, 1864. Reprint ed. NY: Da Capo Press,
An additional hint to dance managers was offered by A. B.
Longstreet in Georgia Scenes. He
pointed out that one-third to one-half of the managers should be married men to
lend respectability to the ball: "They
were to keep a sharp look-out; lend a helping hand in case of emergency; drink
plenty of wine; see that other gentlemen, particularly strangers, did the same;
and finally, to give any gentleman who might have come to the ball encumbered
with a little loose change, an opportunity of relieving himself [by
In most Southern cities the "gay season" ran from January to March, when coastal towns were free from the danger of fevers and the temperatures were cooler. However, balls could be held at any time of the year according to the purpose of the party. Interestingly enough, balls were seldom held on Saturday night, because all festivities would have been forced to cease at midnight when the Sabbath began. German immigrants were accustomed to having balls on Sunday nights but were finally forced to give up this preference through the pressure of their neighbors. The usual time to open a public ball was nine o'clock p.m., although private balls usually began a little earlier. Dancing lasted until anytime between midnight and 4:00 a.m.
Locations for balls varied according to the facilities available and might include music halls, hotel ballrooms, courthouses, state capitol buildings, larger homes, or riverboats. The ideal room was an oblong square, with length only slightly greater than the width. The floor should have been smooth and waxed, or else covered with a tightly stretched canvas.
Decorations often included mirrored walls and garlands of evergreens and fresh flowers. Flowering shrubs concealed the fireplaces and the musicians who sometimes played from an adjacent balcony or conservatory.
Setting up a ball meant a trip to the printer's office for invitations and ball cards. Several examples of Texas antebellum public ball invitations are included. The proper form for private ball invitations follows, along with responses:
To Miss Jones, requesting the pleasure of her
company on Wednesday evening, January 10th, 1859, at
Dancing. 123 Chestnut Street
to Mrs. Smith
Accepting, with pleasure, her kind invitation for
Wednesday evening, 10th inst.
84 Walnut Street.
Compliments of Miss Jones
to Mrs. Smith
Regretting the necessity to decline their kind
invitation on Wednesday evening, 10th inst.
84 Walnut Street.
If a gentleman was invited to a ball and he wanted to request a lady to
accompany him, he would have written a note and included the following card:
Thursday Evening, March 2nd,
Ball cards indicated the order of
dance and provided a place for gentlemen to reserve a particular dance with a
lady. This is an example of a ball
ORDER OF DANCING
1. Grand March.
2. Quadrille Plain.
3. " Polka.
4. " Mazourka.
5. Waltz, Polka.
6. " Plain.
7. Quadrille, La Paris.
8. " French Lancers.
9. " Polka.
10. " Schottische.
11. Waltz, Polka Redowa.
12. " Gallopade.
13. Quadrille, Plain.
14. " Mazourka.
15. " Polacca.
16. " London Lancers.
17. Waltz, Polka Redowa.
18. " Schottische.
19. Quadrille, la Tempete.
20. " Polka.
21. " Plain.
22. " Gladiator.
Refreshments were a vital part of
the festivities. Lucadia Pease
wrote to her relatives in the North that the Democratic barbecue and ball in
Austin in 1855 featured "cold meats and turkeys, cakes and confectionary,
coffee and tea." Other
delicacies mentioned in relation to balls were nectar jelly, Russian cheese,
French bonbons, nougats, cakes baked in fancy shapes, and ice cream pyramids.
Harper's Weekly featured lemonade as a ladies' beverage in some of
their cartoons, but wine, whisky, and brandy suited the gentlemen better.
Another favorite refreshment was fruit punch flavored with domestic peach
moby (brandy), blackberry wine, or an imported liqueur. Although some drunkenness was reported, respect for the host
and hostess, the strong arms of the dance managers, and/or the fear of
embarrassing oneself in front of the young ladies kept the drinking in
In larger towns professional bands with white musicians might have been engaged for the evening, but on the plantations, gifted slave musicians were often hired or borrowed from area masters. Hillgrove proposed a list of the best combinations of musical instruments for private balls and parties:
Regard to the Selection of Music
For Private Parties, Balls, Etc.
For Dancing.—If but one instrument is to be used, the violin is
unquestionably the best. Next to that the pianoforte should be
If two pieces are engaged, the violin and piano will be preferable.
The harp and violin next, or a violin and violincello.
For Three Pieces.—A violin, piano, and cornet (flute or clarionet),
or a violin, harp, and cornet.
When selecting the instruments for a small band, choose the violin
first, then add as many more as may be deemed requisite,
selecting them as follows:
For Four Pieces.—A first and second violin, a violincello, and first
For Five Pieces.—Add a flute to the above instruments.
For Six Pieces.—First and second violins, a double bass, flute,
clarionet, and first cornet.
For Seven Pieces.—Add a second cornet.
For Eight Pieces.—A first and second violin, a tenor, double bass,
flute, clarionet, first and second cornets.
For Nine Pieces.—Add a violincello.
For Ten Pieces.—Select as follows:
1. First violin, 6. Flute,
2. Second violin, 7. Clarionet,
3. Tenor violin, 8. First cornet,
4. Violincello, 9. Second cornet,
5. Double bass, 10. Trombone.
For a larger band, some of the parts will have to be double, and
others added to them, according to the number engaged, and this
should be done by direction of the Band Master.
N. B.—The above directions are not intended to interfere with the
advice of a competent musician, but are suggested because their
observance has heretofore given general satisfaction at balls and
Other instruments occasionally added include the accordion,
the tambourine, and the triangle, although these were probably used more in
rural and less formal areas.
Nearly all of the dances enjoyed at a ball required prior instruction either by a dancing master or by a relative or friend already familiar with the upper class social scene. Permanent dancing schools were established in most major Southern cities and itinerant dancing instructors moved from town to town. Nineteenth century social dance was divided into two types: the older square dances and the new and controversial round dances.
The quadrille was the most common pre-war square dance, and it was basically a very sedate version of the modern square dance. Four couples faced each other in a square and walked or slid through five figures with names such as the basket, march, gavot, minuet, star, balance, or cheat and jig. The individual steps included the right and left, ladies' chain, forward two, right hand across, half promenade, four hands half round, chassez, moulinet, allemand, holubiec, and dos-a-dos. Certain combinations of quadrille figures were named the Lancers, Caledonian, Prince Imperial, continental, march quadrille, and social quadrille.
The cotillion or German was more of a party game that involved dancing, and some etiquette books pronounced it unsuitable for the ballroom. This was probably because of the amount of preparation and organization involved in introducing it into a large crowd, and also because the German could often be silly or rowdy—not conducive to the proper formal spirit. Hundreds of variations of the German existed, using many of the quadrille figures and also parts of the round dances. They required an excellent leader and often a box of favors or props. Among the most popular variations were the "waltz," the "choice," the "cards," and the "forfeits." In the "waltz," two couples were chosen to dance, each person picked a favor and gave it to someone not already dancing, then four couples danced, etc. In the "choice," one woman was seated in the center and she was presented two men from whom to choose. She chose one and danced with him, then the unchosen man sat down and was presented with two ladies, etc. In the "cards," the lead couple danced once around the room. The gentleman then took four queens from a deck of cards and the lady took the four knaves. Each presented a card to four members of the opposite sex. Each gentleman then sought as a partner the lady holding the queen of the same suit and all four couples danced. Finally, in the "forfeits," a lady carried around a tray and solicited some token (ring, pin, or handkerchief) from each lady. She then passed the tray among the gentlemen and each took a token, found its owner, and danced with her.
The Galop, an intricate dance using the chassez step, was also popular prior to the Civil War and was included five times in the ball honoring the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1860. This dance was introduced into France in 1829. The schottische was introduced in the United States in 1849 and by 1860 was considered "too slow to suit popular taste" although it remained popular outside of metropolitan areas. The varsouvienne reached the United States in 1853 or 1854. It is now commonly called "Put Your Little Foot" and according to one source is "practically the only living example of the grace and beauty of the mazurka."
Reels and contra-dances appeared more commonly at informal dances, although most Southern balls probably included a few. The most common was the familiar Virginia Reel (Sir Roger de Coverly). Contra-dances derived their name from the fact that partners, instead of standing side by side, as in the quadrille, stood opposite and facing each other. The Spanish Dance was done with rows of dancers working in straight lines through each other down the floor. Whenever a line reached the end of the hall, it turned around and worked itself back up through the other approaching lines. Pairs of couples in facing lines met, retreated, crossed with the opposite person, crossed back, the four waltzed in a star, reversed, then crossed to meet new couples in the next line. Later this dance was put into a circle formation, and it was then called the Spanish Circle.
Early in the nineteenth century a revolution occurred in the dancing world. The waltz, a fast, free, and most scandalous of all, close partner dance was introduced, the first of a family of "round" dances. Even by 1860 the waltz was considered so controversial that many proper dancers refused to attempt it, while others would only dance "loose" (with arms crossed as in skating) as opposed to "fast" (the usual position).
The polka followed in 1844. Prince Albert forbad it to be danced in the presence of Queen Victoria. George Templeton Strong described it as "a kind of insane Tartar jig performed to a dissipated music of an uncivilized character." Two years later he was so disgusted with the dance that he wrote "wish I had the man here that invented the polka—I'd scrape him to death with oyster shells."
Other dances popular among polite society were the polka mazurka introduced in 1850, the polka redowa introduced in 1852, the five step introduced in 1849, the deux temps, esmeralda, and the Danish dance.
The dance or dance frolic was
informal, lively, and smaller than a proper ball. It spanned all of the social classes although certain types
of dances were more common among the yeoman than the gentleman.
Many were used as rewards at the close of a house-raising, quilting, or a
group land-clearing project. Other
all-night dances followed weddings or were simply used as neighborhood
gatherings. Middle and upper class
dances might be held at family celebrations, at boarding schools, or at closing
ceremonies of a local dancing school. One
popular form in Texas was the "storm" party, where a group of young
people, armed with a fiddler, would "storm" the house of a friend
demanding a party.
Many of the same restrictions on who did and who did not attend a ball applied to a dance. The fundamentalist Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians pulled a majority of their believers from the middle to lower classes. However, "proprieties" and "appearances" meant less in informal and yeoman situations, so that all ages from children to grandparents would dance together, married and single.
Locations varied widely, from clearings in the woods where the ground could be smoothed, to local meeting halls. The brand new log house might have bran sprinkled across the floor, with the dancers providing the sanding motion, leaving a slick surface by morning. Occupied homes provided the dogtrot and porch, and barns offered additional locations.
Most dances were given in the fall and winter when farm duties were lightest and temperatures were cool, although summer dances were not uncommon. On Monday through Friday nights the dances might last until daybreak, although Saturday night dances usually ended at midnight.
Invitations were issued by sending a rider around, and decorations were what could be gathered around the house if any were used at all. Wealthy party givers might provide a light supper of shredded ham, grated cheese, jellies, oranges, and nuts, with Madeira, port, and sherry on the sideboard. Yeoman hosts tended to concentrate on liquid refreshments, with hot hard cider, whiskey toddy, mint-slings, or blackberry acid kept on hand "to reinforce the physical stamina."
Music often consisted of a single fiddle or a banjo, and perhaps a tambourine or a triangle. One pioneer described the scene this way: "With a fiddle under his chin he took his seat in a big chair on the kitchen table in order to command the floor. One mighty stomp of his boot on the tabletop, a slicing sweep of his bow across the taut strings, and a command of 'Honors tew your partners—right and left Four!' and the dance began." Popular songs included "Turkey in the Straw," "Irish Washerwoman," "Old Dan tucker," "Billy Boy," and "Buffalo Gals."
The dances themselves tended to be simpler than those at a ball, more old-fashioned, and fewer in variety. They might include cotillions, plain quadrilles, Lancers, jigs, perhaps an old-fashioned waltz, and, of course, the Virginia and other reels. One dance never mentioned in the formal repertoire but common at the country dance was the breakdown or hoedown which was a type of square dance. A Georgian recalled a dance from her youth that began "Gentlemen, lead your partners. Them that's got on shoes and stockings will dance the cotillion; them that's got on shoes and no stockings will dance the virginny reel; them that's not got on nairy shoes nor stockings will dance the scamper-down." That is about as succinct a correlation between class and dance as is likely to be found.
The war brought drastic changes to everyone's life in the South, and for
a while the walls between the classes melted more than previously would have
been thought possible. Entertaining
soldiers became a patriotic duty, and wearing the gray became sufficient entree
into the society of the towns near camps. Proud
yeomen rose to become honored colonels and generals while pre-war millionaires
often lost almost all of their possessions or else their reputations if they
were perceived by their neighbors to be draft-dodgers or speculators.
Early war military balls, particularly those sending off elite units, were often as formal as any hosted in the pre-war years. Some were subscription balls used to raise funds for a company ore regiment. The 1861 Texas gubernatorial inauguration was highlighted by a calico ball with a pot-luck supper. Women were encouraged to wear calico instead of silk to avoid the expense and trouble that should be used in support of the Confederacy. Houston and Galveston ladies hosted a "Grand Military and Civic Ball" on New Year's Eve, 1861, which included a dance, supper, and a lottery for the benefit of the soldiers. Dances were also documented in Corpus Christi, Bastrop, and Tyler which included officers and civilians.
Other parts of the South felt the privations of the war more acutely, but the people took whatever opportunities arose to continue to celebrate life. J. E. B. Stuart and his staff could assemble a party almost anywhere. In the summer of 1862 he helped sponsor a ball in a Maryland academy building decorated with roses and battleflags. Just before the Gettysburg campaign one of his staff remembered: "We danced in the open air on a piece of turf near our headquarters, and by the light of the numerous wood fires, the ruddy glow of which upon the animated group of our assembly gave the whole scene a wild and romantic effect." Eliza Frances Andrews in Albany, Georgia, wrote in her diary that the dress she wore to a winter, 1865, ball, was "patched up, like everybody else's, out of old finery that would have been cast off years ago, but for the blockade. I wore a white barred organdy with a black lace flounce around the bottom that completely hid the rents made at dances in Montgomery last winter. . . . " Myrta Lockette Avery, a young Virginia bride, wrote about dances held in barns with benches along the walls. What she recalled in the greatest detail, however, were the occasional fine suppers: "turkeys, chicken-salad, barbequed mutton, roast pig with an apple in his mouth, pound-cake, silver-cake or transparent pudding, 'floating island' or 'tipsy squire,' plenty of bread, milk, sure-enough coffee—everything and enough of it" . . . "eating a good thing when you could get it was a delightful and serious duty in those days." When food supplies became scarce, dances became "starvation parties" or soirees, where one could waltz or lead a quadrille, but no food was served. Occasionally the festivities would be interrupted by a courier with the news of an impending engagements, and the soldiers would be forced to leave immediately.
Bona-fide dances were rare for the regular Johnny Reb in the Confederate camps, however, because there was seldom a sufficient number of women present. Soldiers resorted to gander or stag dances in which roughly half of the men would tie on a bonnet or some other available piece of women's clothing, and then all would waltz or do the breakdown together to the sound of a fiddle or a fife.
Federal soldiers also held balls in occupied areas of the South. Harper's Weekly provided sketches and a description of one dance held in Virginia by the Third Army Corps. Wives of the soldiers were the honored guests in a hall made of tents decorated with flags and evergreens. Another Harper's illustration showed a ball of non-commissioned officers and privates of the Fifteenth Corps at Huntsville, Alabama. The female guests at this event were local Southern girls. The Virginia reel was the favorite dance that night, and it was performed seven or eight times during the evening, probably because even if the young ladies did decide for whatever reason to dance with Yankees, it would not be a waltz where they would be held close.
All of this frivolity occasionally bothered both the men at the front and the women at home. Emma Holmes in South Carolina wrote that "we hear that some Camden youth remarked after a visit home on furlough, 'well, 'twill make no matter if we die, we won't be missed, the girls will still dance and be gay.'" Many of the women began the war observing all of the requirements of self-sacrifice, and, more and more often, those of mourning, but as the destruction continued, the mounting losses and horror seemed to numb them to any new pain. "I did not think two months ago I would ever dance or care to talk nonsense again," Kate Stone wrote in Tyler in 1864. "But one grows callous to suffering and death. We can live only in the present, only from day to day. We cannot bear to think of the past and so dread the future. . . . [like the French nobility] thrusting all the cares and tragedies of life aside and drinking deep of life's joys while it lasted."
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, within months after the surrender at Appomattox the social season began anew in the South, although on a more modest scale than in the antebellum period. For those who survived there were courtships to be pursued and lives to be picked up again. They would do it as they had done for generations before, from Virginia to Texas, dancing to the sound of the violin and the banjo, at the ball and the frolic.
Anderson, John Q., ed.
Brokenburn: The Journal
of Kate Stone, 1861-1865. Baton
Rouge: Louisiana State
University Press, 1972.
Avary, Myrta Lockette. A Virginia Girl in the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1903.
Caruso, John Anthony. The Southern Frontier. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.
Cash, W. J. The Mind of the South. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1841.
Davenport, F. Garvin. Ante-Bellum Kentucky: A Social History, 1800-1860. Oxford, Ohio: Mississippi Valley
Press, 1943. Reprint ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.
Dodworth, Allen. Dancing and Its Relation to Education and Social Life. New York: Harper & Brothers,
Edwards, John Austin. "Social and Cultural Activities of Texans During Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1873."
Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Tech University, 1985.
Habits of Good Society. London: J. Hogg & Sons, 1859.
Hart, Katherine and Elizabeth Kemp, eds. Lucadia Peace & the overnor: Letters, 1850-1857. Austin: Friends
of the Austin Public Library, 1974.
Hundley, Daniel R. Social Relations in Our Southern States. New York: H. B. Price, 1860. Reprint ed. Baton
Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Johnson, Guion Griffis. Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History. Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1937.
Longstreet, A. B. Georgia Scenes. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1970.
Marks, Joseph E. III. America Learns to Dance: A Historical Study of Dance Education in America Before
1900. New York: Exposition Press, 1957.
Rable, George C. Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism. Urbana, IL: University of
Illinois Press, 1989.
Reilly, E. B. The Amateur's Vadecum. Philadelphia: J. Nicholas, 1870.
Silverthorne, Elizabeth. Plantation Life in Texas. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1986.
Stowe, Steven M. Intimacy and Power in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters. Baltimore: The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Sutherland, Daniel. The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860-1876. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Taylor, Rosser H. Ante-Bellum South Carolina: A Social and Cultural History. Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 1942. Reprint ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970.
Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Garden City: Doubleday,
Wilson, Marguerite. Dancing: A Complete Instructor and Guide to All the New and Standard Dances, With a
Full List of Calls for All the Square Dances, the Necessary Music for Each Figure, Etiquette of the
Dances, and One Hundred Figures for the German. Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Company, 1899.
Order of Dancing
Ball in Honor of the Prince of Wales
Friday, October 12, 1860
[Quadrille op. 142, 1843]
2. Waltz Prince of Wales Muzio
3. Lancers National Noll
4. Galop Salute Michaelis
5. Quadrille Frieschutz Weber
[from the opera]
6. Polka Addie Muzio
7. Waltz Victoria Lanner
8. Lancers Royal Prince Guard Noll
9. Galop Una Scommessa Muzio
10. Waltz Minos Klange Strauss
[op. 145, 1843]
11. Lancers Vis a vis Rietzel
12. Polka Sylphide Bilse
13. Galop Liederkranz Noll
14. Quadrille Mode Strauss
[op. 138, 1842]
15. Waltz Nacht-Violen Lanner
[op. 160, 1840]
16. Lancers Les Guides Rientzel
17. Galop Fest Lambye
18. Polka San Souci Strauss
[op. 63, 1849]
19. Lancers original
20. Waltz Dream of the Ocean Gungl
[op. 80, 1849]
21. Galop Ernani Verdi
[from opera, 1844]
"The A B C
of the First Ball of the Season"
May 14, 1859
A was an Angel of blushing eighteen,
B is the Ball at which first she was seen;
C is the Chaperon that cheated at cards;
D is the Deux-temps with Frank in the Guards;
E is the Eye that its long lashes cover,
F is the Fan it peep'd wickedly over;
G is the Glove of superlative kid,
H is the Hand it provokingly hid;
I is the Ice that tired nature demanded;
J is the Juvenile that hasten'd to hand it;
K is the Kerchief, a rare work of art;
L is the Lace that composed its best part;
M is an old Maid that watch'd the girls dance;
N is the Nose she turn'd up at each glance;
O is the Olga, then just in its prime;
P is the Partner that wouldn't keep time;
Q's the Quadrille, let us hope 'twas the Lancers,
R's the Remarks that were made on the dancers;
S is the Supper they went to in pairs,
T is the Twaddle they talk'd on the stairs;
U is the Uncle that thought "we'd be going;"
V is the Voice the young lady said "no" in;
W is the Waiter who sat up till eight;
X is his Exit, which wasn't quite straight;
Y is the Yawning-fit after the ball;
Z stands for Zero, and that's nothing at all.
Dance at Washington"
from Harper's Weekly
An Ohio editor gives his views of several dances which he lately
witnessed at a ball in Washington. He
says: The want of variety in this
metropolitan dancing was, however, fully made up by the fancy things, such as
the waltz and polka. These were
absolutely barbarous. The
old-fashioned waltz, the morality of which even Byron called in question, is
here ignored as altogether too cold and distant.
The lady lays her head on the gentleman's bosom, puts one hand on his,
and the other in his coat-tail pocket, and resigns herself to his embraces, and
goes to sleep, all but her feet, which, when not carried by him clear off the
floor, go patting around on the toes. The
gentleman thus entwined throws his head back and his eyes up, like a dying calf;
his body bent in the shape of a figure 4, he whirls, backs up, swings around,
swoons, to all appearances, dashes forward, and leaves the ring, to the delight
of all decent people."
I saw her at the county ball;
There, when the sounds of flute and fiddle
Gave signal sweet in that old hall
Of hands across and down the middle,
Hers was the subtlest spell by far
Of all that sets young hearts romancing:
She was our queen, our rose, our star;
And then she danced—Oh, Heaven! her dancing!
--W. M. Praed, "The Belle of the Ball-room."
Georgia Scenes, by A. B. Longstreet
The dancing of the ladies was, with few exceptions, much often the same
fashion. I found not the least
difficulty in resolving it into the three motions of a turkey-cock strutting, a
sparrow-hawk lighting, and a duck walking.
Let the reader suppose a lady beginning a strut at her own pace, and
ending it (precisely as does the turkey-cock) three feet nearer the gentleman
opposite her; then giving three sparrow-hawk bobs, and then waddling back to her
place like a duck; and he will have a pretty correct idea of their dancing.
Not that the three movements were blended at every turn of the dance, but
that one or more of the three answered to every turn.
The strut prevailed most in balancing; the bobs, when balanced to; and
the waddle, when going round. To
all this Mrs. Mushy was an exception. When
she danced, every particle of her danced, in spite of herself.
There was as little variety in the gentlemen's dancing as there was in the ladies'. Any one who has seen a gentleman clean mud off his shoes on a door mat, has seen nearly all of it: the principal difference being, that some scraped with a pull of the foot, some with a push, and some with both.
"I suppose," said I to a gentleman, "they take no steps because the music will not admit of them?"
"O no," said he; "it's quite ungenteel to take steps." I thought of the wag's remarks about Miss Crump's music. "If this be their dancing," thought I, "what must their mourning be!"
Dancing the Reel
Georgia Scenes, by A. B. Longstreet
Jim Johnson kept up the double shuffle from the beginning to the end of
the reel: and here was Jim over
again in Sammy Tant. Bill Martin
always set to his partner with the same step; and a very curious step it was.
He brought his right foot close behind his left, and with it performed
precisely the motion of the thumb in cracking that insect which Burns has
immortalized; then moved his right back, threw his weight upon it, brought his
left behind it, and cracked with that as before; and so on alternately.
Just so did Bill Kemp, to a nail. Bob
Simons danced for all the world like a "Supple Jack" (or, as we
commonly call it, a "Supple Sawney"), when the string is pulled with
varied force, at intervals of seconds: and
so did Jack Slack. Davy Moore went
like a suit of clothes upon a clothing line on a windy day:
and here was his antitype in Ned Clark.
Rhoda Noble swam through the reel like a cork on wavy waters; always
giving two or three pretty little perchbite diddles as she rose from a coupee;
Nancy Ware was her very self. Becky
Lewis made a business of dancing; she disposed of her part as quick as possible,
stopped dead short as soon as she got through, and looked as sober as a judge
all the time; even so did Chloe Dawson. I used to tell Polly Jackson, that Beck's countenance, when
she closed a dance, always seemed to say, "Now, if you want any more
dancing, you may do it yourself."
New Monthly Magazine
A Texan ranger says the following is a genuine article, and adds,
"It is a exact copy, without alteration or either gramer or spilling."
His own orthography might be improved, but it appears well by contrast
with the letter that he sends, having been written by a Texan lover to his
HUSTON Spt ten 18fifty7
"If yew wil go with me nex Oktober 2 the bal
I wont chu no mor tobaker at al
What if I is got a gusleg an kant dans
Why that wil give the other boys a chans
"yours till the bal kums of
"PS exkus my poitry but it maks me fel gud when I rite 2 yew"
"The Knob Dance—A Tennessee Frolic"
by George Washington Harris
published in the August 2, 1845 issue of Spirit of the Times
I'll try and tell you who Jo Spraggins is.
He's a squire, a school comishner, overlooker of a mile of Nob road that
leads towards Roody's still-house—a fiddler, a judge of a hoss, and a hoss
himself! He can belt six shillins
worth of corn-juice at still-house rates and travel—can out shute and out lie
any feller from the Smoky Mounting to Noxville, and, if they'll bar one feller
in Nox, I'll say to the old Kaintuck Line!
(I'm sorter feared of him for they say that he lied a jassack to death in
two hours!)—can make more spinnin-wheels, kiss more spinners, thrash more
wheat an more men than any one-eyed man I know on. He hates a circuit rider, a nigger, and a shot-gun—loves a
woman, old sedge, and sin in eny shape. He
lives in a log hous about ten yards squar; it has two rooms one at the bottom
and one at the top of the ladder—has all out ove doors fur a yard, and all the
South fur its occupants at times. He
gives a frolick onst in three weeks in plowin time and one every Saturday-nite
the ballance of the year, and only axes a "flip" for a reel, and two
"bits" fur what corn-juice you suck; he throws the galls in, and a bed
too in the hay, if you git too hot to locomote. The supper is made up by the fellers; every one fetches
sumthin; sum a lick of meal, sum a middlin of bacon, sum a hen, sum a possum,
sum a punkin, sum a grab of taters, or a pocket full of peas, or dried apples,
and sum only fetches a good appetite and a skin chock full of perticular
deviltry, and if thars been a shutin match for beef the day before, why a leg
finds its way to Jo's sure, without any help from the ballance of the critter.
He gives Jim Smith, (the store-keeper over Bay's Mounting,) warnin
to fetch a skane of silk fur fiddle-strings, and sum "Orleans" for
sweetnin, or not to fetch himself; the silk and sugar has never failed to be
thar yet. Jo then mounts
Punkinslinger bar backed, about three hours afore sun down and gives all the
galls item. He does this a
leetle of the slickest—just ride past in a peart rack, singin,
"Oh, I met a frog, with a fiddle on his back,
A axin his way to the fro-l-i-c-k!
Wha-a he! wha he! wha he! wha he! he-ke-he!"
That's enuf! The gals nows that aint a jackass, so by sundown they come pourin out of the woods like pissants out of an old log when tother end's afire, jest "as fine as silk" and full of fun, fixed out in all sorts of fancy doins, from the broad-striped homespun to the sunflower callico, with the thunder-and-lightnin ground. As for silk, if one had a silk gown she'd be too smart to wear it to Jo Spraggins's, fur if she did she'd go home in hir petticote-tail sartin, for the homespun wud tare it off of hir quicker nor winkin, and if the sunflowers dident help the homespuns, they wouldn't do the silk eny good, so you see that silk is never ratlin about your ears at a Nob dance.
The sun had about sot afore I got the things fed and had Barkmill saddled, (you'll larn directly why I call my poney Barkmill,) but an owl couldent have cotch a rat afore I was in site of Jo's with my gall, JULE SAWYERS, up behind me. She hugged me mity tite she was "so feared of fallin off that drated poney." She said she didn't mind a fall but it mought break hir leg and then good bye frolicks—she'd be fit fur nuthin but to nuss brats ollers arterwards. I now hearn the fiddle ting-tong-ding-domb. The yard was full of fellers and two tall fine lookin galls was standin in the door, face to face holdin up the door posts with their backs, laffin, and castin sly looks into the house, and now an then kickin each other with their knees, and then the one kicked wud bow so perlite, and quick at that, and then they'd laff agin and turn red. Jo was a standin in the hous helpin the gals to hold the facins up, and when they'd kick each other he'd wink at the fellers in the yard an grin. Jule, she bounced off just like a bag of wool-rolls, and I hitched my bark-machine up to a saplin that warnt skinned, so he'd git a craw-ful of good fresh bark afore mornin. I give Jule a kiss to sorter molify my natur an put hir in heart like, and in we walked. "Hey! hurray!" said the boys, "my gracious!" said the galls, "if here aint Dick and Jule!" jist like we hadent been rite thar only last Saturday nite. "Well, I know we'll have a reel now!" "Hurraw!"—Go it while you're young!" "Hurraw for the brimstone kiln—every man praise his country!" "Clar the ring!" "Misses Spraggins drive out these dratted tow-headed brats of your'n—give room!" "Who-oo-whoop! whar's that crock of baldface, and that gourd of honey? Jim Smith, hand over that spoon, and quit a lickin it like "sank in a bean-pot." . . . . hello, thar, gin us 'Forked Deer,' old fiddle-teazer, or I'll give you forked litnin! Ar you a goin to tum-tum all nite on that pot-gutted old pine box of a fiddle, say?" "Give him a soak at the crock and a lick at the patent bee-hive—it'll ile his elbows."
Whoop hurraw! Gether your galls for a break down! Give us "Forked Deer!" "No, give us 'Natchez-under-the-hill!'" "Oh, Shucks! give us 'Rocky Mounting,' or 'Misses McCloud!'" "'Misses McCloud' be darned, and 'Rocky Mounting' too! jist give us
"She woudent, and she coudent,
and she dident come at all!"
"Thar! that's it! Now make a brake! Tang! Thar is a brake—a string's gone!" "Thar'll be a head broke afore long!" "Give him goss—no giv him a horn and every time he stops repeat the dose, and nar another string'll brake tonite. Tink-tong! Ting-tong! all rite! Now go it!" and if I know what goin it is, we did go it.
About midnite, Misses Spraggins sung out "stop that ar dancin and come and get your supper!" It was sot in the yard on a table made of forks stuck in the ground and plank of the stable loft, with sheets for table cloths. We had danced, kissed and drank ourselves into a perfect thrashin-machine apetite, and the vittals hid themselves in a way quite alarmin to tavern-keepers. Jo sung out 'nives is scase, so give what thar is to the galls an let the ballance use thar paws—they was invented afore nives, eneyhow. Now, Gents, jist walk into the fat of this land. I'm sorter feerd the honey wont last till day break, but the liquor will I think, so you men when you drink your'n, run an kiss the galls fur sweetnin—let them have the honey—it belongs to them naturaly!"—Hurraw, my Jo! You know how to do things rite." . . . .
Well, we danced, and hurrawed without eny thing of very particular interest to happen, till about three o'clock, when the darndest muss was kicked up you ever did see. Jim Smith sot down on the bed alongside of Bet Holden (the steeltrap gall,) and jist fell to huggin of her bar fashion. She tuck it very kind till she seed Sam Henry a lookin on from behind about a dozen galls, then she fell to kickin an a hollerin, an a screechin like all rath. Sam he come up and told Jim to let Bet go! Jim told him to go to a far off countrie whar they give away brimstone and throw in the fire to burn it. Sam hit him strate atween the eyes and after a few licks the fitin started. Oh hush! It makes my mouth water now to think what a beautiful row we had. . . .
Luck rayther run agin me that nite, fur I dident lick eny body but the fiddler, and had three fites—but Jule licked her gal, that's a some comfort, and I suppose a feller cant always win! After my fite in the ground we made friends all round (except the fiddler—he's hot yet,) and danced and liquored at the tail of every Reel till sun up, when them that was sober enuff went home, and them that was wounded staid whar they fell. I was in the list of wounded, but could have got away if my bark-mill hadn't ground off the saplin and gone home without a parting word; so Dick and Jule had to ride "Shanks' mar," and a rite peart four-legged nag she is. She was weak in two of hir legs, but 'tother two—oh, my stars and possum dogs! they make a man swaller tobacker jist to look at 'em, and feel sorter like a June bug was crawlin up his trowsers and the waistband too tite for it to git out. I'm agoin to marry Jule, I swar I am, and sich a cross! Think of a locomotive and a cotton gin! Who! whoopee!