Mardi Gras 1863 was not exactly Cinderella’s grand ball

Captured by the United States Navy in April 1862, New Orleans soon became the staging point for Union operations in the lower Mississippi Valley. Residents were encouraged to continue celebrating their local festivals, like Mardi Gras. (Harper's Weekly)

Captured by the United States Navy in April 1862, New Orleans soon became the staging point for Union operations in the lower Mississippi Valley. Residents were encouraged to continue celebrating their local festivals, like Mardi Gras. (Harper’s Weekly)

Given the choice between participating in Mardi Gras 1863 and watching a cavalry review, Pvt. Eugene Kincaide Kingman of Dexter opted for the latter.

Yet he still wound up applying a shine to his shoes and uniform and going to a masked ball, but certainly not as a blue-clad Cinderella.

Hailing from Dexter, Eugene served in Co. H, 12th Maine Infantry Regiment, which had arrived in New Orleans in late spring 1862. The regiment traveled by foot and river steamer to various places and saw some combat; Eugene’s greatest exposure to mortal combat still lay in the future when he awoke at the regiment’s camp at Carrollton, La. on Monday, Feb. 9, 1863.

“Mardi Gras day and the citizens are having a gay time this afternoon,” Eugene confided to his diary. Carrollton lay upriver of New Orleans, where Mardi Gras was in full swing, with the festival’s high point slated for Tuesday. Instead of joining the festivities in Carrollton, however, Eugene “went down to Camp Lewis a little below here to see” a cavalry review.

But the Mardi Gras would not be denied, as Eugene explained to his brother, Charles, in a letter written on Tuesday, Feb. 10.

Mardi Gras was “a Catholic festival, and it is celebrated much as the Carnival at Rome or Venice by all Catholics and many others that enjoy the sport,” Eugene told Charles. The son of a Baptist minister, Eugene was not particularly interested in Mardi Gras; instead “I brightened my buttons, blackened my boots, brushed my clothes and took the 12 o’clock train to Greenville,” a town about a mile away.

Arriving there, Eugene watched “the review of two Cavalry Brigades.

“Several batteries of light artillery accompanied the cavalry, and the whole, when drawn up in line made an imposing appearance,” he admitted. “There were two bands present, one of them mounted!”

Eugene estimated that about 7,000 cavalrymen participated in the review; “both men and horses looked well,” he commented. After the horsemen rode off the field strewn with horse poop, artillery batteries “maneuvered for sometime and everything went to show them extremely well drilled.”

Throngs of people pack a wide boulevard in New Orleans to watch the 1907 Mardi Gras parade. Mardi Gras 1863 was a more subdued affair in the Big Easy. (Library of Congress)

Throngs of people pack a wide boulevard in New Orleans to watch the 1907 Mardi Gras parade. Mardi Gras 1863 was a more subdued affair in the Big Easy. (Library of Congress)

The day’s excitement over, Eugene walked back to the 12th Maine’s camp “and got into our house about three o’clock.” He then learned he had been assigned “to go as guard to a grand Masked Ball, so I went to work fixing up” his uniform and his person.

This masked ball was serious stuff; Union officers attended for the booze and for the attention of Louisiana belles wearing dresses that would draw “tut-tuts” in staid New England. Local civilians (even Confederate sympathizers) attended to blow off steam before Lent shut down the perceived sources of fun along the Mississippi River.

Eugene spiffed and spiffed and spiffed. Finally satisfied with his spiffy appearance, “I went to the Ball,” walking to the “hall over Engine House #1” instead of riding in a pumpkin-turned-coach for the evening.

Unlike Cinderella, Eugene Kingman did not arrive at a gaily decorated palace. Instead, the Mardi Gras ball took place in “as mean a hall as I ever saw in a place as large as Carrollton.”

He noticed that “the lower story was filled up” with “an eating room, hat stand, and what was most necessary of all in these parts, a bar where they sold abominable compounds” like “whiskey, brandy, etc. etc. etc.” Being a teetotaler for the most part (temptation was great in Louisiana), Eugene went to his post and stood like a statue … with eyes that monitored the action during the ball.

“They had got well under way” by 8 p.m., Eugene noticed. “By 2 o’clock [Tuesday morning] the men with but few exceptions were drunk, and the women were all much pleased to see them carry on.

“Rest assured I was an exception” to getting drunk, he cautioned Charles.

“By 3 o’clock (a.m.) I was so disgusted that I got a man to take my place and I left, and went to bed resolved never to go to another ball in Louisiana if I could help it,” Eugene noted his non-Cinderella-like departure from the Mardi Gras ball.

Source: “Tramping Out The Vintage 1861-1864, The Civil War Diaries and Letters of Eugene Kingman,” edited by Helene C. Phelan, Almond, New York, 1983

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.