Down in Dixie: The Reverend George W. Bicknell, the “Tough Old Fifth,” and the Post-Civil War Lecture Circuit
By Crompton B. Burton
Originally published in 2017 in the Surgeon’s Call, Volume 22, No.2
In the years following the American Civil War, a culture of commemoration grew from the economic and emotional depression of the nation’s bitter Reconstruction. At its peak, in the waning years of the nineteenth century, the movement to memorialize sacrifice, triumph, and defeat was largely driven by Union and Confederate veterans entering middle and old age. They were dedicated to ensuring their legacy in connection with the young nation’s greatest story would be handed down from generation to generation. Historian Jeremiah Goulka writes, “As soldiers declared that the war was now ‘a matter of history,’ they knew they would be the ones to write that history.” 
Prodigious amounts of primary material were produced during the 1880s and 1890s. One observer noted, “Civil War reminiscence became a pastime with lectures and reunions of old soldiers filling calendars, and memoirs and histories pouring off presses like so much water.”
Much outstanding scholarship has resulted from the examination of this torrent of material. Such historians as David Blight, Larry Logue, James Marten, and Gerald Linderman have all authored revealing studies. Their bibliographies contain thoughtful references to newspaper serials, diaries, regimental histories, correspondence, autobiographical sketches, memoirs, collections of art and poetry, and even presentations to historical societies and veterans associations.
But while their studies have documented a broad spectrum of commemorative citations and sources, much opportunity remains to explore the genre of the dramatic post-war lectures that enthralled audiences in opera houses, churches, theaters, and Grand Army halls well into the twentieth century. Perhaps the ephemeral nature of the evening talk with its handwritten notes and long-lost magic lantern slides prevented more thorough examination and appreciation of these performances.
It is little wonder then that such limited availability has produced reliance upon a very few of the lectures that were actually published in their entirety and survive to this day. John Brown Gordon’s Last Days of the Confederacy, for example, has drawn more than its share of study and analysis.
But now the opportunity exists to move beyond mere incidental mention of the post-war lecture, especially since a worthy companion to Gordon’s Last Days has recently resurfaced from within the files of a unique archive. Intact to its notes and photographic slides, George W. Bicknell’s lecture, Down in Dixie: A Veteran’s Story of the Civil War has been carefully preserved in a collection housed within the Fifth Maine Regiment Museum on Peak’s Island, located in Casco Bay just off Portland.
Dating to the last decade of the nineteenth century and first of the twentieth, the materials offer more than just a special chance to recreate its presentation as it once might have captivated visitors to the unit’s Memorial Hall. The vignettes of campaign and combat contained within its script and accompanying images at once serve to focus upon Bicknell and his ability to deliver more than an interesting talk, but also a meaningful memorial to ensure an enduring legacy for himself and fellow members of the Fifth Maine.
Perhaps a note about the lecture in American culture and society and why the genre seemed such a natural form of memorialization for veterans like Gordon and George Bicknell is particularly appropriate. Founded by Yale-educated Connecticut farmer Josiah Holbrook in 1826, lyceums or self-improvement societies built upon the presentation of intellectually stimulating lectures grew in number rapidly so that by 1838 the movement had spread as far as Springfield, IL, where the Young Men’s Lyceum hosted the lecture, The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions, delivered by a local attorney, Abraham Lincoln.
At its peak, the lyceum movement featured such speakers as Frederick Douglass, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Henry David Thoreau. But the movement waned toward the onset of the Civil War as audiences demanded to see “remarkable” speakers over the course of an entire season of lectures.
During the war, commercial and political topics dominated with such speakers as Douglass and Anna Dickinson booked to hold forth on topics often relating to abolition and the Radical Republican agenda. Such was the stage upon which burst a host of aspiring lecturers at the close of hostilities in 1865.
Among the first was Clara Barton, well known for her ministrations to the wounded, search for the missing, and ongoing relief work. To raise funds to support her humanitarian efforts, she conceived of a modest lecture tour and hired a publicity agent to secure a few bookings for the fall of 1866. So favorable was the response, her tour was extended for almost two years and the press coverage proved universally supportive. Her lecture, Work and Incidents of Army Life, was unabashedly unionist and not short on references to the infamous Confederate prison camp at Andersonville.
The tour was lucrative beyond her dreams and Barton commanded between $75 and $100 per lecture, the equal of her male counterparts. But she never cared for public speaking, and giving way to ill health and fatigue, quit the circuit a wealthy woman and well-funded humanitarian.
John Badger Bachelder was a New Hampshire painter, historian, and most of all an entrepreneur.
Early in the war he developed his plan to create his master work, and his opportunity to put it into action came in July 1863. Arriving at Gettysburg shortly after the battle, he tirelessly toured, interviewed, and sketched though he eventually commissioned another to paint the epic scene of Longstreet’s Assault. He eventually entered into a contract with the United States Government to write the definitive history of the campaign, but the manuscript never went to press.
For all that, however, he did go on tour!
With the seven-and-a-half-foot by twenty-foot mural the centerpiece, Bachelder ranged across New England in late 1870 with extended runs in Boston, at the New England Fair in New Hampshire, and west to Bennington,VT, where local officials even closed school so that students might see the painting one more time and hear his illustrative lecture. Seven consecutive dates in Springfield, MA, offered a signature highlight to Bachelder’s tour and he continued to secure bookings well into the next decade.
Such was the demand, there was even the prospect of a lecture tour for the reclusive and eccentric Boston Corbett. Credited with being the trooper who shot Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, Corbett received an invitation from his former commanding officer in the Sixteenth New York Cavalry. He wrote Corbett, “I think we can make a good deal of money and now that we’re both getting old, we ought to grasp at the opportunity.”
There is no evidence Corbett ever responded, but even the idea that Corbett and others like him might slip behind the podium drove stalwart speakers like Frederick Douglass to distraction. He had continued to make a good living, especially after James Redpath founded the Boston Lyceum Bureau in 1868 elevating management, promotion, and compensation on the circuit. But something had clearly changed and Douglass told Redpath, “People want to be amused as well as instructed. They come as often for the former as the latter, and perhaps as often to see the man as for either.”
One man they came to see in great numbers was General John Brown Gordon. An audacious commander under Robert E. Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia, three-time U.S. Senator and single-term governor of his native Georgia, he was also the Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans for nearly forty years and the idol of the Southern people.
It was a logical extension of his veteran work to try his hand on the lecture circuit and so it was that on November 17, 1893, at the Tabernacle of Brooklyn in New York City, his Last Days of the Confederacy filled the auditorium with nearly 5,000 people. For two-and-a-half hours and, indeed for the next ten years, he held his audiences spellbound with his stage presence and popular theme of sectional reconciliation.
One of his most treasured tableaus in the talk was his description of his tending to wounded Union General Francis Channing Barlow on the first day at Gettysburg, and their joyful reunion years later after each had thought the other a casualty of the conflict. The vignette was a particularly poignant moment in his lecture that almost a century later was found to be a fine fabrication, but in its day brought down the house.
So invaluable to his presentation was the tale, he copyrighted his lecture preventing reporters from reproducing it lest potential audiences find no need to attend after gaining the benefit of a preview.
Gordon never delivered the same talk two nights in a row–so spontaneous was his presentation–and he kept a grueling schedule that allowed him to stay marginally ahead of crushing personal debt from ill-advised business ventures. By the time of his death in 1904, he had completed his memoirs, Reminiscences of the Civil War, based upon the material developed over a decade on the lecture circuit.
If Gordon used his lecture to build his memoirs, George Bicknell, by contrast, used the authoring of the regimental history to help create his lecture. Bicknell’s dramatic war experience was remarkable in a great many ways, not the least of which was a rapid rise through the ranks. Wounded at Fredericksburg in 1863, he was discharged due to ill health in March 1864.
Originally, Bicknell was not slated to serve as the Fifth’s historian, but the untimely death of Chaplain John Ripley Adams resulted in his conscription for the task at the regiment’s second reunion. He persevered through the lingering effects of his grievous head wound and finished the manuscript in a little less than a year. This was no small feat given the service record of the Fifth Maine, one of the toughest outfits in the Army of the Potomac. The History of the Fifth Maine went to press in 1871, only the third such Maine regimental history to be published by that time.
George Bicknell and his comrades remained tightly bonded long after the war was over. And Bicknell played a significant role beyond serving as regimental historian, also acting as the Fifth Maine Association’s chaplain, a correspondent to Bachelder for his history of the Gettysburg campaign, and keynote speaker at the dedication of the Fifth’s Memorial Hall on Peak’s Island in 1888.
By the last decade of the nineteenth century, Bicknell had established a reputation for ability behind the pulpit and the podium, and he sought additional ways to memorialize his fallen comrades. For him, the idea of developing a lecture was by no means a reach given his exposure to the genre in his formative years and while pursuing his education at the Westbrook Seminary, not to mention as a member of the audience viewing multiple models on the post-war circuit. By the fall of 1897, his concept had taken shape, motivated like so many other veterans by the desire to “get the story right,” and correct errors to ensure the accuracy that would determine for future generations what had happened and who was responsible for victory and for defeat.
In addition to Bicknell’s stage presence and narrative ability, he demonstrated a keen appreciation for the interests of his audience by including colorful slides in support of his lecture. By the late 1880s, the stereopticon had replaced the more primitive magic lantern, allowing for greater synchronization between a script and collection of accompanying images. When Bicknell did begin to present Down in Dixie, he was able to feature dozens of portraits, maps, photographs, and colorful artistic recreations.
Much as the presentation of exciting visuals was a priority, so too was detail. It was very important to Bicknell and he was careful to describe everything from the contents of haversacks to the lack of drill for the Fifth entering the war’s opening engagement. First Bull Run remained a vivid memory for Bicknell as for so many veterans more than thirty years after the fact. Recalling the intense heat of the march, effects of heat stroke on comrades, the jubilation of initial advance, and chaos of retreat, he previewed the level of description to come in his presentation, much of it based upon his work in authoring the regimental history more than two decades before in 1871.
A recurring theme within the lecture was the providing of details of army life or life in camp, especially in relief of the boredom experienced by the Fifth and the Army of the Potomac in refitting after the disaster at Bull Run. Numerous anecdotes and episodes or tableaus were featured including one describing a payroll trip to Washington during which Bicknell and a fellow non-commissioned officer were ushered into the White House by none other than the President himself. Such was the impact of the experience, it was quickly shared beyond Bicknell’s messmates to the delight of the entire division!
Unlike Gordon, Bicknell did not give himself over to unreserved reconciliation, and one of the landmarks he chose to remember in his talk from his time on the Peninsula in 1862 was a view of Libby Prison from the outskirts of Richmond. Making special note of what some referred to as “the blackest page in the book,” he did not shy from indicting Confederate treatment of Union prisoners. Bicknell was not without some sensitivity on the subject, however, and was no doubt aware of Federal abuses of rebel captives as well noting, “Still it is not well to be too severely denunciatory. Those were peculiar days, peculiar conditions, and manhood upon both sides, was frequently hidden under the frenzied feelings and passionate hatreds of the hour.”
Bicknell’s lecture re-visited Bull Run, Gaines’ Mill, and Crampton’s Gap in detail, leading up to a five-minute intermission after which such famous engagements as Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg were also recalled. But nothing compared to Bicknell’s description of Rappahannock Station. On the moonless night of November 7, 1863, the Fifth joined in an assault of Confederate works dealing the Army of Northern Virginia one of its worst defeats of the war.
Drawing once again from his work developing the text of the Fifth’s regimental history and backed by a vivid color recreation rendered on the screen, Bicknell thrilled his audience with a dramatic account of the heroic assault. Advancing against an enemy caught by surprise but even so positioned in strength behind formidable earthworks, Bicknell picked up the story, “In line − forward − double quick − charge! Look, that fire was murderous. Forty-three killed, or wounded − never mind − or – see − the battalion, only a few over 500 sweeps over the works.”
“Quarter,’ cried the enemy − not a man among them having had time to reload his musket,” he continued. “For an instant, bayonets clashed, and then, in fifteen minutes the works carried; and the result twelve hundred prisoners − four battle flags – hundreds of muskets – all taken by our men – who did not fire a shot, but taken at the point of the bayonet.”
The regiment’s reputation was further enhanced by Bicknell’s dramatic narrative of its role at The Wilderness on May 5, 1864, and storied assault at Spotsylvania just five days later.
As Bicknell neared the close of his ninety-minute presentation, he chronicled his comrades’ feelings of relief as the Fifth was pulled out of the line in preparation for mustering out. However, high spirits were tempered by the recollection that of the 1,000 men who had set out from Portland in 1861, fewer 200 were present to officially leave Federal service on July 27, 1864. As was often the custom with such presentations, Bicknell brought down the curtain on the performance with a rousing tribute drawn from the Star Spangled Banner, a stirring close to Down in Dixie.
Bicknell displayed remarkable versatility in his presentation. Several newspapers referenced new or fresh material, updated views and slides. He even adapted his talk for those locations where the projection of the stereopticon slides was problematic, cutting it to seventy minutes and re-naming it, “Following the Flag.” His notes and papers include customized slide lists based upon the particular interests of his audience and the archives contain his 1907 revision in its entirety.
Even so, by the time of his debut in late 1897, New England audiences were flooded by commemorative lectures. The public was accustomed to talks such as the one presented by General A.B. Underwood under the auspices of the Harvard Historical Society in Boston April 16, 1884, entitled Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea. These retrospectives sometimes included a complete series of presentations like the one performed by Professor John Fiske of Boston in late fall 1885. His closing installment featured the struggle for Chattanooga and the campaign in East Tennessee complete with his own visuals of maps, portraits, and views of the scenery in which all the events took place.
Bicknell realized the highly competitive marketplace of memorialization demanded professional promotion and publicity to ensure success. Contracting with the Slayton Lyceum Bureau, he collaborated on the production of a promotional brochure replete with testimonials from a number of supporters including General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who stated, “Dr. Bicknell’s reputation as an attractive and powerful speaker is well-established.”
George Bicknell tirelessly told the story of the “Tough Old Fifth” but his final promotional material contained a somber note. Published sometime around 1912, it declared, “With the great Civil War fifty years back of us, it is a recognized fact that there can remain but few lectures able to speak of those long, frightful months with personal, first-hand knowledge. For this reason, if for no other, the Bicknell Lectures should be heard while there is still the opportunity.”
Twenty-five years the pastor of Cambridge’s First Universalist Church, Bicknell was still active with his congregation and delivering Down in Dixie when he passed away on June 3, 1916, at the age of seventy-nine. Remembered in a New York Times obituary as a veteran of note, his lectures rendered him “widely known throughout New England.”
Dedicated to carrying on as “monitors of memory,” Bicknell and his comrades in the Fifth Maine Association were able to keep their sacred trust and ensure the legacy of the regiment and its fallen soldiers. And, there is ample evidence that in the process, Down in Dixie and lectures like it are due much greater credit for contributing to the American culture of remembrance than commonly believed.
Far from being obscure or fleeting in nature, Down in Dixie and other dramatic talks were truly mainstream memorials reaching significantly greater audiences than the limited runs of regimental histories so frequently cited as mainstays of the period. Widespread attention and acclaim in the press, not to mention high demand for the lectures in public schools and colleges, ensured generations to come would process their understanding of the conflict through the lens provided by the Reverend George Bicknell.
Indeed, Bicknell and his fellow members of the Fifth Maine Association remained constant even as their ranks dwindled. The last survivor of the regiment was General Aaron Daggett who died in 1938, as he approached his 101st birthday. The last reunion of the Fifth Maine Association took place two years later at the Memorial Hall on Peak’s Island in 1940.
Always family affairs, these reunions were recalled with great fondness many years later. “We would gather in a circle in the main hall. The children would recite pieces and sing songs,” recalled one reunion participant. “The veterans would sing, ‘Rally Round the Flag, Boys,’ and later they told stories of the war saying, “We will tell you how it really was, not as the history books tell it.”
Just as George Bicknell told the story of the “Tough Old Fifth” in his beloved and widely acclaimed Down in Dixie.
 Jeremiah E. Goulka, ed., The Grand Old Man of Maine: Selected Letters of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, 1865 – 1914 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), xix.
 Angela G. Ray, The Lyceum and Public Culture in the Nineteenth Century United States (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2005), 34.
 Scott Martelle, The Madman and the Assassin: The Strange Life of Boston Corbett, the man who killed John Wilkes Booth (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2015), 162.
 John McGivigan, Forgotten Firebrand: James Redpath and the Making of Nineteenth Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), 122.
 David Blight, Race and Reunion, The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2001), 186.
 George W. Bicknell, Down in Dixie: A Veteran’s Story of the Civil War, From the collection of the Fifth Maine Regiment Museum, 11 and Blight, Race and Reunion, 184.
 Ibid, 91.
 Hundreds of prisoners were bagged at Rappahannock Station and the Fifth, to its everlasting credit, captured no fewer than four battle flags; the Eighth Louisiana, Sixth North Carolina, Fifth-Fourth North Carolina, and Seventh North Carolina. Bicknell took special pleasure in concluding the story of the battle with the list of banners seized by his comrades in the attack. Please see George W. Bicknell, Down in Dixie, 91.
 The Bicknell Lectures. Boston: The Slayton Lyceum Bureau.
 The Bicknell Lectures. Cambridge: Prepared and Delivered by Rev. George W. Bicknell, D.D.
 The New York Times, June 4, 1916.
 George W. Bicknell, History of the Fifth Maine Regiment Comprising Brief Descriptions of its Marches, Engagements, and General Services from the Date of its Muster In, June 24, 1861, to the Time of Its Muster Out, July 27, 1864 (Portland, ME: Hall L. Davis, 1871), 347.
 Lynda Sudlow, The Fifth Maine Community Building: A History (Portland, ME: Arlington Street Press, 1992), 12.