UK Heritage

British Actor/Surgeon in Lincoln's Army

The founder of the Wyndhams Theatre in London's west end was a qualified surgeon when he sought a stage career in Civil War New York. He gained an uneasy memory of fellow-actor John Wilkes Booth, and on one occasion 'dried up' on stage. Fortunately, a friendship with P.T. Barnum helped young Dr Culverwell earn a living as surgeon - with the Union army.

 

The original text of this article appeared in issue 37 (November 1989) of Crossfire, the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) as 'Britons In The Civil War: Sir Charles Wyndham'

 


Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End

click image to zoom

In 1989, ACWRT(UK) members came across programs for productions at Wyndham's Theatre in London. The programme notes claimed that Charles Wyndham,(1837-1919) founder of the theatre, had served in the Confederate Army as a surgeon. Arthur and Deidre Kincaid kindly supplied us with a copy of an article on Wyndham by George Rowell in "Nineteenth Century Theatre Research" 12 (1984). Extracts from the article are reproduced in this article.

 

The name of Charles Wyndham is among the best-known and least considered of Victorian actor-managers.

 

It should be explained that Wyndham, born Charles Culverwell at Liverpool in 1837, studied medicine in London, Dublin and Germany, becoming a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1857 and a Doctor of medicine at the University of Giessen in 1859. These qualifications, however, were only gained under strong parental pressure; he was an enthusiastic amateur actor from his boyhood, and rode his first professional appearances at the somewhat obscure Royalty Theatre in 1862, his leading lady being Ellen Terry, at that time approaching her fifteenth birthday. When this engagement failed to engender others, Wyndham turned again to medicine but decided to offer his services across the Atlantic, where Civil War had North America in its throes and surgeons were in demand.

 

The extent and character of these services have hitherto been speculative. Wendy Trewin concludes: "His military career is all but lost; he seldom talked of it except lightly on appropriate occasions, when he fell back on a few well-chosen jokes." Mary Moore ventured no further than "I imagine from the many things I have heard him say, that Sir Charles had a very rough time out there.' Apart from the private hardship, there was a professional reason for his reticence. Between 1870 and 1872 he travelled the length of the Eastern seaboard and the breadth of the Middle West, from New Orleans to Milwaukee, with the Wyndham Comedy Company. In the bitter aftermath of the Civil War it would have been damaging to proclaim his allegiance and service ten years earlier.

 

As his fame grew, however, interest in his War service increased. By 1879 the 'Dramatic List' announced that, "He did duty in the Southern states as a surgeon during the civil war", and this entry was elaborated in the first edition (1912) of "Who's Who in the Theatre" to "He enlisted under the Confederate Banner as an Army surgeon, in this capacity was present at the engagements of Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, and the banner, though not the battles, were repeated in the first edition (1951) of the "Oxford Companion to the Theatre'. His Times obituary reassigned him to the Federal side but confirmed his participation in the battles listed. Even Percy Hutchison, Wyndham's nephew and one-time assistant, believed: "My uncle went through the Red River campaign, and served in the 19th Army Corps under General Ulysses Grant, being present at the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg."

 

If English sources improvised Wyndham's military career, American journalism enlarged on it recklessly. The American tours he undertook from 1882 to 1909 called for deeds proportionate to his theatrical standing. In 1882 the 'Spirit of the Times' declared: "A picture of Gen. Wyndham - he enlisted as a surgeon, but was promoted to a Major Generalship for distinguished services in the field - has been painted by a Chicago artist and represents him, with his watch in one hand and holding back his troops with the other, waiting for the first streak of daylight to order the assault.'

 

Luckily for historical accuracy, if unluckily for dramatic effect, the survival of Acting Assistant Surgeon Culverwell's file in the National Archives at Washington shows that he enlisted in that rank and resigned from the service in the same rank two years later.

 

Before attempting to piece together Wyndham's chequered military and theatrical career during those two years, it should be explained that 'contract surgeons' in the Federal Army were entitled to sign, resign, and re-sign at choice, and that Wyndham repeatedly chose all three courses. The resulting richness of documentation is helpful to the historian, though no doubt it was frustrating to the Surgeon General's Department, whose claim on Dr. Culverwell's services proves to be fleeting and insecure.

 

Characteristically, Wyndham's own account of his service is restricted to its start. In an article, 'How I Became a Surgeon U.S.A' contributed to the 'Spirit of the Times' (23 December 1882) while the Criterion Company was appearing in New York, he described a visit twenty years earlier to the New York recruiting office, where his wish to serve as a surgeon was misunderstood as a bid to become a sergeant, and his subsequent expedition to Washington. Here he established himself in the lobby of Willard's Hotel with an illustrated manual of surgery "open at the most formidable woodcut in the collection". After two days he attracted the attention of a senior statesman (by his appearance), who first rejected Wyndham's appeal for aid but next day returned and offered an introduction to General Nathaniel P. Banks, in charge of the defences of Washington. It was only when the introduction was written that Wyndham discovered his friend in need to be Phineas T. Barnum.

 

That introduction lies on top of the Acting Assistant Surgeon's file in the National Archives:

 

Willard' s Hotel Oct. 18/62

 

Maj. Genl. Banks

 

My dear Sir,

 

The bearer is a young English surgeon who brings with him his four diplomas - three from London colleges and one from Germany. Unfortunately, he brings no letters of introduction, although he says a relative of yours in Boulougne, France, offered to give him one. He is anxious to get a place in our army and I have volunteered to give him this note, in the hope that you may be of service to him.

 

Very truly yours,

 

P.T. BARNUM

 

Next to it lies Banks' response. The showman had brought off another trick:

 

Head Quarters Defences of Washington

 

20 October

 

Surgeon General.

 

Permit me to ask your attention to the within note of Mr. Barnum, Dr. Culverwell, the bearer, is a stranger, bearing evidence of his qualifications in his profession, but without friends to inform him of the present demand by the government for additional surgical assistance. Will you do me the favour to give him such information as my be useful to him and aid him in his objects?

 

N. P. BANKS

 

Accordingly the Surgeon General's Office recorded in its Report Book: '21 Oct 1862: Charles Culverwell, London, England. Medical Attendance at Washington, D.C. $80 per month.'

 

Wyndham was initially ordered to the Washington area but within a few months was transferred to St Louis, Mo. A few weeks later he had 'had his contract suspended on account of his wife coming out from England and being near her accouchement'. The child - a daughter, Alice - was born at Philadelphia in March 1863. Unable to obtain an army post in the Philadelphia area, he looked for theatre work and was soon invited to join a particular company by its manager.

 

The manager in question was Leonard Grover, the theatre Grover's (later the National), Washington and the engagement cruelly brief: 'In three weeks' time he suggested to me my resignation as being totally unfit for the stage. I resigned.'

 

Nevertheless Wyndham had during this inglorious episode supported an American actor already famous and soon to be infamous, John Wilkes Booth ... he retained graphic memories of the star...(and) also supplied a vignette of Booth offstage:

 

'I saw nothing there that would foreshadow such an act as his except where the subject of politics was introduced. Then, even in those days of heated discussion, his excitement was remarkable, and his friends who wished to be on pleasant terms with him, gradually learned to avoid the discussion of politics'.'

 

After this inglorious debut on the American stage, Wyndham was obliged to once more offer his services as a surgeon. He did some hospital work in St Louis but his contract was "annulled" on 16 July 1863 at his own request because his wife and baby were both seriously ill in New York City.

 

Lodged with German immigrants, and her two children found themselves caught in the 'Anti-Draft' Riots, which had strong xenophobic origins, and consequently besieged in a German enclave of the city. In fact, the baby, Alice, died - of 'cholera infantism' according to the Death Certificate - on 12 July, four days before Wyndham received word of the emergency, and the bereaved mother had to plead with the rioters for permission to bury her child. To safeguard himself Wyndham traveled in civilian clothes to New York.'

 

He was next posted to Fort Schuyler on Long Island Sound - within visiting distance of his family - but he was soon drawn back to the stage at the Olympic Theatre in New York, where he met "a more humiliating failure than at Washington". "He was cast as a young poet given to onstage rhapsody which the apprentice actor failed to master. At the first performance he dried up totally in a speech beginning: 'Drunk with enthusiasm, I..." and the audience drew the obvious conclusion. Wyndham reports: 'The next morning I was called into the management room and was told regretfully that my services could no longer be required."' (The New York Herald review stated 'A Mr. Wyndham represented a young man from South America. He had better go back there.' "Wyndham had no choice but to re-enlist and subsequently served with the 17th infantry, Corps D'Afrique - joining them at Port Hudson on 13 February 1864. On 21 June 1864 he was ordered to travel from New Orleans to Washington in charge of eleven insane soldiers. He then proceeded to what turned out to be his last tour of duty - at a hospital in Beverley, New Jersey. On 17 November his contract was annulled at his own request; Wyndham's military career was over.

 

Picture Credits:

 

Picture 1 All rights reserved. Owner unknown at time of publication - would any claimants kindly contact webdesigner.

 

Picture 2. Wyndham's Theatre, by John Laskey, appears here with his permission