By Thomas Palmer
From about 1870 through the end of that century, one play tended to dominate stages in north central Ohio. Nationally, it ran second in popularity to the antebellum saga Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this part of Ohio, however, where the new play was written and had its home, it was unsurpassed.
It was called, among other longer titles, “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh,” and it was a saga of the Civil War years focusing on young Johnny Howard, the title character. Each year, communities everywhere would come together to stage a production, casting local civic leaders in major roles.
It was, in essence, a Galion Community Theatre-style production.
The author of the play was Mansfielder S.J. Muscroft, a Cincinnati native who was born in 1838. His parents died when he was four years old, and he grew up quickly. Not surprisingly, given the subject matter of the play, he enlisted in the Union Army and served with distinction before being captured and spending several months in a Confederate prisoner of war camp.
The play was written about 1868. A handful of years later, Muscroft sold the rights and the play’s new owner, A.F. Nail, also of Mansfield, who turned it into a national sensation. It was performed from one coast to the other, providing opportunities for cities and villages to come together to commemorate their lost Civil War veterans in a very patriotic way.
By the 1890s the script was actually being printed in Galion and of course Galion started producing the play on a regular basis.
One of the earliest references to a Galion production was in 1878 in a benefit performance for the Galion City Band, and held at the Galion Opera House. That venue occupied the top floor of City Hall (located where today’s Municipal Building stands). A wide range of local government and business leaders and other community members were on stage.
Acts were interspersed with “tableaux” — live reenactments of famous historical scenes.
During a Galion Opera House performance in 1886, the play paused at one point and cast member Professor M. Manley, who happened to be the then-superintendent of Galion Schools, engaged in a few minutes of grand oratory. There were five performances that season, and the young drummer boy Johnny Howard was played by Walter Barlow. Barlow later recounted that at one point as the play turned to a scene set in a Confederate prisoner of war camp, a gun went off accidentally and in the melee that followed he was almost stabbed. The knife, he shared, lodged itself in the stage floor for some time.
Locally, The Drummer Boy of Shiloh was performed in Galion, Bucyrus, Crestline, and Mansfield. In 1894, tickets for that year’s Galion production, featuring a re-written script, cost 35 cents at Hackedorn’s Drug Store, now Quay Pharmacy. A 1921 performance in Mansfield was noted as the 367th performance of the work.
A production of the play was one of the first uses of the new Ohio National Guard Armory which still stands on South Market Street, and the cast was entertained there in 1916.
One of the last local performances of the play was in the Galion High School Auditorium in 1932.
A handful of years ago, a number of Galionites looked at re-staging The Drummer Boy of Shiloh, recognizing its unique place in local theatrical history. A copy of the script is available online and is in the public domain, allowing it to be freely performed. The decision was made not to pursue the matter, however, when it was realized that a good number of lines would be uttered by an actor portraying a slave, and using language which would now be considered very offensive.
It might still be possible to make small changes in the script to remove those remarks, however, and to bring Galion’s favorite play of the nineteenth century back to life.
Each Saturday, we share a post about local history. We call this series “Galion History Corner,” and we will be sharing not only stories about our shared heritage but also updates on history news here in southeast Crawford County.
This series is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Bernard M. Mansfield, whose “Your Historical Galion” was a fixture in weekend editions of the Galion Inquirer. Dr. Mansfield was a friend and family physician, and he inspired the current generation of Galion historians to continue his work.
Sources: Mansfield Journal, Galion Republican Free Press, Galion Inquirer