MOUNT VERNON — Round and round dancers swirled to the enchanted melody of the “Gentle Maiden” in what would be the highlight of the social season. In elegant style and color, women graced the arms of their male partners as the Memorial Building ballroom was transformed into a soiree right from the pages of history.
On Saturday evening, the Gen. Henry B. Banning Camp of the Ohio Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War held its annual Civil War Ball, inviting guests to step back in time to a period where the states waged war and social propriety was of the utmost importance.
Historically, the balls were a means to socialize and meet other people, particularly among the wealthy and the military officers.
“If you danced with the person you brought more than a couple of times, it was considered rude because the whole point of the dance was to meet other people,” said Fred Main, camp commander for the Sons of the Union Veterans.
When the ball was first held locally, about seven years ago, the group started out with a tape recording of period music, but since then has moved to a live band.
“It’s so much better with a live band,” said Main. “They can continue the song for as long as they want to, and when we have larger groups here and we are trying to get through the reels, the band will just keep playing until everyone is through the reel.”
A mixture of music was played by the band, Pocketful O’Gimmick. With songs such as “Harvest Home,” “Soldier’s Joy,” “Liberty,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and the timeless classic, “Dixie,” dancers weren’t without their cheerful tunes or their slow melodies.
With dances like the gay gordon, reels, polkas, schoddish and the waltz, including a Spanish waltz, couples were able to mingle and meet a lot of people over the course of the evening.
“A lot of people just come for the dancing, and may not be re-enactors,” said Elizabeth Reeb, caller.
“I like the gay gordon dance the best,” said Dawn Lechner of Fredericktown. “Most of the dances were created for the sake of the soldiers who learned marching in their basic camp, and so they knew left from right and could march in a straight line. But they couldn’t do any dance steps. When they got leave, all the dances were catered toward what the soldiers were capable of doing. Many of these dances are very simple and easy to do.”
Inspired by her participation in the Civil War Ball six years ago, Lechner was inspired to get involved in re-enacting. Now she is a member of the 5th Kentucky Company B of Gahanna and often plays the role of a soldier.
“I dress up like a soldier most of the time; rarely do I wear a dress,” she said, admiring the fabric of her homemade dress. “This is a very simple dress with eight panels for the skirt, pleated at the top and simple at the bottom, and this is a blouse that I inherited from my great-aunt and altered to go with the skirt. But a lot of the dresses you see here are more fancy than this. This would be like a day dress.”
One can’t forget the essential to any woman’s attire, the gloves and the up-do hairstyle of long curls for young women; for older women, the hair was commonly tucked into a snood or pinned up.
The men weren’t without their time period attire to complement the women. Many of the men present were dressed as officers of various ranks — captain, major or private — and units — infantry, medical, calvary and artillery.
“This is our fourth year coming,” said Jeff Steiner, camp captain for the 5th Kentucky Company B. “It’s really nice coming here because it’s authentic, and it helps out the other guys — the Union; anything to help them out,” he said with a smile. “This is a captain’s uniform, infantry. I have the sky blue pants, which a lot of the Confederates wore who came from England. Most Confederate officers made their own uniforms, and that’s why when you see a Confederate officer’s uniform, it could be different. The only thing designated by the Confederate army was rank.”
“But you wouldn’t see me here,” said Main, who was attired in a Union soldier’s uniform of woolen blue sack coat and gray pants. “The dances were primarily for the rich and the officers.”
The ball holds much the same purpose now as it did in the 1800s: to socialize with old friends and meet new ones.
“I like coming to meet all my friends. Most of my circle of friends are re-enactors,” said Susan Dellaflora, member of the 5th Kentucky Company B.
“This is my first time here and I think this is great,” said Krysten Vaughan of Columbus. “I just enjoy the old-fashioned music and dancing the best.”
“I’ve been here before and I’ve done some re-enacting here,” said Justin Schultz of Columbus and a member of the 5th Kentucky Company B. “This is a nice way to connect the past with the present, and to look back at the old culture and get a greater perspective on things.”
“We come every year, and we have a lot of fun dancing,” said Elaine Beardsley of Fredericktown, who came with her husband, Bill.
The ball is more than just a night filled with festive gaiety. For many, it is a time to remember American history.
“I like going to events like this because it helps preserve heritage and keeps history alive. It was such a different way of life when ladies were ladies and gentlemen were gentlemen; you don’t see a whole lot of that any more,” said Steiner.