“History,” says Mary Humphries, “is human drama in real time.”
That alone provides insight into the sophistication of the lady behind Charlotte “Lottie” Treadwell, whom Humphries invented to give people a feel for what it was like for a woman on the Ohio homefront during the Civil War.
The Springfielder said the name Treadwell was “stored in the recesses” of her mind, one that’s been inventing and building characters since before her 1976 graduation with a degree in English and theater from the University of Mary Washington in the Civil War town of Fredericksburg, Md.
“Actually, Marye’s Heights and part of the campus is right by the Sunken Road,” she said.
That road is where Confederate troops under the command of Gen. James Longstreet used a stone wall as the protection they needed to set up a field of fire that harvested a bounty of Union lives.
Humphries said that while the plight of Southern women long as been recognized as the stuff of high drama, “the Northern woman had her own challenges.”
She was invited to bring those to life by Paul “Ski” Schanher, organizer of the Clark County Heritage Center’s Civil War symposiums.
For the first two symposiums, Humphries appeared on the Friday Ferncliff Cemetery tour that serves as an appetizer for the main course. This year, she gave a longer presentation at Saturday’s centerpiece.
Humphries, an academic department assistant for the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at Wittenberg University, where she’s worked for 20 years, portrayed a carpenter’s wife on the Friday tours.
But for the Saturday presentation, she made her Lottie a doctor’s wife.
That makes her “a little better off,” Humphries said, but the challenges she faces are similar.
For the first time managing a budget, she is handling a tight one all the more difficult to mange by the Army’s irregular pay schedule. Within those constraints, she does the best she can to find among the few men left in Springfield someone who will replace fallen shingles or fix a broken carriage wheel.
She’s been scrubbing her own floors since the girl who used to do that was required to do labor on the family farm because her brothers are off at war.
In addition to Lottie’s obvious worries about her husband in the field, the impending graduation of her son Andrew from college, what once she looked forward to celebrating, “brings little joy with the terrible fear of his possible enlistment,” Lottie says.
Despite her own worries and the national conflict, she does not lack compassion for the women of the South, including those in the Confederate capital of Richmond who rioted for bread.
“The papers put them in a bad light with their violence,” says Lottie, “but …. if your children are starving, you’ll do more than take an axe to a bakery shop window.”
One of her major projects for 1863 is getting ready for the Great Western Sanitary Fair in Cincinnati, a fundraiser to address the filth and disease friendly conditions of Union camps.
Lottie’s status as a doctor’s wife allows Humphries to take us into those camps.
“Waste of all kinds in proximity to the soldiers’ tents. Food that barely merits the description,” Lottie says. “Water purity is ignored, and all men become victims of some form of dysentery. Nathan sees many young men from the farms succumb to measles and whooping cough — childhood illnesses! His greatest fear is an outbreak of typhoid fever. Pneumonia is the other great killer.”
The drinking, swearing, gambling and other depravities of camp life also make their way into her monologue: “Nathan did write me of an episode where a colonel had to shut down a brothel located directly across form the army hospital.”
With a sly sense of humor, Humphries has Lottie add this detail: “Infirm men were hobbling from their beds of recuperation in search of a more invigorating tonic.”
Although in the first moments of the presentation, Charlotte concedes defeat at the end of a long, exhausting day, the presentation underscores how husband and wife work to keep each other’s spirits up.
Humphries uses a letter from Nathan to Lottie to powerful advantage.
“There is little to keep my soul from being entirely devoured by the horror except the thought of you, my strong, steady girl.”
In a line that shows off Humphries’ lyrical touch, Nathan adds: “you will be holding my hand, though in longhand, as you read this.”
“If I am lonely,” he continues, “I know that you are too, Dear Girl, for we were never far apart. You have so much more to shoulder than you have ever had to, and if I did not know you to be fearless, I could never have left. So Lottie, we are soldiers together, we two, just serving with different company.”
Humphries said she felt gratified when, after her presentation, some of the audience asked where she’d discovered the letter she had, in fact, written.
Humphries said that from years of practice, “building a character is very natural for me, and because I write all the time writing is easy. But the tough thing is getting all your information and synthesizing it and make sure it’s accurate. What really takes the time is getting the facts.”
Internet searches and her study of Nina Silver’s book “Daughters of the Union” helped Humphries made that part of creating her character “the most time consuming.”
As those who enjoyed her nuanced performances know, it was time well spent.