Of his six sons, Junius Brutus Booth chose only one to be his apprentice: Edwin.
Having shown early signs of talent, Edwin left school at eleven to train and travel from theater to theater with his father. Whole books have been dedicated to the career of Edwin Booth, who, launched on stage so young, was dubbed in maturity America’s “Actor King,” and mourned as a national icon on his death in 1893. His immense success as a star at the height of the Civil War was only a prelude to later achievements.
In the Folger Reading Room, I learned that in March 1864, Edwin had played command performances of Shakespeare for President Lincoln in the Capital, and that in March 1865, he became the first actor to perform Hamlet for 100 consecutive nights.
Throughout the war, as Folger sources prove, Edwin’s charity performances of Shakespeare in Boston and New York raised thousands of dollars for the widows and orphans of Union war dead, as well as for the US Sanitary Commission, a forerunner of the American Red Cross.
Edwin wrote this letter to his best friend, Colonel Adam Badeau, aide-de-camp to General Ulysesses S. Grant, in October 1864, pledging his support for Lincoln in the upcoming presidential election. John Wilkes had spent the summer fighting over politics with his pro-Union brother, but as Edwin now informs Colonel Badeau, the Southern sympathizer seemed preoccupied with a new career drilling for oil in western Pennsylvania. He also describes his preparations for the 100-night run of Hamlet at the Winter Garden, a Broadway theater Edwin had recently purchased. The actor had no idea his younger brother already had begun plotting against the President.
“Dear Ad… if things politic go right I guess all will go glorious. Lincoln, I suppose, is what is called right—you know how ignorant I am of all things outside the footlights. I only know I go in for cursing every damned rebel out, and waving the old “stars and stripes” all over…The Tragedy of Hamlet, by Wm Shakespeare, is being done in the paint rooms, the wardrobe and the property rooms of the Winter Garden for me—I shall be called upon to be genteel and gentle about the 27th of November. I shall rest till then and try to get rid of this infernal headache…And now—say something, tell me of the “carnage and the roar of battle”—shake up my lethargic spirits a bit before another draft is called that I may not shirk…J. Wilkes is up to his knees in an ile well in the West, albeit he is on the sofa at this juncture in t’other room… tell me as much of Badeau & battles as I you of Booth and bosh, & I’ll be grateful. Write soon and often, Thine ever, Edwin.”
—Edwin Booth to Adam Badeau, October 14, 1864