Civil War love letters come to life in dramatic reading

  A piece of local history came to life on Sunday Nov. 2 at the Livingston County Historical Society and Museum on Center Street. Titled “Civil War Letters: Love and War,” the piece featured a dramatic reading of letters exchanged between two Geneseo residents in 1862.

Musical theatre major senior Megan McCaffrey took on the role of Elizabeth Vance Rorbach, while English literature major junior Dennis Caughlin read the words of Colonel John Rorbach. Professor of English and music Melanie Blood directed the performance.

The letters had been compiled and transcribed by members of the Livingston County Historical Society over the last year and serve to directly connect Geneseo with Civil War history. The couple married in 1853 and moved into the Vance House at 57 Second Street, a house that is still owned by descendants of the family.

The dramatic reading included some 40 pages of letters exchanged between Elizabeth and John between February and August 1862 while the Colonel was commanding the 104th New York Volunteer Infantry.

Complete with Civil War-era costume, McCaffrey and Caughlin brought a compelling look at the importance of letters as a primary form of communication in a time when the telegraph system was only beginning to make its mark. Both actors conveyed the intimacy of the letters to great effect, demonstrating the importance of the letters to the lives of their authors.

One particularly memorable moment was McCaffrey’s reading of the message Elizabeth gave her children on their father’s behalf. McCaffrey captured the emotive response of the children in her delivery of Elizabeth’s sweet words. The performances of both McCaffrey and Caughlin helped to bring new understanding to letters as an authentic way to have a conversation, rather than the modern sentimental or business applications that letters have today.

The reading felt like a natural conversation between the two, with the obvious understanding between the actors creating a convincing representation of the dialogue. Neither actor looked at the other when delivering lines to emphasize the physical separation between the two. This was a valuable directional move, allowing for a higher level of appreciation to be granted to the letter as a medium of conversation. All this was necessary to help the audience understand a form of communication that truly was, in the words of Elizabeth, “the next best thing to talking” for people removed from each other in 1862.

Aided by the directorial input of Blood, McCaffrey and Caughlin’s performances allowed for an intriguing reading of what today would amount to a transcription of a phone call. The actors poignantly captured the words of the Rorbachs, their long-distance relationships and the sensation of love during wartime.