- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2006

Fort Sumter had just fallen when J. Harry Hayward and Thomas D. Sullivan came out with “The Flag of Fort Sumter,” while Anna Bache and C. Munzinger gave a Northern public, alarmed at the way things were going, “The Hero of Fort Sumter,” honoring Robert Anderson, commander of the doomed fort.

Neither song sold well; nor did the sheet music of George Frederick Root’s “The First Gun is Fired! May God Protect the Right.” It wasn’t a very good song, which is probably why it made so little impression, but Root would soon become one of the most famous of the Union’s songwriters.

Concern was expressed in “May God Save the Union,” by the Rev. G. Douglass Brewerton, with music by Carl Wolfsohn, which resembled a hymn: “May God save the Union! The Red, White and Blue, / Our states keep united the dreary day through.”

Southern songwriters responded. Earnest Halphin wrote “God Save the South,” its tune known to Americans as “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” and to Britons as their national anthem. Halphin’s was a musical shout of defiance: “Rebels before, our fathers of yore, / Rebel’s the righteous name Washington bore.”

One of the earliest rallying songs heard in the South was “The Southern Wagon,” its rough-and-ready verses of unknown origin. The tune was R. Bishop Buckley’s “Wait for the Wagon,” first heard in 1851. The new version saluted states that had seceded: “Carolina is the driver, with Georgia by her side; / Virginia holds the flag up, while we all take a ride.”

For many songs expressing partisan sentiments, there was often a “reply,” and Robert M. Hart soon riposted with “The Old Union Wagon”: “There’s none can smash the wagon, ‘tis patented and strong, / And built of pure devotion by those who hate the wrong.” Such songs contributed to an increasingly acrimonious war of words and music.

“The Bonnie Blue Flag” praised a banner that would be superseded by the official Confederate “Stars & Bars” and the “Southern Cross” Confederate battle flag. Written by Harry McCarthy, obviously of Irish descent, who had left England when he was 15, it had for its melody a traditional Irish tune, “The Irish Jaunting Car.” Immensely popular, it was sung by McCarthy’s sister Marion at the Varieties Theatre, New Orleans, in 1861. Union Gen. Ben Butler hated it. When his iron fist descended on New Orleans, he had the publisher’s entire stock of its sheet music destroyed.

Soon there was a “Reply to the Bonnie Blue Flag,” the work of Mrs. C. Sterett and M.H. Frank. “We’re in the right and will prevail; the Stars and Stripes must fly; / The ‘Bonnie Blue Flag’ be hauled down and every traitor die.” This vindictive ditty had only a fleeting existence. Like others it was written less to entertain than to inflame public opinion.

The somewhat old-fashioned “Southrons’ Chant of Defiance” was credited on the sheet music to “A Lady of Kentucky.” It was actually Catherine M. Warfield’s “You Can Never Win Them Back.” The song’s publisher, A.E. Blackmar supplied the lyrics: “You can never win us back: Never! Never! / Though we perish in the track of your endeavor.” Blackmar, for all his support of the Confederacy, had moved South from Vermont.

Many of these bellicose lyrics were little more than doggerel, but once in a while a song of real merit appeared. Once such was Carrie Bell Sinclair’s “The Homespun Dress,” equally well known as “The Southern Girl.” “My homespun dress is plain, I know, my hat’s palmetto too; / But still it shows what Southern girls for Southern rights will do.” Born in Milledgeville, Ga., Carrie Sinclair wrote other good songs, utilizing “The Irish Jaunting Car” for her melody on this occasion.

There were so many of these songs, expressing every emotion to be found in wartime: pathos and bereavement; pride and optimism; sadness of parting and fear of death in battle; a deep love of all things Southern or a hatred of the Northern invader; pride in the Union; even broad humor, Army-style. They can now be regarded as musical echoes of the years when America was tearing itself apart and nobody could say with confidence when and how the conflict would end.

One song that expresses much of the sadness of the war years was “The Young Volunteer,” written and composed by John Hill Hewitt, a master of his craft and the son of an Englishman who had settled in America. “Our flag is unfurled and our arms flash bright, / As the sun wades up the sky; / But e’er I join the doubtful fight, / Lovely maid, I would say goodbye.” This beautiful and poignant song was first heard in 1863, the year of Stonewall Jackson’s tragic shooting by his own men at Chancellorsville.

The grim war dragged on, while cannons roared. Amid the din of battle, much that had been beautiful and cherished in the South was destroyed, and it became clear that there could be no hope of victory for the Confederacy. Songs of heartbreak began to replace songs of faith in ultimate victory for the South. Angry defiance seemed more muted.

Perhaps in some homes in the broken South someone still sang “Lorena,” but it would be Father Abram J. Ryan’s “The Conquered Banner” that spoke for the Lost Cause, and the tasteless triumphalism of “Marching Through Georgia” for the victors. In their often clumsy way, the songs of the Civil War were part of both the tragedy and triumph of a long and terrible war that still stirs the imagination of the American people. They should be preserved, for they are part of America’s history.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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