Civil War Ballads: Battle of Bull Run

Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” was one of my favorite songs as a kid. My parents had it on an old 45 vinyl record with the classic red Columbia label. Horton recorded other folk songs and ballads, but tragically died in a car accident at the height of his career. “Battle of Bull Run” is not as great as “The Battle of New Orleans,” but it has something of the same feel, including the background drum cadence.

The sun shown bright and clear that day
We all left Washington
To lick the Rebel boys in grey
At the Battle of Bull Run
They came from Pennsylvania and some from Maryland
To see the Rebel boys get spanked by Honest Abe’s broad hand

We said we’ll run ’em to Atlanta and to Galveston Bay
But they ran us back to Washington and Philadelphia
And Philadelphia

The ladies wore their brightest shawls
The gentlemen were gay
They came to see their Yankee boys whip old Virginia
I held my momma’s hand and skipped
When a soldier said to me
Would you rather have Jeff Davis’ hat or the sword of Bobbie Lee

Lithograph from Harper's Weekly depicts Col. David Hunter's brigade charging Confederate forces at First Bull Run

Lithograph from Harper’s Weekly depicts Col. David Hunter’s brigade charging Confederate forces at First Bull Run, July 21, 1861

We said we’ll run ’em to Atlanta and to Galveston Bay
But they ran us back to Washington and Philadelphia
And Philadelphia

And then the general doffed his hat and said let’s rest a spell
Before the first and we all heard that awful rebel yell
The waters of Manassas creek became a ruby red
Many a Reb and Yankee boy lay in the willows dead

We said we’ll run ’em to Atlanta and to Galveston Bay
But they ran us back to Washington and Philadelphia
And Philadelphia

A fight locked in the jest of time too horrible to tell
Virginny’s true green countryside became a lake of hell
Don’t count your chicks before they’re hatched
Or you’ll work until it’s done
Remember yes remember long the Battle of Bull Run

We said we’ll run ’em to Atlanta and to Galveston Bay
But they ran us back to Washington and Philadelphia
And Philadelphia

It is a rather light and cheery tune to commemorate a battle that cost the lives of over 800 American soldiers. Compared to the carnage to come, however, First Battle of Bull Run was a minor skirmish. Fought on July 21, 1861, outside Manassas, Virginia, it was the war’s largest engagement thus far.

Both sides expected an easy victory. As the song alludes, many civilians (including legislators) followed the Union Army to watch the expected victory, but they stayed on Centreville Heights, five miles from the fighting. According to the Civil War Trust, all they saw was gunsmoke rising above the distant treetops.

For a while, it looked like the Rebel boys would “get spanked by Honest Abe’s broad hand.” At around noon, however, Confederate reinforcements from Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah, including a brigade commanded by Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson (who would earn the nickname “Stonewall” at this battle), turned the tide.

The Union Army, commanded by Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, tried to withdraw in an orderly fashion, but the withdraw quickly turned into a route. Many soldiers did not rejoin their units until they made it 25 miles back to Washington, D.C.

Minor note: in the line, “Would you rather have Jeff Davis’ hat or the sword of Bobbie Lee?” Bobbie Lee is a reference to General Robert E. Lee, who was not at the First Battle of Bull Run. In 1861, Lee unsuccessfully commanded militia forces in western Virginia, and was transferred to the Carolina and Georgia coast in November of that year.

About Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

Posted on March 30, 2017, in History, Music and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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