Civil War Ballads: Tears of a Generation

David Matthews (no, not that one) wrote and recorded this song for Classic Images’ Civil War 125th Anniversary Series VHS (1987) on the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. It also appeared on his 1994 album Shades of Blue & Gray: Songs From The Civil War, released by Delta, and re-released on various alternatively-titled albums over the years. The song touches on the battles of The Wilderness and Yellow Tavern, which preceded the Battle of Spotsylvania. All were part of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from May 4 – June 24, 1864.

Skulls remaining on the Wilderness battlefield, 1864.

With their backs against the wall, he drew his saber
With the hot breath of the boys in blue so near
And he chose a darkened forest called The Wilderness
Where the screams of death were all that men could hear
Where the screams of death were all that men could hear

Soldiers smashed into the nightmare bramble
Melting into death’s inferno on they came
And the smoke and fire transformed them into devils
At the end they knew they’d never be the same
At the end they knew they’d never be the same

And the rains became the tears of a generation
Hot winds that fan the fires of victory
Charred ruins were their monuments to glory
Look around you for their painful memory
Look around you for their painful memory

Jeb Stewart’s gray cavalry, pride of the Southland
Gray knights they would ride through the dawn
Invisible armor, still rode at his side
Never was wounded in body or pride
But at Yellow Tavern young Jeb was to die

Outgunned and outnumbered gray knights staked their ground
At the crossroads to Richmond they stand
Michigan warriors with death in their eyes
Collide with a thunder that flashed ‘cross the sky
And at Yellow Tavern young Jeb was to die

Philip Henry Sheridan, wartime photo by Mathew Brady

Little Phil’s big black filly, young Custer’s gold hair
Wrote a proud page in history that day
As their sabers and cannon turned sore bloody red
The pride of the Southland was carried away
Death-knell for the knight, the price too high to pay

Nameless death long forgotten, no eulogy flared
But the loss of this knight was so dear
And the bell-toll for Jeb was a thunder that day
Death-knell for the knight, the price too high to pay
Death-knell for the knight, the price too high to pay

And the rains became the tears of a generation
Hot winds that fan the fires of victory
Charred ruins were their monuments to glory
Look around you for their painful memory
Look around you for their painful memory

And the rains became the tears of a generation
Hot winds that fan the fires of victory
Charred ruins were their monuments to glory
Look around you for their painful memory
Look around you for their painful memory

The Battle of the Wilderness was a horrific, chaotic struggle in the Virginia backwoods, a mile or so west of the old Chancellorsville battlefield. Roughly 189,000 men fought there from May 5–7, 1864, leaving behind 28,000 dead, wounded, and missing or captured. The battle was inconclusive, but it gave a sober preview of the struggle to come. It was the first time Grant and Lee clashed. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, arguably Lee’s best corps commander, was wounded in action, accidentally shot by his own men in the dense forest.

Worse, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, Lee’s legendary cavalry commander, was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry fought against 2-to-1 odds. Union cavalry commander Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan outnumbered the Confederates three divisions to two brigades. David Matthews mentions Sheridan’s “big black filly,” Rienzi, in his song.

Arguably, this was the moment when the Confederacy’s defeat became only a matter of time. “The rains became the tears of a generation” speaks to the hundreds of thousands of dead, charred ruins of towns, farmland, railroads and industry, and death of a whole way of life for the South.

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About Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and freelance columnist. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He lives in Rockford, Illinois, where he was the 2013 Republican candidate for mayor.

Posted on April 27, 2017, in History, Music and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I hope to post about “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” next week. I don’t support dismantling those monuments. If they had to be removed, they should have been placed in a museum

  2. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down should also be included.
    I also support Mitch Landru, the Mayor of New Orleans, for dismantling all those Confederate Statues and landmarks associated with the Confideratcy.
    That, and the Stars and Bars at State Capitol Buildings is just a grim reminder of what we are capable of as human beings.

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