Historic America

Civil War Ballads: The Devil To Pay

“The Devil To Pay” is part one in a three-part, 32-minute epic appearing on heavy metal band Iced Earth’s album The Glorious Burden (2004). The three-song serial commemorates the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1861. Former Judas Priest frontman Tim “Ripper” Owens provided vocals on the album. The songs appear to be based on either the novel The Killer Angels (1987) by Michael Shaara or the movie Gettysburg (1993), which was also based on the novel.

In July 1863
A nation torn in tragedy
A trick of fate, two great armies merge
Gods of war at Gettysburg
Devastation lies ahead
50,000 bodies litter the land
Hell rages three full days
The reaper sows, there’s the devil to pay

The pressure’s on and the reb’s attack
The yanks must hold, they can’t fall back
Just two brigades, 2,000 strong
Against 20,000 they can’t hold long

General Reynolds makes his way
Expect no mercy from the Iron Brigade
Until he shows they’re on their own
But Buford’s men have a will of stone

Bayonets gleam in the morning sun
Smoke and fire belching from their guns
Another volley and again they strike
Thousands more comin’ down Chambersburg Pike

This tragedy and what it brings
All the devastation
(The reaper has his way)
Men will kill, Blood will spill
To preserve the nation
(There’s the devil to pay)

South of town down the Emmitsburg Road
The First Corps is starting to show
For Buford’s men, they’re here just in time
The desperate need to strengthen the line

Bodies dropping the blue and the gray
Muskets fire and cannon blaze
The Union fights defending the town
But they’re outnumbered and losing ground

From the north and the west more rebels arrive
Thousands more and the fight multiplies
McPhearson’s Ridge and the black hats strike
A rebel sharpshooter takes Reynolds’ life

[Repeat Chorus]

Attack! Attack! General Lee gives command
They’re overwhelmed, The situation demands
The federals retreat and rush out of town
But they have fortified and saved the high ground

The day ends in victory for the South
Lee’s as convinced as God’s will is profound
They are invincible and their cause is just
But Longstreet is cautious and lacking in trust

Across the way the Union digs in
The round tops, Cemetery Ridge and out to Culp’s Hill
Their lines are strong, no denying they’ll stay
When the Confederates strike
There’ll be the devil to pay

This song loosely describes the events of July 1, 1863, the first day of the battle, and is named after a quote by Union cavalry commander Brigadier General John Buford. Buford’s cavalry division put up a stubborn defense along McPherson Ridge, northwest of Gettysburg. I Corps commander Major General John F. Reynolds, riding ahead with his staff, asked Buford to hold out until his 12,000 troops arrived. “The devil’s to pay,” exclaimed Buford. “I reckon I can.”

McPhearson’s Ridge and the black hats strike
A rebel sharpshooter takes Reynolds’ life

“Black hats” refers to soldiers of I Corps, Army of the Potomac. Its commander, John F. Reynolds, was a well-respected officer and second in command of the entire Union army. He led the I Corps for nearly a year, from September 29, 1862 to July 1, 1863, when he was killed by a Confederate sniper. Its most famous unit was the “Iron Brigade,” made up of Midwestern regiments and led by Brigadier General Solomon Meredith. These men wore black, western-style hats, as opposed to the blue kepis worn by most Union infantrymen.

The first day of the Battle of Gettysburg was a disaster for the North, but by sundown they held good positions on the hills and ridges outside of town. For the next two days, Confederate General Robert E. Lee would unsuccessfully try to dislodge the Army of the Potomac from this position, resulting in horrific losses for both sides.

The song, however, overestimates the battle’s casualties. The two armies suffered a combined 36,700 dead and wounded. “50,000 bodies litter the land” includes missing or captured soldiers.

A lithograph depicting the death of General John F. Reynolds on July 1, 1863 as he supervised the deployment of the Iron Brigade

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