Civil War Ballads: Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel

Written by John Reuben Thompson in 1863, “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel” is a satirical song mocking the Union Army’s inability to capture Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, in 1861 and 1862. It was set to the tune of “Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel” by Daniel Decatur Emmett, who also wrote “Dixie”.

Would you like to hear my song? I’m afraid it’s rather long,
Of the famous “On to Richmond” double trouble;
Of the half a dozen trips and half a dozen slips
And the very latest bursting of the bubble.
‘Tis pretty hard to sing and, like a round, round ring,
‘Tis a dreadful knotty puzzle to unravel;
Though all the papers swore, when we touched Virginia’s shore,
That Richmond was a hard road to travel.

Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel.
Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel, I believe.

First McDowell, bold and gay, set forth the shortest way
By Manassas in the pleasant summer weather
But unfortunately ran on a Stonewall (foolish man!)
And had a rocky journey altogether.
And he found it rather hard to ride over Beauregard
And Johnston proved a deuce of a bother.
‘Twas clear beyond a doubt that he didn’t like the route
And a second time would have to try another.

Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
For Manassas is a hard road to travel.
Manassas gave us fits, and Bull Run made us grieve,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel, I believe.

Next came the Wooly Horse with an overwhelming force
To march down to Richmond by the Valley,
But he couldn’t find the road, and his onward movement showed
His campaigning was a mere shilly-shally.
Then Commissary Banks, with his motley foreign ranks
Kicking up a great noise, fuss, and flurry,
Lost the whole of his supplies and with tears in his eyes
From the Stonewall ran away in a hurry.

Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
For the Valley is a hard road to travel.
The Valley wouldn’t do, and we all had to leave,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel, I believe.

An engraving depicting the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, from Harper’s weekly, 1862

Then the great Galena came, with her portholes all aflame,
And the Monitor, that famous naval wonder,
But the guns at Drury’s Bluff gave them speedily enough
The loudest sort of reg’lar Rebel thunder.
The Galena was astonished and the Monitor admonished,
Our patent shot and shell were mocked at,
While the dreadful Naugatuck, by the hardest kind of luck,
Was knocked into an ugly cocked hat.

Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
For James River is a hard road to travel.
The gunboats gave up in terror and despair,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel, I declare.

Then McClellan followed soon, both with spade and balloon,
To try the Peninsular approaches,
But one and all agreed that his best rate of speed
Was no faster than the slowest of slow coaches.
Instead of easy ground, at Williamsburg he found
A Longstreet indeed and nothing shorter.
And it put him in the dumps that spades wasn’t trumps
And the Hills he couldn’t level “as he orter!”

Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
For Longstreet is a hard road to travel.
Lay down the shovel and throw away the spade,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel, I’m afraid.

Then said Lincoln unto Pope, “You can make the trip, I hope.”
“I will save the universal Yankee nation!
“To make sure of no defeat, I’ll leave no lines of retreat,
“And issue a famous proclamation!”
But that same dreaded Jackson, this fella laid his whacks on
And made him, by compulsion, a seceder.
Pope took rapid flight from Manassas’ second fight,
‘Twas his very last appearance as a leader.

Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
Stonewall is a hard road to travel.
Pope did his very best but was evidently sold,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel, I am told.

Major General Ambrose Burnside. Photo by Mathew Brady

Last of all Burnside, with his pontoon bridges, tried
A road no one had thought of before him,
With two hundred thousand men for the Rebel slaughter pen
And the blessed Union flag waving o’er him.
He met a fire like hell of canister and shell
That mowed down his men with great slaughter.
‘Twas a shocking sight to view, that second Waterloo,
And the river ran with more blood than water.

Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
Rappahannock is a hard road to travel.
Burnside got in a trap, which caused for him to grieve,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel, I believe.

We are very much perplexed to know who is the next
To command the new Richmond expedition,
For the capital must blaze, and that in ninety days,
And Jeff and his men be sent to perdition.
We’ll take the cursed town, and then we’ll burn it down
And plunder and hang each cursed Rebel.
Yet the contraband was right when he told us they would fight:
“Oh, yes, massa, dey will fight like the debil!”

Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel.
Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeves,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel, I believe.

Written at the height of Confederate war prospects, “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel” cheerfully recounts six  attempts by Union forces to capture Richmond, from Bull Run to Fredericksburg. The song must have been written in the early spring of 1863, before the Battle of Chancellorsville.

It’s only about 100 miles between Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, so many Northerners believed it would be easy to march south and put a quick end to the Southern rebellion. In 1861 and 1862, the Union armies embarked on five separate campaigns to capture Richmond, including the Manassas, Peninsula, Shenandoah Valley, Northern Virginia, and Fredericksburg campaigns, but were defeated and turned back every time.

The song also mentions a naval effort to steam up the James River and shell Richmond. At the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, May 15, 1862, Confederate cannon on Fort Darling turned back five Union ships, including the ironclads USS Monitor and Galena.

We are very much perplexed to know who is the next, to command the new Richmond expedition…” That would be Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, who took command of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863. Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson achieved their most stunning victory of the war against Hooker at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

It wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant overall commander of all Union armies that he found a general who could finally capture the Confederate capital.

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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 August 17, 2017, in History, Music and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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