Civil War Ballads: Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)

Indie rock band The Decemberists wrote and recorded “Yankee Bayonet” for their fourth album, The Crane Wife (2006). It’s a classic tale of lost love during wartime.

Heart-carved tree trunk, Yankee bayonet
A sweetheart left behind
Far from the hills of the sea-swelled Carolinas
That’s where my true love lies

Look for me when the sun-bright swallow
Sings upon the birch bough high
But you are in the ground with the voles and the weevils
All a’chew upon your bones so dry

But when the sun breaks
To no more bullets in Battle Creek
Then will you make a grave
For I will be home then
I will be home then
I will be home then
I will be home then
Then

When I was a girl how the hills of Oconee
Made a seam to hem me in
There at the fair when our eyes caught, careless
Got my heart right pierced by a pin

But oh, did you see all the dead of Manassas
All the bellies and the bones and the bile
No, I lingered here with the blankets barren
And my own belly big with child

But when the sun breaks
To no more bullets in Battle Creek
Then will you make a grave
For I will be home then
I will be home then
I will be home then
I will be home then

Stems and bones and stone walls too
Could keep me from you
Skein of skin is all too few
To keep me from you

But oh my love, though our bodies may be parted
Though our skin may not touch skin
Look for me with the sun-bright sparrow
I will come on the breath of the wind

Although the song title, “Yankee Bayonet,” suggests it’s about a Union soldier, many clues say otherwise. First, by the Civil War, “Yankee” was commonly used throughout the South as a pejorative for Northerners, specifically people from New England. A Northerner wouldn’t likely refer to himself as a Yankee.

The “hills of Oconee” refer to Oconee County, the westernmost county of South Carolina, in the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains. It’s implied the soldier died in the war, perhaps at the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), and that death is his only way to “come home.”

In an interesting bit of trivia, Oconee County did not exist during the Civil War. It was formed in 1868 out of Pickens County. During the war, deserters and criminals frequently plundered the area for supplies. They maintained base camps in the Great Smokey Mountains and took advantage of a lack of military-aged males to rob the local populace.

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 31, 2017, in History, Music and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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