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

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Civil War Ballads: Rock of Chickamauga

This chipper tune was recorded by Jimmy Driftwood for his 1961 album Songs of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb. It gives a rather unflattering account of Major General William Rosecrans’ performance at the Battle of Chickamauga, while praising Major General George H. Thomas’ dogged defense of Snodgrass Hill, which arguably saved the Union army from destruction. This action earned Thomas the nickname, “Rock of Chickamauga.”

Major General George H. Thomas
Major General George H. Thomas

Chick Chick Chickamauga
Chick Chick Chickamauga

Bragg came down the river
with Longstreet by his side
It was an awful battle
and many a soldier died

The rebs came through the wheatfield
Rosecrans ran away
But George Thomas stood his ground
and saved the Union on that day

He was the rock (He was the rock)
of Chickamauga (Chicka Chicka Chickamauga)
The solid rock (the solid rock)
of Chickamauga (Chicka Chicka Chickamauga)

He faced the foe
He stood his ground
No one could push that Yank around

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Civil War Ballads: Rebel Soldier

“Rebel Soldier” is a popular folk song about a Confederate soldier pining for home. Waylon Jennings performed it on the album Songs of the Civil War (1991) by Columbia Records, and it was also performed by The Cumberlands on the album Appalachian Mountain Bluegrass – 30 Vintage Classics (2007). According to the Civil War Trust, it is a folk song from Southern Appalachia.

The National Park Service estimates between 750,000 and 1.23 million men served in the Confederate armed forces between 1861 and 1865. 69 percent of workers in the Confederate states were farmers, which means they probably didn’t venture too far from home. The war took them hundreds of miles away, and many feared they would never see home or their loved ones again.

Andrew Blevins, 30th North Carolina; John Baldwin, 50th Virginia; and Ephraim Blevins, 37th North Carolina, were captured at Gettysburg on July 3, 1861. Civil War photographer Mathew Brady took this photo, which became a famous depiction of Confederate soldiers.
Andrew Blevins, 30th NC; John Baldwin, 50th VA; and Ephraim Blevins, 37th NC, were captured at Gettysburg on July 3, 1861. Mathew Brady took this photo, which became a famous depiction of Confederate soldiers.

Oh Polly, Oh Polly, its for your sake alone
I have left my old Father, my Country, my home
I have left my old Mother to weep and to mourn
I am a rebel soldier, and far from my home

The grape shot and musket and the cannons lumber lie
Its many a mangled body the blanket for the shroud
Its many a mangled body left on the fields alone
I am a rebel soldier and far from my home

Here is a good old cup of brandy and a glass of wine
You can drink to your true love and I will drink to mine
You can drink to your true love and I will lament and moan
I am a rebel soldier and far from my home

I will build me a castle on some green mountain high
Where I can see Polly when she is passing by
Where I can see Polly and help her to mourn
I am a rebel soldier and far from my home

For such an old tune, it has remarkably few variants. Most versions retain the original lyrics, but folk singer Bobby Horton added this stanza:

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Civil War Ballads: Cumberland Gap

The Cumberland Gap is a narrow pass through the Cumberland mountain range, which is part of the Appalachian Mountains, near the junction of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Appalachia gave birth to bluegrass music, so it’s not surprising songwriters would chronicle the cultural and historic significance of the Cumberland Gap.

There are many versions of this popular bluegrass tune. Some only briefly mention events from the Civil War. This version, performed by the Cumberlands on the album Appalachian Mountain Bluegrass – 30 Vintage Classics (2007), devotes the first five stanzas to the Union occupation of the Cumberland Gap in 1862.

Union Brigadier General George W. Morgan
Union Brigadier General George W. Morgan

Lay down boys, take a little nap
Lay down boys, take a little nap
Lay down boys, take a little nap
14 miles to the Cumberland Gap

September mornin’ ’62
September mornin’ ’62
September mornin’ ’62
Morgan’s Yankees all withdrew

Burned the hay, meal*, and the meat
Burned the hay, meal, and the meat
Burned the hay, meal, and the meat
All the rebels had nothin’ to eat

Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Run George Morgan in the Bluegrass land

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Civil War Ballads: Shiloh’s Hill

Shiloh’s Hill is a moving tribute to the men who fought and died at the Battle of Shiloh, April 6–7, 1862. Just before sunrise, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston’s 40,000-strong Army of Mississippi attacked Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s 55,000-strong Army of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. The battle shocked the combatants with its brutality. 23,700 total soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. It took its name from Shiloh Church, where the Union army first put up a defense.

The version of this song I’m familiar with, sung by the 97th Regimental String Band, was featured in Classic Images’ Civil War 125th Anniversary Series VHS (1987) on the Battle of Shiloh. It was, by far, my favorite episode in the series. A veteran of the battle wrote the original lyrics, but they have been adapted and changed over the years.

In 1961, folk singer-songwriter Jimmie Driftwood released the following version, “On Top of Shiloh’s Hill,” on his album Songs of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb.

Come all you gallant soldiers, a story I will tell,
about the bloody battle on top of Shiloh’s Hill.
It was an awful struggle that caused your heart to chill,
all from the bloody battle on top of Shiloh’s Hill.

‘Twas on the sixth of April, about the break of day,
The drums and fifes were playing, for us to march away.
My feelings at that moment, I do remember still,
When first my feet were tromping on top of Shiloh’s Hill.

About the hour of sunrise, the battle first began,
Before the fight was over, we fought them hand-to-hand.
The horror of that battle, my heart with anguish fill,
the wounded and the dying on top of Shiloh’s Hill.

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Beauvoir: The Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library

As I was driving with my dad from Columbia, South Carolina to Pensacola, Florida in the summer of 2014, we decided to stop at some historic sites along the way. Both being Civil War buffs, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in Biloxi, Mississippi seemed like a good choice. Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. After touring the mansion and nearby cemetery, we checked out the newly completed Presidential Library. There, sitting on the desk, was something that caught my interest.

A building with a history like Beauvoir (as the Davis home is called) usually has a few ghost stories, so I wasn’t surprised to see an article called “What’s that in the window at Beauvoir?” sitting on the main desk in the research library. Written by Charles L. Sullivan in 2004, it told the story of a photograph taken by Charlie Brock, a Confederate re-enactor, in 1984. The photograph was of his wife and two of her friends, dressed in period clothing, on the east side of Beauvoir. When the photo was developed, two figures mysteriously appeared in one of the windows.

At the time the picture was taken, the house was closed to visitors, locked, and the security motion detectors were in place. Never-the-less, two humanoid forms stand in the window. One is noticeably taller than the other. The shorter of the two figures is also the easiest to see. “She” appears to be wearing a white dress. Two of the three women walking on the lawn were wearing blue dresses, and one was wearing a dark red dress. The window was also at porch level, above the heads of the three women, making it unlikely (unless the window was angled downward) that this was a reflection.

According to Bud Steed, in his book Haunted Mississippi Gulf Coast (2012), the ghost of Jefferson Davis himself also haunts the 162 year old home. Several visitors have reported encountering someone who they assume is an actor playing Jefferson Davis in the gardens. Later, when they compliment the staff on how realistic his portrayal was, the staff deny having a Jefferson Davis re-enactor on site. One flustered woman even complained that this gentleman appeared out of nowhere and chastised her for stepping in the flower beds!

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Gold Glitters

Greed and obsession collide in Gold (2016), a gritty morality tale set in 1980s Nevada, Wall Street, and Indonesia. Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a prospector desperate for a lucky break. He teams up with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez), and together they descend into the uncharted jungles of Indonesia hoping to find one big score. This poorly-advertised film almost escaped my notice, until I saw it playing at my local theater. I’m glad I took a chance on it. Gold is a solid film and surprisingly entertaining. Matthew McConaughey disappears into the role, achieving absolute rock bottom in body and spirit.

Gold is loosely based on a true story. In 1995, a small Canadian mining company called Bre-X, owned by David Walsh, claimed to find a massive gold deposit deep in the Indonesian jungle on the Island of Borneo, near the Busang River. Filipino geologist Michael de Guzman and John Felderhof convinced Walsh to invest $80,000 to purchase and develop the gold mine.

In 1997, Bre-X collapsed and its shares became worthless in one of the biggest stock scandals in Canadian history. On March 19, 1997, de Guzman committed suicide by jumping from a helicopter in Busang, Indonesia. An independent investigation of core samples from the mine determined de Guzman had been “salting” the samples with gold flakes, some from his own wedding ring. Walsh died of a brain aneurysm in the Bahamas in 1998, and in 2007, Felderhof was acquitted of securities charges. The scandal cost investors an estimated $3 billion.

Gold follows Nevada prospector Kenny Wells, who inherited his father’s company, Washoe Mining, in the early 1980s. Stress-induced alcoholism caused by the economic downturn leads him to sell the last of his jewelry and fly to Indonesia to meet geologist Michael Acosta. There he endures hardship and survives malaria. When he emerges from the illness, Acosta tells him he made what might be the largest gold discovery in history.

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Patriots Day: A Gut-Wrenching Portrayal of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing

Patriots Day follows fictional Boston police sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) as he helps track down brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who detonated two bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The tragedy occurred at 2:49 p.m. local time on April 15, 2013. Massachusetts celebrates Patriots’ Day on April 15 to commemorate the anniversary of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War. It’s estimated around 500,000 spectators attend the marathon. The bombs, made from pressure cookers, detonated 12 seconds apart, killing three and wounding approximately 264.

The film opens the night before the marathon, establishing a backstory for Sergeant Tommy Saunders. He is a well-meaning cop who got into a fight and has to pull guard duty at the marathon finish line before he can assume his regular duties. From there, we are shown snapshots of characters as they get up and start their day, but it is unclear how most of them will tie into the plot. We see future bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his wife and daughter, at their apartment. Their morning is not typical, as one watches a video of masked terrorists demonstrating how to construct a pressure cooker bomb.

The terror, gut-wrenching shock, and confusion of the bombing is dramatically portrayed, as is the following manhunt. We see both law enforcement and the Tsarnaev brothers as they head for a fiery confrontation in the Boston suburb of Watertown. Moments of humor break up the dramatic, heart-racing scenes. During the final shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers, a man tosses a sledgehammer from his porch at police officers crouched behind the fence. “Give ’em hell!” he shouts, as if the crude melee weapon will do anything against the terrorists’ guns and homemade bombs.

It is meant to show defiance and resiliency in the face of terror, and Patriots Day is full of such crowd-pleasing moments, but how accurately does the film depict these events?

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