Civil War Ballads: The Legend of the Rebel Soldier

Like “Rebel Soldier,” “The Legend of the Rebel Soldier” is a song about a Confederate soldier pining for home (this time from prison), though “home” seems to be the South in general. It was written long after the guns fell silent. Most people seem to agree “The Legend of the Rebel Soldier” is based on the Irish folksong “Kevin Barry,” about a member of the Irish Republican Army who was hanged in November 1920 (though there is some debate).

Charlie Moore, a South Carolina bluegrass artist, released the song in the early 1970s. It is largely apocryphal, since it is doubtful, due to the number of Confederate prisoners of war and the conditions of the prison camps, that one prisoner would be given his own cell. At Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, prisoners stayed in wooden bunkhouses.

The National Park Service estimates 214,865 Confederate soldiers were captured and spent some time in a Union prison camp (i.e., not paroled on the field). Approximately 26,000 Confederate and 30,200 Union prisoners of war died in captivity, mostly of starvation and disease.

Confederate prisoners of war in Camp Douglas
Confederate prisoners of war in Camp Douglas

In a dreary Yankee prison
Where a rebel soldier lay.
By his side there stood a preacher
ere his soul should pass away

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Church Street Graveyard’s Boyington Oak

Local residents believe one of Alabama’s oldest cemeteries is haunted by the ghost of a hanged man, whose grave is marked by an oak tree.

  • Church Street Graveyard in Mobile, Alabama, was established in 1819.
  • Charles R.S. Boyington was accused, convicted, and hanged for a friend’s murder, and buried at the cemetery.
  • According to legend, an oak tree grew up over his grave and passersby have reporting hearing sobs and professions of innocence.

Behind a stone wall dating to the 1830s, vines crawl up wrought and cast iron fences, and antebellum granite headstones and crypts stand silently in the shade of southern live oak trees. Wind whistles through this quiet graveyard nestled in historic downtown Mobile, Alabama. Church Street Graveyard, as it is known, is a small 4-acre cemetery that rests behind the Mobile Public Library, with an entrance off Bayou and Church streets. It was established in 1819 and closed in 1898, although a few burials have taken place since then. Many of the earliest people interred there were victims of a yellow fever epidemic that killed hundreds.

The stories at this graveyard primarily center on a southern live oak growing just outside the stone wall off Bayou Street. Southern live oak trees, with thick trunks, gnarled branches, and often decorated with Spanish moss, can live up to 500 years. The Boyington Oak, as this particular tree is known, is relatively young. According to legend, it sprouted in 1835, a year after the gruesome murder that would give it its name.

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Custer State Park, South Dakota

In spring 2014, a friend and I had the opportunity to travel out to South Dakota and parts of Wyoming. On the way, we ran into a freak winter storm that blew across the Great Plains. There were wind gusts of up to 64 mph in Rapid City. Thankfully, it cleared up by the time we made it to Custer State Park, south of Rapid City, and the weather was perfect.

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Custer State Park is a state wildlife reserve in the Black Hills, named after George Armstrong Custer, who died at the Battle of Little Bighorn. It is 71,000 acres of scenic countryside. You can drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road through gently sloping terrain all around the park. There are also hiking trails, lodges, and lakes where trout fishing is popular.

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Besides picturesque scenery, Custer State Park’s big draw is a herd of over 1,300 bison. The bison are known to occasionally block the road. We drove through a big herd and got pretty close, but luckily they stayed away from the road.

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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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Northwestern Illinois’ Forgotten Winston Tunnel

Passengers can no longer traverse the longest railroad tunnel in Illinois, but one entrance stands as a memorial to the engineers who built it.

  • The Winston Tunnel was built in 1888, and at least one worker lost his life during construction.
  • Visitors report seeing his ghost in and around the tunnel.
  • The ruins of a caretakers house are still visible in the woods.

The entrance to the Winston Tunnel, covered with iron bars like a gatehouse in a medieval dungeon, sits deep in the woods several miles southwest of Galena, Illinois, just off Blackjack Road, near the tiny community of Rice.  It has sat empty since 1971, and nothing but a few intrepid explorers and the rattlesnakes that make their nests in the damp and murky interior have ventured inside.

Carefully navigating the slippery and steep slope off to the side of the entrance, it is easy to wonder what it must have been like for the engineers roaring through the dark tunnel in their steam locomotives.

At 2,493 feet, the Winston Tunnel was the longest railroad tunnel in Illinois. It was built in 1888 for the Minnesota and Northwestern Railroad, a line that ran from Chicago to Minneapolis, Omaha, and Kansas City. It took 350 workmen (and $600,000) more than nine months to complete the tunnel. Shortly after, the Minnesota and Northwestern became known as the “Chicago Great Western Railway.”

At least one worker is known to have been killed during construction of the tunnel, which was so long a pump house had to be built to ventilate it. In fact, it is said that the ghost of this Finnish laborer still haunts the site to this day. Two engineers, one stationed at the east entrance and one at the west entrance, stood watch.

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Lake George, New York

Lake George, in east-central New York, is a wonderful place to get away. Here you can experience boat rides, swimming, parasailing, history, hiking, drinking, dining, arcades, mini golf, and so much more. In the spring through fall, visitors flock to this area, and it isn’t hard to see why. I’ve spent two weekends there, and still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. It reminds me of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, or Wisconsin Dells, which is where my family vacationed when I was a kid.

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Fall is a good time to visit because the leaves change color, but things start shutting down for the season. I happened to be there Oktoberfest weekend, and the main street was partially blocked off. They had rides for the kids and a beer tent. I did a wine tasting at Adirondack Winery and ended up with a bottle of their Amethyst Sunset (I like sweet reds).

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There are so many little tourist shops, ice cream parlors, and places to eat. Exiting off Interstate 87 onto Route 9, you can follow Route 9 into town or explore south for a few miles. There are things to do all along that main street. Pirate’s Cove Adventure Golf, Magic Forest, outlet stores, and Six Flags Great Escape are all south of Lake George. Magic Forest has the world’s largest Uncle Sam statue (not sure if that’s actually true…).

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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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