Category Archives: Music

Civil War Ballads: Tears of a Generation

David Matthews (no, not that one) wrote and recorded this song for Classic Images’ Civil War 125th Anniversary Series VHS (1987) on the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. It also appeared on his 1994 album Shades of Blue & Gray: Songs From The Civil War, released by Delta, and re-released on various alternatively-titled albums over the years. The song touches on the battles of The Wilderness and Yellow Tavern, which preceded the Battle of Spotsylvania. All were part of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from May 4 – June 24, 1864.

Skulls remaining on the Wilderness battlefield, 1864.

With their backs against the wall, he drew his saber
With the hot breath of the boys in blue so near
And he chose a darkened forest called The Wilderness
Where the screams of death were all that men could hear
Where the screams of death were all that men could hear

Soldiers smashed into the nightmare bramble
Melting into death’s inferno on they came
And the smoke and fire transformed them into devils
At the end they knew they’d never be the same
At the end they knew they’d never be the same

And the rains became the tears of a generation
Hot winds that fan the fires of victory
Charred ruins were their monuments to glory
Look around you for their painful memory
Look around you for their painful memory

Jeb Stewart’s gray cavalry, pride of the Southland
Gray knights they would ride through the dawn
Invisible armor, still rode at his side
Never was wounded in body or pride
But at Yellow Tavern young Jeb was to die

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Civil War Ballads: Paddy’s Lamentation

I first heard this song in the movie Gangs of New York (2002). It’s played during a great scene where Irish immigrants are recruited into the Union Army as they come off the boat. One asks, “Where’re we going?” The man behind him replies, “I heard Tennessee.” “Where’s that?” As they walk onto the cargo ship in uniform, coffins are being lowered into a line on the dock. That probably never happened because it would devastate morale, but it creates a stirring visual. From what I can gather, the song is popular in Canada and is considered an Irish-Canadian folk song. It may date from 1870 or 1880.

Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher, commanded the Union “Irish Brigade”

Well it’s by the hush, me boys, and sure that’s to hold your noise
And listen to poor Paddy’s sad narration
I was by hunger pressed, and in poverty distressed
So I took a thought I’d leave the Irish nation

Here’s to you boys, now take my advice
To America I’ll have ye’s not be going
There is nothing here but war, where the murderin’ cannons roar
And I wish I was at home in dear old Dublin

Well I sold me ass and cow, my little pigs and sow
My little plot of land I soon did part with
And me sweetheart Bid McGee, I’m afraid I’ll never see
For I left her there that morning brokenhearted

Well meself and a hundred more, to America sailed o’er
Our fortunes to be made [sic] we were thinkin’
When we got to Yankee land, they shoved a gun into our hands
Saying “Paddy, you must go and fight for Lincoln”

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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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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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