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Civil War Ballads: Kelly’s Irish Brigade

Songs singing tribute to Irish soldiers are popular, and since nearly 200,000 Irish immigrants fought in the American Civil War, it’s no surprise so many versions of songs like “Paddy’s Lamentation” and “Kelly’s Irish Brigade” have been recorded. Research suggests “Kelly’s Irish Brigade” was written early in the war, and that there is a Northern and Southern version. The following lyrics are decidedly pro-Southern, and this version was recorded by David Kincaid for his album The Irish-American’s Song (2006).

Colonel Joseph M. Kelly’s Washington Blues regiment was considered the Confederacy’s “Irish brigade”

Listen all ye that hold communion
With southern Confederates bold
While I tell you of some men who for the Union
In the northern ranks were enrolled;
They came to Missouri in their “glory,”
And thought, at their might, we’d be dismayed;
But they soon made them tell a different story

When they met Kelly’s Irish Brigade, me boys
When they met Kelly’s Irish Brigade
Didn’t those cowardly Lincoln-ites tremble
When they met with the Irish brigade?

They have called us rebels and traitors
But themselves have thrown off the name of late
They were called it by the English invaders
At home in the eve of ninety-eight
The name to us is not a new one though
Tis’ one that shall never degrade
And each blue-hearted Irishman
In the ranks of Kelly’s Irish Brigade

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Civil War Ballads: Carry the Colours

David Matthews wrote and recorded this song for 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 beautifully captures the devotion Civil War soldiers had for their regimental colours. Regiments used colours, standards, or guidons to mark their position on the battlefield and serve as a rallying point.

At the head of the army, in front of the boys
On a long pole of hickory she flies
Yes I speak for my colors and I give her my love
Just to hold her so many have died
Just to hold her so many have died

And if you think you’re worthy and your heart is so pure
If your love and devotion do shine
Then death will pay tribute to the soldier and guidon
Just to carry the colors in line
Just to carry the colors in line

It’s a rare lad of courage, few chosen, few live
It’s a curse and a blessing, you see
It’s the brave and courageous who reach out their hand
To carry the colors for you and for me
To carry the colors for you and for me

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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: 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: 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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