Author: John McElroy

Chapter XLIV.


I have before mentioned as among the things that grew upon one with increasing acquaintance with the Rebels on their native heath, was astonishment at their lack of mechanical ski1l and at their inability to grapple with numbers and the simpler processes of arithmetic. Another characteristic of the same nature was their wonderful lack of musical ability, or of any kind of tuneful creativeness.

Elsewhere, all over the world, people living under similar conditions to the Southerners are exceedingly musical, and we owe the great majority of the sweetest compositions which delight the ear and subdue the senses to unlettered song-makers of the Swiss mountains, the Tyrolese valleys, the Bavarian Highlands, and the minstrels of Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

The music of English-speaking people is very largely made up of these contributions from the folk-songs of dwellers in the wilder and more mountainous parts of the British Isles. One rarely goes far out of the way in attributing to this source any air that he may hear that captivates him with its seductive opulence of harmony. Exquisite melodies, limpid and unstrained as the carol of a bird in Spring-time, and as plaintive as the cooing of a turtle-dove seems as natural products of the Scottish Highlands as the gorse which blazons on their hillsides in August. Debarred from expressing their aspirations as people of broader culture do—in painting, in sculpture, in poetry and prose, these mountaineers make song the flexible and ready instrument for the communication of every emotion that sweeps across their souls.

Love, hatred, grief, revenge, anger, and especially war seems to tune their minds to harmony, and awake the voice of song in them hearts. The battles which the Scotch and Irish fought to replace the luckless Stuarts upon the British throne—the bloody rebellions of 1715 and 1745, left a rich legacy of sweet song, the outpouring of loving, passionate loyalty to a wretched cause; songs which are today esteemed and sung wherever the English language is spoken, by people who have long since forgotten what burning feelings gave birth to their favorite melodies.

For a century the bones of both the Pretenders have moldered in alien soil; the names of James Edward, and Charles Edward, which were once trumpet blasts to rouse armed men, mean as little to the multitude of today as those of the Saxon Ethelbert, and Danish Hardicanute, yet the world goes on singing—and will probably as long as the English language is spoken—"Wha’ll be King but Charlie?" "When Jamie Come Hame," "Over the Water to Charlie," "Charlie is my Darling," "The Bonny Blue Bonnets are Over the Border," "Saddle Your Steeds and Awa," and a myriad others whose infinite tenderness and melody no modern composer can equal.

Yet these same Scotch and Irish, the same Jacobite English, transplanted on account of their chronic rebelliousness to the mountains of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, seem to have lost their tunefulness, as some fine singing birds do when carried from their native shores.

The descendants of those who drew swords for James and Charles at Preston Pans and Culloden dwell to-day in the dales and valleys of the Alleganies, as their fathers did in the dales and valleys of the Grampians, but their voices are mute.

As a rule the Southerners are fond of music. They are fond of singing and listening to old-fashioned ballads, most of which have never been printed, but handed down from one generation to the other, like the ’Volklieder’ of Germany. They sing these with the wild, fervid impressiveness characteristic of the ballad singing of unlettered people. Very many play tolerably on the violin and banjo, and occasionally one is found whose instrumentation may be called good. But above this hight they never soar. The only musician produced by the South of whom the rest of the country has ever heard, is Blind Tom, the negro idiot. No composer, no song writer of any kind has appeared within the borders of Dixie.

It was a disappointment to me that even the stress of the war, the passion and fierceness with which the Rebels felt and fought, could not stimulate any adherent of the Stars and Bars into the production of a single lyric worthy in the remotest degree of the magnitude of the struggle, and the depth of the popular feeling. Where two million Scotch, fighting to restore the fallen fortunes of the worse than worthless Stuarts, filled the world with immortal music, eleven million of Southerners, fighting for what they claimed to be individual freedom and national life, did not produce any original verse, or a bar of music that the world could recognize as such. This is the fact; and an undeniable one. Its explanation I must leave to abler analysts than I am.

Searching for peculiar causes we find but two that make the South differ from the ancestral home of these people. These two were Climate and Slavery. Climatic effects will not account for the phenomenon, because we see that the peasantry of the mountains of Spain and the South of France as ignorant as these people, and dwellers in a still more enervating atmosphere-are very fertile in musical composition, and their songs are to the Romanic languages what the Scotch and Irish ballads are to the English.

Then it must be ascribed to the incubus of Slavery upon the intellect, which has repressed this as it has all other healthy growths in the South. Slavery seems to benumb all the faculties except the passions. The fact that the mountaineers had but few or no slaves, does not seem to be of importance in the case. They lived under the deadly shadow of the upas tree, and suffered the consequences of its stunting their development in all directions, as the ague-smitten inhabitant of the Roman Campana finds every sense and every muscle clogged by the filtering in of the insidious miasma. They did not compose songs and music, because they did not have the intellectual energy for that work.

The negros displayed all the musical creativeness of that section. Their wonderful prolificness in wild, rude songs, with strangely melodious airs that burned themselves into the memory, was one of the salient characteristics of that down-trodden race. Like the Russian serfs, and the bondmen of all ages and lands, the songs they made and sang all had an undertone of touching plaintiveness, born of ages of dumb suffering. The themes were exceedingly simple, and the range of subjects limited. The joys, and sorrows, hopes and despairs of love’s gratification or disappointment, of struggles for freedom, contests with malign persons and influences, of rage, hatred, jealousy, revenge, such as form the motifs for the majority of the poetry of free and strong races, were wholly absent from their lyrics. Religion, hunger and toil were their main inspiration. They sang of the pleasures of idling in the genial sunshine; the delights of abundance of food; the eternal happiness that awaited them in the heavenly future, where the slave-driver ceased from troubling and the weary were at rest; where Time rolled around in endless cycles of days spent in basking, harp in hand, and silken clad, in golden streets, under the soft effulgence of cloudless skies, glowing with warmth and kindness emanating from the Creator himself. Had their masters condescended to borrow the music of the slaves, they would have found none whose sentiments were suitable for the ode of a people undergoing the pangs of what was hoped to be the birth of a new nation.

The three songs most popular at the South, and generally regarded as distinctively Southern, were "The Bonnie Blue Flag," "Maryland, My Maryland," and "Stonewall Jackson Crossing into Maryland." The first of these was the greatest favorite by long odds. Women sang, men whistled, and the so-called musicians played it wherever we went. While in the field before capture, it was the commonest of experiences to have Rebel women sing it at us tauntingly from the house that we passed or near which we stopped. If ever near enough a Rebel camp, we were sure to hear its wailing crescendo rising upon the air from the lips or instruments of some one more quartered there. At Richmond it rang upon us constantly from some source or another, and the same was true wherever else we went in the so-called Confederacy.

All familiar with Scotch songs will readily recognize the name and air as an old friend, and one of the fierce Jacobite melodies that for a long time disturbed the tranquility of the Brunswick family on the English throne. The new words supplied by the Rebels are the merest doggerel, and fit the music as poorly as the unchanged name of the song fitted to its new use. The flag of the Rebellion was not a bonnie blue one; but had quite as much red and white as azure. It did not have a single star, but thirteen.

Near in popularity was "Maryland, My Maryland." The versification of this was of a much higher Order, being fairly respectable. The air is old, and a familiar one to all college students, and belongs to one of the most common of German household songs:

O, Tannenbaum! O, Tannenbaum, wie tru sind deine Blatter!
Da gruenst nicht nur zur Sommerseit,
Nein, auch in Winter, when es Schneit, etc.

which Longfellow has finely translated,

O, hemlock tree! O, hemlock tree! how faithful are thy branches! Green not alone in Summer time, But in the Winter’s float and rime. O, hemlock tree O, hemlock tree! how faithful are thy branches. etc.

The Rebel version ran:


The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
Maryland! His touch is at thy temple door,
Maryland! Avenge the patriotic gore That flecked the streets of Baltimore, And be the battle queen of yore, Maryland! My Maryland!

Hark to the wand’ring son’s appeal,
Maryland! My mother State, to thee I kneel,
Maryland! For life and death, for woe and weal, Thy peerless chivalry reveal, And gird thy beauteous limbs with steel, Maryland! My Maryland!

Thou wilt not cower in the duet,
Maryland! Thy beaming sword shall never rust
Maryland! Remember Carroll’s sacred trust, Remember Howard’s warlike thrust— And all thy slumberers with the just, Maryland! My Maryland!

Come! ’tis the red dawn of the day,
Maryland! Come! with thy panoplied array,
Maryland! With Ringgold’s spirit for the fray, With Watson’s blood at Monterey, With fearless Lowe and dashing May, Maryland! My Maryland!

Comet for thy shield is bright and strong,
Maryland! Come! for thy dalliance does thee wrong,
Maryland! Come! to thins own heroic throng, That stalks with Liberty along, And give a new Key to thy song, Maryland! My Maryland!

Dear Mother! burst the tyrant’s chain,
Maryland! Virginia should not call in vain,
Maryland! She meets her sisters on the plain— ’Sic semper" ’tis the proud refrain, That baffles millions back amain,
Maryland! Arise, in majesty again, Maryland! My Maryland!

I see the blush upon thy cheek,
Maryland! But thou wast ever bravely meek,
Maryland! But lo! there surges forth a shriek From hill to hill, from creek to creek— Potomac calls to Chesapeake, Maryland! My Maryland!

Thou wilt not yield the vandal toll.
Maryland! Thou wilt not crook to his control,
Maryland! Better the fire upon thee roll, Better the blade, the shot, the bowl, Than crucifixion of the soul, Maryland! My Maryland!

I hear the distant Thunder hem,
Maryland! The Old Line’s bugle, fife, and drum.
Maryland! She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb— Hnzza! she spurns the Northern scum! She breathes—she burns! she’ll come! she’ll come! Maryland! My Maryland!

"Stonewall Jackson Crossing into Maryland," was another travesty, of about the same literary merit, or rather demerit, as "The Bonnie Blue Flag." Its air was that of the well-known and popular negro minstrel song," Billy Patterson." For all that, it sounded very martial and stirring when played by a brass band.

We heard these songs with tiresome iteration, daily and nightly, during our stay in the Southern Confederacy. Some one of the guards seemed to be perpetually beguiling the weariness of his watch by singing in all keys, in every sort of a voice, and with the wildest latitude as to air and time. They became so terribly irritating to us, that to this day the remembrance of those soul-lacerating lyrics abides with me as one of the chief of the minor torments of our situation. They were, in fact, nearly as bad as the lice.

We revenged ourselves as best we could by constructing fearfully wicked, obscene and insulting parodies on these, and by singing them with irritating effusiveness in the hearing of the guards who were inflicting these nuisances upon us.

Of the same nature was the garrison music. One fife, played by an asthmatic old fellow whose breathings were nearly as audible as his notes, and one rheumatic drummer, constituted the entire band for the post. The fifer actually knew but one tune "The Bonnie Blue Flag"— and did not know that well. But it was all that he had, and he played it with wearisome monotony for every camp call—five or six times a day, and seven days in the week. He called us up in the morning with it for a reveille; he sounded the "roll call" and "drill call," breakfast, dinner and supper with it, and finally sent us to bed, with the same dreary wail that had rung in our ears all day. I never hated any piece of music as I came to hate that threnody of treason. It would have been such a relief if the, old asthmatic who played it could have been induced to learn another tune to play on Sundays, and give us one day of rest. He did not, but desecrated the Lord’s Day by playing as vilely as on the rest of the week. The Rebels were fully conscious of their musical deficiencies, and made repeated but unsuccessful attempts to induce the musicians among the prisoners to come outside and form a band.


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Chicago: John McElroy, "Chapter XLIV.," Andersonville, ed. Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937 in Andersonville Original Sources, accessed September 30, 2022,

MLA: McElroy, John. "Chapter XLIV." Andersonville, edited by Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937, in Andersonville, Original Sources. 30 Sep. 2022.

Harvard: McElroy, J, 'Chapter XLIV.' in Andersonville, ed. . cited in , Andersonville. Original Sources, retrieved 30 September 2022, from