Today, we bring you the second part of Lance Herdegen’s two-part piece about the music of the Iron Brigade, which was not only one of the most famous fighting units in the Army of the Potomac but whose members also happened to have a particular ear for music. “Any veteran memory of the long marching columns evoked faint echoes of the soldiers singing or the tooting of the brass bands,” Lance wrote in part one.
During the long march or short, said Loyd Grayson Harris, an officer with the 6th Wisconsin, when the bands ceased playing, a chorus of voices would lift from the columns. The Prairie du Chien boys especially liked to sing:
O never mind the weather, but get over double trouble,
For we are bound for the happy land of Canaan.
Then the Juneau County boys, despite “the religious warnings” of pious Rufus Dawes, would add:
My name it is Joe Bower
I have a brother Ike,
I came from old Missouri
Just all the way from Pike.
After several verses of “Joe Bower,” the company would conclude with the sequel where “Sally had a baby, and the baby had red hair.” That would bring a roar of laughter from the column, one officer said, and then the Irish “Skull-crackers” of the 6th Wisconsin would pitch in with a song endorsed by them:
Here’s a health to Martin Hannegan’s aunt,
And I’ll tell ye the reason why;
She eats bekase she is hungry,
And drinks bekase she is dhry.
And if ever a man
Stopped the course of a can,
Martin Hannegan’s aunt would cry—
Arrh, fill up your glass,
And let the jug pass
How d’ye know but your neighbor is dry.
The songs of the Milwaukee Germans were an especial favorite, said Harris. “How often…did I steal quietly to their camp-fire and, perhaps concealed by the shadow of a friendly tree, listen…as in the bright fire-light, their voices in pure harmony rang out on the quiet scene.” In quiet times, the Germans sang:
Blue is the flower called the forget me not,
Ah, lay it on their heart, and think of me.
Or in happier times:
The Pope he leads a happy life.
He knows no care or married life.
It was Harris, of course, who listed the favorite songs, from “Ever of Thee” to “John Brown’s Body” to the “Souderbach Waltz.” Other songs included “Sweet bye and bye,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the boys are marching,” and “Rally Round the flag.” The rebel bands could be heard across the rivers playing “Bonnie Blue Flag,” “Dixie,” “My Maryland,” and “Stonewall Jackson’s Way.”
The violin he brought as an enlisted man from Prairie du Chien traveled in the field officers’ regimental mess chest. Harris played for others, but when alone, “gratified my own taste in playing a variety of operatic airs a little too select for a mixed audience of my army friends.” He was playing a favorite air from “Norma,” when two rough-looking soldiers from another brigade approached and listened at the door. “Stranger, while yet got yar hand in jes’ play us the ‘Rankensack Traveler’,” one suggested. Harris shook his head and said, “No.” “Wall then, shake out ‘Pork Packin’ in Cincinnati.” Harris ignored the request. “How about ‘Sally in Our Alley,’ eh! Can’t play that? Then give me ‘Hell on the Wabash’.” When there was no response, the requester turned to his friend and said, “Come pard, let’s move on; when we come back, that fellow may have his fiddle tuned and shake out something for us.”
It was not only the soldiers who sang in the camps, but the contraband cooks, strikers, and other former slaves who gathered with the soldiers. On one occasion, said Harris, one such singer astonished his listeners by singing a verse that was a favorite of his old master:
I’ll load my gun wid ball and lead,
And shoot old Linkum in the head.
After the laughter and shouts subsided, the boys “assumed the most virtuous indignation and informed the singer that he was ‘guilty of treason in the most corrugated form.’ (that word made him tremble all over), and as punishment he must be ‘loaded into a cannon and fired back to the tobacco factory of his old master.”’ The camp striker begged another chance and when told to go ahead, with “a broad grin extending from ear to ear, he roared…”
I’ll load my gun wid ball and lead,
And shoot Jeff Davis in de head.
That verse brought laughter, and then applause.
One story never forgotten involved the fine band of the 24th Michigan, fresh from Detroit and Wayne County in the West. The new regiment was moved forward into position at Fredericksburg just in front of the 6th Wisconsin under the cover of a dense fog. The band was playing “Hail Columbia, Happy Land,” when the sun broke through the fog swept away and the trained guns of a half dozen Confederate batteries opened. One of the first shells landed “in the midst of the band, scattering them right and left.” The survivors made for the sheltering bank of the river and Col. Henry Morrow held his regiment under the guns, shouting, “Steady, men, those Wisconsin men are watching you.” The teller of the story admitted, however, he could not remember ever seeing that band of the 24th Michigan in any of the hard-fought battles in which their regiment afterwards participated.
Much of the music faded after Gettysburg. Many of the singers were dead or gone by 1864 and the army was moving almost every day. The war was taking on a harder edge and the soldiers were stripped down for hard fighting. There were few pleasant winter camps and long quiet times not marked by fighting. The music had been all but beaten out of the army.
Lance Herdegen is the author of The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter.