Most Civil War buffs are familiar with the secession song The Bonnie Blue Flag. However, but 1864, at least one Confederate officer held prisoner at Camp Chase had different sentiments; perhaps surrender offered a better choice? His poetry—The Bonnie White Flag—was published in the Camp Chase Ventilator, soon paired to tune, and became a popular favorite within the prisoner of war camp.
Colonel William S. Hawkins, the song’s author, was born in 1837 in Madison County, Alabama. His studies at University of Nashville and Bethany College of Virginia led to graduation with a degree in 1858 and he read law with Tennessee’s governor. As the secession crisis evolved, Hawkins advocated loudly for secession and when the war came, he left his young family and join a Tennessee cavalry unit. After the Battle of Shiloh, Hawkins received promotion and joined the 11th Tennessee Battalion, serving as command of Joseph Wheeler’s Mounted Scouts.
Hawkins’s successes and enthusiasm for the war ended quickly in January 1864 when he was taken prisoner, allowed to convalesce from illness for a few weeks in Louisville, Kentucky, and then sent to Camp Chase, Ohio. In correspondence with Lucy G. Tucker, a woman who cared for him in the Louisville hospital, Hawkins revealed how he spent his time in the prisoner of war came. He delighted that he had been elected Chief Executive of Camp Chase after an exciting election and then spent his time creating a Lyceum to provide needed entertainment. By December 1864, Hawkins had been paroled and allowed to serve as an official Confederate Agent at the prison camp; it seemed like a position to be able to help the other prisoners, but the next month, he admitted his helplessness to actually provide aid, supplies, and comfort for his fellow Southerners. Hawkins left Camp Chase at the end of the war, but died on November 28, 1865, possibly of effects of his experience.
During his imprisonment, Hawkins wrote at least five poems, including The Bonnie White Flag. The latter was published in the post-war era, though war-time sources suggest it was “released” to the prison population who set it to music during their captivity days.
The Bonnie White Flag is a far-cry from its “blue” counterpart. Secession war-cry has been consumed by an overwhelming desire to return home and help create peace, even if that meant surrender. Certainly, Hawkins did not speak for every soldier or officer in the Confederacy and many had quite opposite sentiments, but his poetry does give a glimpse into a longing for war’s end.
Though we’re a band of prisoners,
Let each be firm and true,
For noble souls and hearts of oak,
The foe can ne’er subdue.
We then will turn us homeward,
To those we love so dear;
For peace and happiness, my boys,
Oh, give a hearty cheer!
For peace and home, hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie White Flag,
That ends this cruel war!
The sword into the scabbard, the musket on the wall,
The cannon from its blazing throat,
No more shall hurl the ball;
From wives and babes and sweethearts,
No longer will we roam,
For every gallant soldier boy
Shall seek his cherished home. (Chorus)
Our battle banners furled away,
No more shall greet the eye,
Nor beat of angry drums be heard,
Nor bugle’s hostile cry.
The blade no more be raised aloft,
In conflict fierce and wild,
The bomb shall roll across the sward,
The plaything of a child. (Chorus)
No pale-faced captive then shall stand,
Behind his rusted bars,
Nor from the prison window bleak,
Look sadly to the stars;
But out amid the woodland’s green,
On pounding steed he’ll be,
And proudly from his heart shall rise
The anthem of the free. (Chorus)
The plow into the furrow then,
The fields shall wave with grain,
And smiling children to their schools,
All gladly go again.
The church invites its grateful throng,
And man’s rude striving cease,
While all across our noble land,
Shall glow the light of peace. (Chorus)
The Filson Newsmagazine, Louisville, Kentucky: https://www.filsonhistorical.org/archive/news_v5n4_hawkins.html
Silbur, Irwin. Songs of the Civil War. Dover Publications, New York. 1996.