“They Saw Red Currents Flow”: Death and Injury in Civil War Songs
Spare a thought for Pat Murphy. The “dashing young blade” and main focus of the Civil War ballad Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade came to a violent end during the conflict. His death was detailed in vivid lyrical language
The battle was over, the dead lay in heaps,Pat Murphy lay bleeding and gory,A hole through his head, from rifleman’s shot,Had finished his passion for glory.
When you think about American Civil War songs, the chances are lyrics extolling patriotism to the Union and Confederate causes and sentimental phrases about soldiers fighting and families praying for their survival come to mind. Rallying around flags and shouting battle cries of freedom made for exuberant subject matters that extolled the singing spirit of the conflict. Some songs sang of families lamenting the sight of vacant chairs around tables as sons, brothers and fathers were away at war. Soldiers in turn sang of their mothers, with the specter of death hanging over their words. Indeed, Just Before the Battle, Mother ended with a bittersweet goodbye as a soldier sang “farewell, mother, you may never, press me to your heart again…if I’m numbered with the slain.”
Just Before the Battle, Mother and The Vacant Chair made allusions to battlefield tragedy. A few wartime songs took this sentiment a lyrical step further by singing about the realities of death on the battlefield in blunt terms. This included lyrics that presented vivid descriptions of battlefield wounds, with blood, bleeding and damage left by bullets all appearing in ballads. Civil War photographs made images of wounded and dead bodies a visual reality. In much the same way, song lyrics detailing the conflict’s graphic aspects made singing about battlefield deaths a wartime practice.
Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade is one such example. The lyrical depiction of a soldier “bleeding and gory [with] a hole through his head” presents a very striking image akin to the pictures of sharpshooters slain at Gettysburg or bodies piled high at Antietam, where, as one song dedicated to Pennsylvanian soldiers noted, “some of our boys upon the plain, they found a bloody grave.” Wartime ballads about the Irish American contribution to the Civil War often included more vivid lyrics depicting battlefield casualty descriptions, such as The Irish Brigade, which sang of how Irish soldiers
Surrounded by carnage and slaughter,At Bull Run and Lexington too,They poured out their life-blood like water,Upholding the Red, White and Blue.
One of the reasons Irish American wartime ballads focused on singing about battlefield casualties was to show the extreme level of service the Irish migrant population was willing to make, particularly to the Union cause. As The Irish Brigade in America explained, “the moans of the dying soldiers all bleeding in their gore” would instill both grief and pride in the hearts of their fellow American countrymen that they were willing to sacrifice themselves for Union preservation.
American Civil War songs can also be used to reveal how the nature of battlefield injuries, the overwhelming abundance of blood and death, and the impact of war on bodies could be seen and heard everywhere. The appearance of battlefield brutalities and war wounds even in songs – not sentiments that make for supportive conflict opinion – demonstrate how prevalent and familiar society became with the physical horrors of war.
One battle in particular received great lyrical attention in Irish American Civil War songs – the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. This is unsurprising when considering the Union Army’s Irish Brigade (the primary focus of Irish military attention during the conflict) lost almost half of its fighting strength through death, injury and missing numbers over the course of the encounter. Most were lost during the infamous charge at Confederate lines on Marye’s Heights.
Songwriter Hugh F. McDermott described the result of the Irish Brigade’s charge in grand poetic language in his 13-stanza classical epic-style ballad, also entitled The Irish Brigade:
When soul to soul they pressed attack,The thundering cannon swept them back.As more they saw red currents flow,More fiercely on they charged the foe.
A similar bloody depiction of Fredericksburg could be heard in Irish Volunteers – Penn’a’s Gallant 69th, written and “dedicated to the Sixty-ninth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers”, another predominately ethnic-Irish Union Army unit. It too described the sights and sounds of the battlefield, and the impact Confederate weaponry had on the soldiers and landscape:
The cannons blazing shot and shell, ‘twas like the gaping jaws of hell,Where many a brave man round us fell….The grass was turning red with blood,And growing to a crimson flood…Though many got a bloody shroud, as Philadelphia’s sons we are proud,And sing the deeds in praises loud of the gallant sixty-ninth.
When Union and Confederate forces faced each other during the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, part of the Chancellorsville campaign, the following May, lyricists again picked up their pens to record the brutality of the fighting and its aftermath. Drawing on the genre of wartime sentimental songs that depicted soldiers singing to their mothers while dying on the battlefield, I Shall Never See My Home Again sang of a lyrical “touching incident at the Battle of Fredericksburg, May 4th 1863.” Its words, however, were far from touching. The final two verses, for all their sentiment, painted a clear picture of a soldier’s last anguished moments and a lonely battlefield death:
Thus said a dying youth that lay upon the ground,And breathed a prayer to heaven while bleeding from his wounds,Oh tell my mother dear, no one weeps o’er my grave,But meet me in that better land where the stars shall ever wave…Oh mother do you hear, I’m calling for you now,My voice is growing feeble, and the cold sweat’s on my brow,Why do I call so loud, I know its all in vain?I never, never more shall see my cottage home again.
The themes of these song lyrics combined several weeks later in A Lament on the American War, detailing the siege of Vicksburg in the summer of 1863 and the toll it took on Irish combatants especially. Describing both Union and Confederate losses, the ballad’s lyrics were explicit in their account of military engagement consequences, recalling the image of fields soaked with blood and, like Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade, detailed the horrific injuries sustained by soldiers:
Thro’ fields of blood we have waded, where, cannon balls do roarAnd many a brave commander lay bleeding in their gore,And heaps of Irish heroes brave on the plains there lay,That was both killed and wounded there all in America…After each and every battle, see the memory of the dead,Some wanting legs and arms, and more without their heads,In pits some thousands here do lie…To take a long and silent sleep until the Judgment day.
The ballad’s portrayal of mass casualties and mutilated bodies, of soldiers shot through the head, missing limbs and pouring out their blood, brought the realities of battlefield conflict to the home-front in stark lyrical language. In many ways such lyrics echo James McPherson’s observation about the lack of wartime censorship in letters leading to “uniquely blunt and detailed” reports of the war, including vivid descriptions of battlefield horrors. Neither letters nor song lyrics could do this justice, but the latter do offer up an interesting narrative of how injuries and death were sung about during the American Civil War and how, in these examples at least, they were stripped of sentimentality.
Little wonder then that the parody ‘combination’ song Mother on the Brain ended with a poignant note that tied battlefield death sentiments and realities together. The song concluded with the soldier commenting that “if I’m numbered with the slain…I die with Mother on the brain.” As he dies though, another thought crosses his mind. The soldier asks for something to bring comfort and help him cope with the wartime wounds and horrors around him: “bring me a Bourbon plain.” Those who heard the song would have surely agreed that no one could begrudge a dying soldier that request.
 Pat Murphy of Meagher’s Brigade (Boston: Horace Partridge, 1863).
 Just Before the Battle, Mother, George F. Root (Chicago: Root & Cady, 1863).
 Irish Volunteers – Penn’a’s Gallant 69th, M. Fay (Philadelphia: Johnson, 1863).
 The Irish Brigade (Boston: Horace Partridge, 1862). Nine months after this song was produced, Union General Oliver O. Howard echoed its lyrical sentiment, reporting that soldiers “poured their blood out like water” during the Battle of Antietam.
 The Irish Brigade in America (Glasgow: James Lindsay, 1863).
 The Irish Brigade were comprised of the 69th New York, 63rd New York, 88th New York, 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvanian regiments –all participated at Fredericksburg in 1862. They formed part of the estimated 180,000-200,000 Irish-born soldier contribution to the Union war effort.
 The Irish Brigade, Hugh F. McDermott (New York: Frank McElroy, 1863).
 Irish Volunteers – Penn’a’s Gallant 69th.
 I Never Shall See My Home Again, C. St. John (Boston: C. St. John, 1863).
 A Lamentation on the American War, Awful Battle at Vicksburg, P.J. Fitzpatrick (Dublin 1863).
 James McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 12.
 Mother on the Brain. John C. Cross (New York: H. De Marsan, c.1864). ‘Combination songs’ were composed almost entirely of song titles tied together to create a lyrical narrative. In this example, the lyrics were comprised of songs about the war and mothers, including the popular Just Before the Battle, Mother and Who Will Care for Mother Now?
About the Author
Catherine Bateson is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, researching the sentiments and expressions of Irish American Civil War songs and music. She is also the co-founder of the War Through Other Stuff Society and social media secretary for the Scottish Association for the Study of America. You can follow her on Twitter @catbateson.Tags: Catherine Bateson, Civil War, Civil War songs, Fredericksburg. Antietam, Irish Brigade, Just Before the Battle Mother, Music, Our Captain's Last Words Posted in: Uncategorized