The Other Star Spangled Banner

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012-2013, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2013 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


At the time of the Civil War neither side, Union or Confederate, had an official national anthem. But in light of what became the national anthem of the United States of America, it can be argued that there is a song that comes closer to a national anthem of the Confederate States of America than the song “Dixie,” which many consider the CSA’s national anthem. That song is “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

The Bonnie Blue Flag

The flag that is the subject of the song is a blue flag with a single large five-pointed white star in the center. But while the flag may be familiar to many people, the flag’s history may not be. The Bonnie Blue Flag was originally the flag of what was known as the Republic of West Florida. The territory that comprised this short-lived country lies along the Gulf Coast east of the Mississippi River and west of the Florida panhandle and, in spite of its name, includes none of present-day Florida. This territory includes what are now the southern parts of Alabama and Mississippi and a small part of Louisiana north of Lake Pontchartrain. American settlers in the area came to oppose Spanish control of the territory. In September 1810, these settlers rebelled against the Spanish authorities, and a force of rebel troops under Philemon Thomas marched on the provincial capital of Baton Rouge. One of the units that joined this force was led by Isaac Johnson, and the flag that was carried by this unit was the Bonnie Blue Flag, which had been made a few days earlier by Johnson’s wife, Melissa. After the rebels took Baton Rouge, the Bonnie Blue Flag was hoisted as the emblem of the new Republic of West Florida. This new nation adopted a constitution modeled after the U.S. Constitution and established its capital at St. Francisville, in present-day Louisiana. The territory comprising the Republic of West Florida had changed hands a number of times from France to Britain to Spain. Originally it had been part of the French Louisiana Territory. Using this as justification, President James Madison, without Congressional approval or negotiations with Spain, issued a proclamation laying U.S. claim to the territory. In December 1810 Madison sent troops to seize control of the region, and the U.S. flag was raised over Baton Rouge. Although many citizens of the Republic of West Florida welcomed their country’s assimilation into the U.S., many others were not so enthusiastic, and Spanish colonial officials expressed outrage at “the perfidy of the American government.” Nevertheless, less than three months after its birth, the Republic of West Florida passed out of existence, but the country’s flag did not.

An advertisement for Harry McCarthy’s shows that appeared in a Vicksburg newspaper (The Daily Evening Citizen) on December 26, 1860

When secession fervor began growing in the South, the Bonnie Blue Flag became a symbol of secession movements. On January 9, 1861, Mississippi became the second state to adopt an ordinance of secession. When this was announced in Jackson, the Bonnie Blue Flag was raised atop the capitol above a wildly cheering crowd. One person in that crowd was a pro-secession Ulster immigrant named Harry McCarthy (whose name is sometimes spelled Macarthy). McCarthy was a performing songster and musician who had been doing shows in Vicksburg until a little more than a week before the secession convention in Jackson. After his last performance in Vicksburg, McCarthy went to Jackson to experience the events surrounding the convention, and he was elated when Mississippi voted to secede. Already impassioned by the moment, McCarthy was so inspired by the sight of the Bonnie Blue Flag flying above the capitol that he composed lyrics set to the melody of an Irish song named “The Irish Jaunting Car.” The song that McCarthy composed has the same name as the flag that is its subject, “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

The Mississippi state capitol, atop which the Bonnie Blue Flag was flown after passage of the ordinance of secession
Cover of sheet music for “The Bonnie Blue Flag”

The story about how that song was composed should sound familiar. Harry McCarthy, who was witnessing a highly emotional event and was inspired by the sight of a flag, composed lyrics about that flag, and those lyrics were set to a melody that he knew from somewhere else. Doesn’t that sound very much like someone who was outside Fort McHenry on the night of September 13-14, 1814 and penned the words to the song that is the national anthem of the United States? When Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner,” he had been watching the battle of Baltimore, he was inspired by the sight of the American flag flying over Fort McHenry, he wrote lyrics about that flag, and those lyrics were set to the melody of a song that Key knew from his gentlemen’s club, that song being “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The song “The Bonnie Blue Flag” was very popular in the Confederacy, although it was never officially adopted as the Confederacy’s national anthem. However, a compelling case can be made that “The Bonnie Blue Flag” rather than “Dixie” comes closer to a national anthem for the Confederate States of America because of the similarity in the circumstances surrounding the composing of “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and “The Star Spangled Banner,” the song that eventually became the U.S. national anthem.

Of course, the song “The Bonnie Blue Flag” is not particularly popular with pro-Unionists. But it is silly for pro-Unionists to simply renounce that song. It has a really energetic and infectious melody. In fact, the National Football League used that melody as part of the background music on a highlights show that was a weekly broadcast many years ago. If the NFL used that melody, it can’t be all bad. Those people who are pro-Union should follow the example demonstrated by Abraham Lincoln toward the other anthem of the Confederacy, “Dixie.” When news of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia reached Washington, a crowd of revelers outside the White House tried to prod Lincoln to give an impromptu speech. Rather than give a speech, Lincoln famously requested that a band play “Dixie.” Lincoln said of “Dixie” that it is “one of the best tunes I have ever heard” and went on to say that the Confederacy “attempted to appropriate it.” Just because a movement that pro-Unionists consider abhorrent tried to take possession of a melody that pro-Unionists find enjoyable is no reason for them to relinquish it by obstinately refusing to enjoy it any more. In fact, some people in the Civil War did what they could to see to it that that did not happen with the melody for “The Bonnie Blue Flag” by writing alternate lyrics.

Most of the lyrics that Harry McCarthy composed deal with states seceding. (And McCarthy got the order in which the states seceded wrong.) However, one verse has lyrics which are not particularly complimentary to the Union or to Northerners. (The complete lyrics of “The Bonnie Blue Flag” are included after the end of this history brief.)

As long as the Union was faithful to her trust,
Like friends and like brethren, kind were we, and just.
But now, when Northern treachery attempts our rights to mar,
We hoist on high the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.
Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights, hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

One alternate set of lyrics for “The Bonnie Blue Flag’ is attributed to Union Colonel J.L. Geddes of the 8th Iowa, who wrote the lyrics when he grew tired of listening to the original after he became a prisoner of war. This version expresses a pro-Union sentiment as exemplified by the first verse. (The complete lyrics of this version are included after the end of this history brief.)

We’re fighting for our Union; we’re fighting for our trust.
We’re fighting for that happy land where sleeps our father’s dust.
It cannot be dissevered, though it cost us bloody wars.
We never can give up the land where floats the stripes and stars.
Hurrah! Hurrah! For equal rights hurrah.
Hurrah for the good old flag that bears the stripes and stars.

There are even lyrics that are associated with the Irish Brigade, although there is a line about George McClellan that rings hollow. One of the verses deals with the refusal of the 69th New York to march in a parade honoring the Prince of Wales, and another verse celebrates the strong willingness to join the war effort against secession. (The complete lyrics of this version are included after the end of this history brief.)

Now when the traitors in the South commenced a warlike raid,
I quickly then laid down my hod, to the devil went my spade!
To a recruiting-office then I went, that happened to be near,
And joined the good old Sixty-ninth, like an Irish volunteer.
Then fill the ranks and march away! No traitors do we fear.
We’ll drive them all to blazes, says the Irish volunteer.

Those two sets of pro-Union, anti-secession lyrics to the tune of “The Bonnie Blue Flag” provide an avenue for pro-Unionists to enjoy that rousing melody. Now when pro-Unionists hear that melody, they don’t have to turn a deaf ear to it. They just need to sing the lyrics that express their sentiments.

Note: Below are the two sets of complete lyrics for the J.L. Geddes version and the Irish Brigade version of “The Bonnie Blue Flag” as well as the lyrics of “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

J.L. Geddes lyrics

We’re fighting for our Union; we’re fighting for our trust,
We’re fighting for that happy land where sleeps our father dust.
It cannot be dissevered, though it cost us bloody wars.
We never can give up the land where floats the stripes and stars.

Chorus: Hurrah! Hurrah! For equal rights hurrah!
Hurrah for the good old flag that bears the stripes and stars.

We trusted you as brothers, until you drew the sword.
With impious hands at Sumter, you cut the silver cord.
So now you hear the bugles; we come, the sons of Mars,
To rally round the brave old flag that bears the stripes and stars.

Chorus

We do not want your cotton; we do not want your slaves.
But rather than divide the land, we’ll fill your Southern graves.
With Lincoln for our chieftain, we wear our country’s stars,
And rally round the brave old flag that bears the stripes and stars.

Chorus

We deem our cause most holy; we know we’re in the right.
And twenty million freemen stand ready for the fight.
Our pride is fair Columbia; no stain her beauty mars.
On her we’ll raise the brave old flag that bears the stripes and stars.

Chorus

And when this war is over, we’ll each resume our home.
And treat you still as brothers, wherever you may roam.
We’ll pledge the hand of friendship, and think no more of war.
But dwell in peace beneath the flag that bears the stripes and stars.

Chorus

Irish Brigade lyrics (“The Irish Volunteer”)

My name is Tim McDonald, I’m a native of the Isle.
I was born among old Erin’s bogs when I was but a child.
My father fought in ‘Ninety-eight for liberty so dear.
He fell upon old Vinegar Hill, like an Irish volunteer.
Then raise the harp of Erin, boys, the flag we all revere.
We’ll fight and fall beneath its folds, like Irish volunteers!
Then raise the harp of Erin, boys, the flag we all revere.
We’ll fight and fall beneath its folds, like Irish volunteers!

When I was driven from my home by an oppressor’s hand,
I cut my sticks and greased my brogues, and came o’er to this land.
I found a home and many friends, and some that I love dear.
Be jabbers! I’ll stick to them like bricks and an Irish volunteer.
Then fill your glasses up, my boys, and drink a hearty cheer.
To the land of our adoption and the Irish volunteer!
Then fill your glasses up, my boys, and drink a hearty cheer.
To the land of our adoption and the Irish volunteer!

Now when the traitors in the South commenced a warlike raid,
I quickly then laid down my hod, to the devil went my spade!
To a recruiting-office then I went, that happened to be near,
And joined the good old Sixty-ninth, like an Irish volunteer.
Then fill the ranks and march away! No traitors do we fear.
We’ll drive them all to blazes, says the Irish volunteer.
Then fill the ranks and march away! No traitors do we fear.
We’ll drive them all to blazes, says the Irish volunteer.

When the Prince of Wales came over here, and made a hubbaboo,
Oh, everybody turned out, you know, in gold and tinsel too.
But then the good old Sixty-ninth didn’t like these lords or peers.
They wouldn’t give a damn for kings, the Irish volunteers!
We love the land of Liberty, its laws we will revere.
“But the devil take nobility!” says the Irish volunteer!
We love the land of Liberty, its laws we will revere.
“But the devil take nobility!” says the Irish volunteer!

Now if the traitors in the South should ever cross our roads,
We’ll drive them to the devil, as Saint Patrick did the toads.
We’ll give them all short nooses that come just below the ears,
Made strong and good of Irish hemp by Irish volunteers.
Then here’s to brave McClellan, whom the army now reveres.
He’ll lead us on to victory, the Irish volunteers.
Then here’s to brave McClellan, whom the army now reveres.
He’ll lead us on to victory, the Irish volunteers.

Now fill your glasses up, my boys, a toast come drink with me.
May Erin’s Harp and the Starry Flag united ever be.
May traitors quake, and rebels shake, and tremble in their fears,
When next they meet the Yankee boys and Irish volunteers!
God bless the name of Washington, that name this land reveres;
Success to Meagher and Nugent, and their Irish volunteers!
God bless the name of Washington, that name this land reveres;
Success to Meagher and Nugent, and their Irish volunteers!

“The Bonnie Blue Flag”

We are a band of brothers and native to the soil,
Fighting for the property we gained by honest toil.
And when our rights were threatened, the cry rose near and far,
“Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star!”

Chorus: Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

As long as the Union was faithful to her trust,
Like friends and like brothers, both kind were we and just.
But now, when Northern treachery attempts our rights to mar,
We hoist on high the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

Chorus

First gallant South Carolina nobly made the stand.
Then came Alabama, who took her by the hand.
Next quickly Mississippi, Georgia and Florida,
All raised on high the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

Chorus

Ye men of valor, gather round the banner of the right.
Texas and fair Louisiana, join us in the fight.
Davis, our loved president, and Stephens statesman are.
Now rally round the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

Chorus

And here’s to old Virginia, the Old Dominion State,
Who with the young Confederacy at length has linked her fate.
Impelled by her example, now other states prepare,
To hoist on high the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

Chorus

Then cheer, boys, cheer; raise the joyous shout,
For Arkansas and North Carolina now have both gone out.
And let another rousing cheer for Tennessee be given.
The single star of the Bonnie Blue Flag has grown to be eleven.

Chorus

Then here’s to our Confederacy, strong are we and brave.
Like patriots of old we’ll fight our heritage to save.
And rather than submit to shame, to die we would prefer.
So cheer for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

Chorus

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