Music in the Confederate Navy

Presented at the 10th Annual Mystic Seaport Museum Maritime Music Symposium, June 10, 1989

By John Townley

Music sung and played on shipboard in the 19th century has been widely researched and written about, including many specialty areas such as songs of the whalers, fishing songs, naval ballads, and the like.  Most, although they may be more narrowly defined by a given segment of the maritime profession, cover a fairly broad expanse of time.

The Navy of the Confederate States Of America was only in existence for a little over four years and in toto numbered only about six thousand men (as compared, say, to the C.S. Army's 600,000), so tracing music and songs in this narrow window might seem like a near impossibility.  This particular search is compounded by the fact that Southerners tended to keep written records of their activities less voluminously than their cousins to the North, being members of a culture with a strong oral but limited written tradition.  In addition, much of the records that were kept during the war were destroyed in the devastation that marked its conclusion.

Nevertheless, there are enough references in books, journals, letters, and printed music to give a fairly suggestive picture of the music that accompanied the Southern sailor to war on the high seas and on the rivers and harbors of his home country.  These, in combination with a look at the overall musical culture of the time, give a good idea of the music to which the CSN sailor was exposed or, in fact, penned himself and left for future generations.

References to music in the CSN vary from a word or two dropped in passing to substantial words of praise for music aboard ship and the positive effect it had on the sailors.  A few on the sketchy side would be:

In his journal, Executive Officer of the C.S.S. Chattahoochie docked at Chattahoochie, Florida on Feb. 18, 1863 notes that he heard the sailors on deck singing a song, and he quotes a verse:

"You had better stay at home with the girly you love so dear,
Than venture your sweet life in a bold privateer."

He also notes that the ship had two fiddlers aboard -- one, the paymaster, was a classical fiddler, the other, the surgeon, played breakdowns.

Similar notes in passing are made in the journal of Assistant Surgeon Charles E. Lining on board the last CSN commerce raider C.S.S. Shenandoah:  "Monday, May 1st, 1865, at sea lat. 33o01'20"N, 150o48'15"E....old Chew [5th Lt. Francis F. Chew] went fiddling in the evening to the captain's while Lee [3rd Lt. Sidney Smith Lee] went to work and danced all his clothes off -- I don't know when I have laughed as much as I did at it."  Later he observes:  "Saturday, Oct. 21, 1865...At night Lee got all the dancers among the men by the main hatch and by a little whiskey set them dancing until after nine o'clock."

Even sketchier conclusions may be made about another ship, the cruiser C.S.S. Georgia, because a reference by Capt. Raphael Semmes mentions Lt. R.T. Chapman aboard the cruiser C.S.S. Sumter  as one who "thrumbed the light guitar, and sang delightful songs" and who, incidentally subsequently served aboard the Georgia.  Did he bring his guitar?

Songs were certainly being sung aboard the cruiser C.S.S. Florida, as a topman aboard her actually wrote a song of her exploits while under the command of Capt. James Newland Maffit, one of the most dashing and daredevil captains of the CSN.  The ballad appears in The Civil War In Song and Story, 1889, credited anonymously and is set not quite as the text suggests to the "Red, White and Blue, (Southern edition)" -- there was such a song, a parody on "Columbia, The Gem Of The Ocean" -- but to the tune of the also very popular "Red, White, and Red."  The song survived in oral tradition into this century and was collected in a version very close to the original by Joanna Colcord (thanks for that to Bob Webb, who found it in her unpublished papers a few years back). [Below, right, is the complete original text]

If musical references aboard some ships are scanty, one makes up for all the rest: the C.S.S. Alabama.  The most famous of all Southern raiders, her depredations upon Northern shipping still hold the world's record for all commerce raiders today.  Built in Liverpool, England (like many other CSN ships) and commanded by captain and lawyer Raphael Semmes, she was more than a fearsome scourge to Yankee shipping -- she was one of the most musical naval ships of the 19th century, at least for which there is documentation.

Her musical tale begins before she made her hairbreadth escape from the Mersey River to the freedom of the open ocean, just hours ahead of an injunction that would have seized her.  Union agents in Liverpool were collecting evidence to present to the British Crown that the Confederacy was building a warship in Britain in violation of that country's neutrality laws.  American Consul to Liverpool Thomas Dudley had hired various spies to watch and infiltrate the operation, among them seaman William Passmore.  Passmore reports his observations of June 26, 1862:

"Met the seamen, say thirty in number, on Saturday coming down Canning St. [in Birkenhead] from the ship from the ship, playing 'Dixie's Land' on a fife, concertina, and cornopeon [an early cornet] and they all took the 4:30 Woodside boat for Liverpool.  They still kept playing 'Dixie's Land' on board the ferry boat.  Went up to one of the men and asked him when he thought the ship would be going out.  He told me their bed clothes and bedding were aboard and that the boatswain told those who intended to go in her, to hold themselves in readiness for early next week."

A merry lot, indeed -- if all three instruments actually did make it aboard when she slipped down the Mersey on the 29th, then the Alabama had likely the only concertina in the Confederate Navy -- the instrument was almost unheard of in America before the Civil War, when it was brought to the North by Irish and German immigrants imported to help fight the war.

The next reference to music on the Alabama is at her commissioning at Terceira in the Azores the following month, just after her tender had transferred her armament.  On Sunday, Aug. 24th, Semmes relates:

"A curious observer would also have seen a quartermaster standing by the English colors, which we were still wearing, a band of music on the quarter-deck, and a gunner (lock-string in hand) standing by the weather-bow gun.  All these men had their eyes upon the reader [Semmes reading the commission]; and when he had concluded, at a wave of his hand, the gun was fired, the change of flags took place, and the air was rent by a deafening cheer from officers and men;  the band at the same time, playing 'Dixie,' -- that soul-stirring national anthem of the new-born government."

No mention is made of what comprised this band, but fife, cornopeon and other brass were common on most ships of the period, along with various drums, and maybe in this case a concertina!

But that was just for official purposes.  Once safely at sea, Semmes goes on to describe the routine on board ship and how he kept the sometimes idle hands of the crew busy:

"But though I took good care to see that my men had plenty of employment, it was not all work with them.  They had their pastimes and pleasures, as well as labors.  After the duties of the day were over, they would generally assemble on the forecastle, and, with violin, and tambourine -- and I always kept them supplied with these and other instruments -- they would extemporize a ball-room, by moving the shot-racks, coils of rope, and other impediments, out of the way, and, with handkerchiefs tied around the waists of some of them, to indicate who were to be the ladies of the party, they would get up a dance with all due form and ceremony; the ladies, in particular, endeavoring to imitate all the airs and graces of the sex -- the only drawback being a little hoarseness of the voice, and now and then the use of an expletive, which would escape them when something went wrong in the dance, and they forgot they had the aprons on.  The favorite dancing-tunes were those of Wapping and Wide Water Street, and when I speak of the airs and graces, I must be understood to mean those rather demonstrative airs and graces, of which Poll and Peggy would be likely to be mistresses of...When song was the order of the evening, after the more ambitious of the amateurs had delivered themselves of their solos  and cantatas,  the entertainment generally wound up with Dixie,  when the whole ship would be in an uproar of enthusiasm, sometimes as many as a hundred voices joining in the chorus;  the unenthusiastic Englishman, the stolid Dutchman, the mercurial Frenchman, the grave Spaniard, and even the serious Malayan, all joining in the inspiring refrain, -- "We'll live and die in dixie!" -- and astonishing old Neptune by the fervor and novelty of their music.

Eight o'clock was the hour at which the night-watches were set, when, of course, all merriment came to an end.  When the officer of the deck reported this hour to the captain, and was told by the latter, to 'make it so,' he put the trumpet to his mouth, and sang out in a loud voice, 'Strike the bell eight -- call the watch!'  In an instant, the most profound silence fell upon the late uproarious scene.  The witches did not disappear more magically, in that famous revel of Tam O'Shanter, when Tam sang out, 'Well dune, Cutty Sark!' than the sailors dispersed at this ominous voice of authority.  The violinist was arrested with half-drawn bow, the raconteur suddenly ceased his yarn in the most interesting part of his story, and even the inspiring chorus of 'Dixie' died a premature death, upon the lips of the singers."

It is often related that the fiddler was a very important person aboard 19th century sailing ships -- if he knew his stuff.   One San Francisco story tells of six different captains vying for a particularly fine fiddler -- who woke up at sea one day in the hands of the winner!  The Alabama was no exception, and Semmes takes note of the skilled musician by name who failed to return to the ship at Capetown, South Africa:

"I was grieved to find that our most serious loss among the deserters, was our Irish fiddler.  This fellow had been remarkably diligent, in his vocation, and had fiddled the crew over half the world.  It was a pit to lose him, now that we were going over the other half.  When the evening's amusements began, Michael Mahoney's vacant camp-stool cast a gloom over the ship.  There was no one who could make his violin 'talk' like himself, and it was a long time before his place was supplied.  Poor Michael!  we felt convinced he had not been untrue to us -- it was only a 'dhrop' too much of the 'crayture' he had taken.'

[The Alabama left more than her best fiddler in Capetown. The ship was so well and memorably received there that the townsfolk, and now celebrating tourists, to this day still sing a toe-tapping Malay/Afrikaaner song "Darr Kom die Alibama" to this day.]

Michael Mahoney did not have a suitable replacement until the ship reached Singapore, where another accomplished fiddler joined the lot, which brightened up things considerably as they proceeded into the Indian Ocean:

"And then came on the twilight, with its gray and purple blended, and with the twilight, the sounds of merriment on board the Alabama -- for we had found a successor for Michael Mahoney, the Irish fiddler, and the usual evening dances were being held.  We had now been some time at sea, since leaving Singapore;  the 'jail had been delivered,' the proper punishments administered, and Jack, having forgotten both his offences, and their punishment, had again become a 'good boy,' and was as full of fun as ever."

Delivered from the jail at this time was another musical hero of the ship, although unrecognized by Semmes, Frank Townsend.  The Civil War In Song And Story  (1889) quotes a ballad attributed to this Liverpool sailor about the battle between the Alabama and the Federal gunboat Hatteras, in January of 1863 off the coast of Galveston, Texas.  There the Alabama lured a Federal ship off shore and sank it in a swift engagement of thirteen minutes, taking the prisoners afterward to Kingston, Jamaica.  Townsend immortalized the incident in a song, with a tune unrecorded.  By the time the ship reached the Indian Ocean, however, Townsend appeared as a ringleader of the crew's dissatisfaction with unmaterialized prize money, marked when the crew threw overboard cigars given out by Semmes from the captured ship Winged Racer.  Townsend was court-martialed and sentenced to thirty days in irons on bread and water.  Despite the setback, he remained loyal to the ship through her sinking at Cherbourg in June 1864.

The officers joined in the merriment and created their own as well on board the Alabama.  Arthur Sinclair, 5th Lieutenant aboard the ship, relates numerous incidents in his narrative of the voyage Two Years On The Alabama.  As he relates:

"The young officers of the ship, with a view of passing the off hours pleasantly, formed a glee club; and as we had some charming voices among them, it was a real treat to both ward-room and forecastle.  Weather permitting, and no vessels to be boarded, at the approach of evening the audience gathers; the older officers occupy the 'private boxes' (to wit, campstools), the crew, the 'gallery' (topgallant-forecastle); and cigars and pipes being lighted by all who list, the programme of the evening is in order.  Songs sentimental, songs nautical, and, last but not least, songs national, delight the ears and hearts of all."

Later, when some of the officers are spun off to man a captured ship and turn it into another CSN cruiser, the Tuscaloosa, they are missed in the evening's musical gatherings:

"Evening is now on us, the Tuscaloosa lost to us on the vast deep, and as we gather about the 'bridge,' and the glee-club forms its circle for song, we first begin to miss the bright, cheery face of our tenor, Mid Sinclair, and later on, as the night-watches pass, the strong, firm countenance of our late watch relief, Lieutenant Low."

Sinclair has more to report on the music on board in the persons of 3rd Lieutenant Joseph Wilson and marine Lieutenant Beckett Howell, whose instrument, like Semmes's former lieutenant Chapman, was the guitar.  This instrument is not mentioned often among forecastle hands due to its size and relative fragility, but 19th century sources often mention it among passengers and officers who had greater luggage space, as on land it was the portable instrument of choice.  Howell is mentioned just once, when he "hastily seeks his stateroom and the consolation of his guitar," after a run-in with Wilson.  Joe's talents, however, are praised:

"Joe has vamosed from the 'country' to have a quiet retired 'air' on his guitar all to himself, and is assaying a love-song, no doubt suggested by thoughts of his inamorata awaiting in far-away Florida his return with glory and prize-money.  Joe is not like his mocking-birds at home, first-class as a songster; but he fingers his guitar well.  'Come in, old fellow; I want to play an accompaniment for you!'  And soon the book, draughts, chess, and the learned argument are dropped; and Joe's privacy is utterly wrecked.  First one and then another of the glee-club take a turn at song; and the ward-room members of the club exhausted, the guitar is taken to the steerage and the music continued..."

In the Indian Ocean, Sinclair recounts his own version of having a new fiddler and merriment once more in sway:

"Our glee-club is in the full tide of song; and even Semmes unbends from his dignity, and, with his camp-stool on the bridge and manila lit, smokes away the hours, and listens to the plantation songs interspersed with the more sentimental, and winding up with 'Dixie' and 'Bonny Blue Flag' just before the sound of eight bells."

Music accompanies the Alabama right up to the end -- Joe Wilson's guitar, in fact, goes down with the ship in her battle with the U.S.S. Kearsarge on June 19, 1864, off Cherbourg, France.  As the ship leaves the French port to enter her final battle, the crew is advised to put all their valuables in a safe on shore in case she perishes in the fray:

"Joe Wilson says this latter gratuitous advice is well calculated to increase our appetites, and of little use to him, as all he has of value is his guitar, and that won't go in the iron safe, and besides he wants it to keep his spirits up.  Howell jumps to an idea, and wants to borrow it at once as a bracer."

How much music we know was played on board CSN ships may well be a function of the extent of their fame and documentation on an individual basis.  The Alabama was the most famous of all of the South's ships and certainly the most articulately documented in later books and memoirs.  Had cruisers and shoreside vessels of lesser fame been favored with greater reason for their crews to write about them, we might know more about what they were singing and playing.  What we may draw as general conclusions from Alabama's experience probably only applies to the CSN deepwater vessels with international crews.  The Alabama had Southern officers but no American sailors (Semmes avoided them, for loyalty problems), so we are looking at a very international mix here.  Other cruisers which actually touched port in the South like Florida and Nashville, might have witnessed a different musical situation.

When one thinks of sea songs, work shanties are usually the first that come to mind these days -- so what shanties were they singing during the Civil War, and what developed from it?  The answer in general is probably all the common deepwater shanties that had been in vogue immediately before.  "Rolling Home," composed as a poem by British songwriter Charles Mackay aboard the Cunard Liner Europa in 1858 had probably already evolved into the famous homeward-bound shanty.  The well-known capstan shanty "Roll, Alabama, Roll" possibly was already in use before the end of the war.   A really good candidate, however, is "Bully In The Alley," the chorus of which mentions Shinbone Alley, the heart of sailortown in St. Georges, Bermuda.  Bermuda was an obscure port for sailors until the Civil War, when it became a boom town thanks to its critical location for one of three major bases for the blockade runners going into Southern ports.  Common deck hands could make hundreds of dollars in a single two-week round trip voyage to Charleston or Wilmington, landing ashore in Bermuda with untold wealth to squander in Jack's inimitable fashion.  For four years, things were truly "Bully down in Shinbone Al," in a way they were never to be again.  After the war, Bermuda went back to the quiet coal station it was previously, so it is likely this song originated from the blockade-running days of the Civil War.  Another sure candidate for a Bermuda-born song is "Blind Isaac's Song," about the wreck of the blockade-runner Mary Celeste, thanks to the probable Union sympathies of her pilot, who ran her on the rocks where he should have known better!

John Townley is the founding president of The Confederate Naval Historical Society

The Stars and Bars

See yonder bright flag as it floats on the breeze,
It is feared by its foes though it's young on the seas,
Like a bird on the ocean 'tis met all alone,
But a deed of dishonor it never has known.

In defending its rights much blood has been shed
As an emblem of this see its borders all red,

And then look to the center, the blue and the white,

The assurance our cause it is true just and right.

Long may it wave o’er the ocean's dark breast,
Till the sun, moon, and stars sink forever to rest,

May its gallant defenders forever prove true,

With this wish, flag of freedom, I bid thee adieu.

-- from a contemporary poetry collection

At sea and  land, the CSS Alabama was the most sung-about  vessel of the Civil War. This song complete is available here...

Alabama's Capt. Raphael Semmes (shown with First Lieutenant Kell) kept a box of musical instruments aboard for the use of the officers and crew.

CSS Florida's  exploits are described below in song penned  by one of her seamen.

“The Florida's Cruise”
By a foretop-man of the C.S.S. Florida
Air – “Red, White, and Blue” (Southern edition).

One evening, off Mobile, the Yanks they all knew
That the wind from the north'rd most bitterly blew; 
They also all knew, and they thought they were sure,
They'd block'd up the Florida, safe and secure.. 
Huzza! huzza, for the Florida's crew;
We'll range with bold Maffitt the world through and through.

Nine cruisers they had, and they lay off the bar,
Their long line to seaward extending so far,
And Preble he said as he shut his eyes tight:
I'm sure they're all hammock'd this bitter cold night.

Bold Maffitt commanded, a man of great fame
He sail'd on the Dolphin, you've heard of the same;
He called us all aft, and these words he did say:
I'm, bound to run out boys, up anchor, away!

Our hull was well whitewash'd, our sails were all stow'd;
Our steam was chock up, and the fresh wind it blow'd  
As we crawl'd along, by them, the Yanks gave a shout;
We dropp'd all our canvas and open'd her out.

You'd have thought them all mad, if you heard the curs'd racket
They made upon seeing oar flash little packet;
Their boatswains did pipe, and the blue lights did play,
And the great Drummond light it turn'd night into day.

The Cuyler, a boat that's unrival'd for speed,
Quick let slip her cables, and quickly indeed
She sought for to catch us and keep us in play,
Till her larger companions could got under way.

She chas'd and she chased till at dawning of day
From her backers she thought she was too far away
So she gave up the chase and reported, no doubt,
That she'd sunk us and turnt us somewhere there about.

So when we were out, boys, all on the salt sea,
We brought the Estelle to, right under our lee,
And burnt her and sunk her with all her fine gear,
And straight sail'd for Havana the bold privateer.

'Twas there we recruited and took in some stores,
Then kiss'd the senoras and sail'd from their shores,
And on leaving their-waters, by way of a joke,
With two Yankee brigs, boys, we made a great smoke.

Our hull was well wash'd with the limestone so white,
Which sailors all know is not quite Christianlike,
So to paint her all shipshape we went to Green Keys
Where the Sonoma came foaming, the Rebel to seize.

We put on all sail and up steam right away,
And for forty-eight hours she made us some play,
When our coal being dusty, and choking the flue,
Our steam it slack'd down, and nearer she drew.

Oh, ho! cried our captain, I see what's your game!
Clear away the stern pivot, the Bulldog by name,
And two smaller dogs to keep him companie,
For very sharp teeth have those dogs of the sea.

The Sonoma came up until nearly in range,
When her engines gave out! -- now wasn't that strange?
--I don't know the truth, but it's my firm belief
She didn't like the looks of the Florida's teeth.

She gave up the chase and returned to Key West,
And told her flag captain that she done her best;
But the story went round; and it grew rather strong,
And the public acknowledg'd that something was wrong.

We went on a-cruising and soon did espy
A fine, lofty clipper, bound home from Shanghai;
We burnt her and sunk her in the midst of the sea,
And drunk to Old Jeff in the best of Bohea!

We next found a ship with a quakerish name:
A wolf in sheep's clothing oft plays a deep game --
For the hold of that beautiful, mild, peaceful Star
Was full of saltpetre, to make powder for war.

Of course the best nature could never stand that,
Saltpetre for Boston's a little too fat,
So we burned her and sunk her, she made a grand blaze,
She's a star now gone down, and we've put out her rays.

We next took a schooner well-laden'd with bread;
What the devil got into Old Uncle Abe's head?
To send us such biscuit is such a fine thing,
It sets us all laughing as we sit and sing:

We next took the Lapwing, right stuff in her hold,
And that was black diamonds that people call coal;
With that in our bunkers we'll tell Uncle Sam,
That we think his gunboats are not worth a damn.

The Mary Jane Colcord to Cape Town was bound,
We bade her heave to though and swing her yards round,
And to Davy Jones' locker without more delay 
We set her afire, and so sailed on our way.

-- From The Civil War In Song And Story, 1879

CSS Florida's  and CSS Alabama cross paths in a painting, though they never did in life.

Roll Alabama Roll
-- contemporary capstan shanty 

When the Alabama's keel was laid

  Roll, Alabama, Roll
It was laid in the yards of Jonathan Laird,
  O roll, Alabama, roll

It was laid in the yard of Jonathan Laird

It was in the town of Birkenhead.

Down Mersey way she sailed then
She was Liverpool-fitted with guns and men.

Down Mersey way she sailed forth
To destroy the commerce of the North.

To Cherbourg port she sailed one day
To collect her share of  prize money.

And many a sailor met his doom
When the Yankee Kearsage hove in view.

A shot from the forward pivot that day
Blew the Alabama's stern away.

Off the three mile limit in sixty-four
The Alabama  sank to the ocean floor.

Was the fiddler in CSS Palmetto State's minstrel show the same Lt. Chew who regaled officers of CSS Shenandoah?


CSS Shenandoah sails into the Mersey, the last to lower the flag, in November 1962

  Copyright © John Townley 1989. All rights reserved.
About Us | Astro*Reports | Readings | John | Susan | Books | ArticlesNews/Views | Astro*LinksMusic | Site Map