By Sue Burns Moore
It is a close race as to whether “Dixie” or the “Bonnie Blue Flag” was the most popular song of the South during the war, for both strongly gripped Southern hearts. During the Vicksburg siege, steamboats on the Mississippi River played both songs on their calliopes to encourage the Confederates in the trenches. However, the Bonnie Blue Flag was the only one actually written and sold as an anthem during the war. Its powerful lyrics and rollicking tune stirred patriotic men and women to tears and to action. In time, as with other famous war songs, questions arose as to who wrote it and when was it first performed.
In the September Confederate Veteran, Volume 3, 1897, Dr. A. J. Thomas, born in Raymond, Hinds County, Mississippi, in 1840, then living in Vincennes, Indiana, wrote the Veteran his answer to an assumption about the “Bonnie Blue Flag” published in the July issue by lawyer William Fort Smith, of Brazoria, Texas.
W. FORT SMITH – “WERE TERRY’S TEXAS RANGERS FIRST TO HEAR THE SONG?”
W. Fort Smith, a member of Company B of the renowned Terry’s Texas Rangers, stated that in September, 1861, his mounted group arrived in New Orleans ahead of other Texans marching there from Houston to be sent north where the war was raging. Smith recalled:
“When we arrived in the city, it was full of Arkansas and Louisiana troops, hurrying to the front. About September 18, I attended the Academy of Music, at that time one of the most popular places of amusement in the city. The house was packed from floor to gallery with the ‘boys’ of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, on their way to the battle front. Harry McCarthy [Macarthy] appeared on the stage, accompanied by a young lady [Lottie Estelle], who bore a flag of dark blue silk, with a white star in the center. He commenced singing the "Bonnie Blue Flag," and before the first verse was ended the audience was quivering with excitement. He sang:
“Then the boys rose and yelled and for some minutes as Harry waited for the excitement to subside. He then sang the second verse and when he commenced the chorus the audience joined and sang it over and over again, amid the most intense excitement. It was wafted to the streets, and in twenty-four hours it was all over the Southern army, and then caught up by the Yanks and was sung or hummed in every hamlet, town and city in the United States. It was from that night the Marseillaise of the South.”
Smith then described the brawl which ensued when his overly excited comrade, “Old Virg “of Company B, stood up and began a series of wild Texas yells after others had ceased. A policeman tapped him on the shoulder to quiet him, and he flattened the officer. When an attempt was made to arrest “old Virg,” all the Texans resisted, and a riot broke out as the rest of the audience fled. Eventually the mayor of New Orleans arrived on the scene and quelled the police, and Col. Terry arrived and marched his subdued Rangers off to camp.
Smith’s recollection of the “Bonnie Blue Flag,” in 1861, ends with “Many of the gallant ‘boys,’ who were present on that eventful night, now sleep their last sleep in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina, but men are in Houston who were present on that night…. I wonder if those old fellows have forgotten that night and Harry McCarthy. I believe this was the first time it was ever sung.”
Dr. A. J. THOMAS, RAYMOND, MS – “BONNIE BLUE FLAG WRITTEN AND FIRST SUNG IN JACKSON”
J. Thomas was born to Daniel and Mary Thomas, planters, in Raymond,
Mississippi, on December 12, 1840. After attending Mississippi College
in Clinton, he went to the University of Missouri, returning upon
graduation to study medicine in Louisiana. When the war broke out, he
entered Confederate service, first as a lieutenant of the Third
Louisiana Infantry, and later as lieutenant of the 22nd
Louisiana Heavy Artillery. His home was broken up during the war, so he
went north where he completed his studies and practiced medicine. In
1873 he married Clotilde Pilard, their only child dying in infancy. For
a time he was the editor of the Vincennes Sun and active in
politics. His final work was as superintendent of the state’s Southern
Hospital, and the hospital under his leadership was described as “a
pride to the state.” He died in Vincennes in 1898.
Dr. Andrew J. Thomas was born to Daniel and Mary Thomas, planters, in Raymond, Mississippi, on December 12, 1840. After attending Mississippi College in Clinton, he went to the University of Missouri, returning upon graduation to study medicine in Louisiana. When the war broke out, he entered Confederate service, first as a lieutenant of the Third Louisiana Infantry, and later as lieutenant of the 22nd Louisiana Heavy Artillery. His home was broken up during the war, so he went north where he completed his studies and practiced medicine. In 1873 he married Clotilde Pilard, their only child dying in infancy. For a time he was the editor of the Vincennes Sun and active in politics. His final work was as superintendent of the state’s Southern Hospital, and the hospital under his leadership was described as “a pride to the state.” He died in Vincennes in 1898.
Dr. A. J. Thomas answered W. Fort Smith’s supposition in the Veteran about the Bonnie Blue Flag: “Comrade Smith is mistaken as to the time. In September, 1861, I was marching through Missouri, Northern Arkansas, and the Indian Territory, to the inspiring notes of the “Bonnie Blue Flag,” and it was sung every night at every campfire of the Army of Ben. McCulloch and “Old Pap” Price.
“I knew Harry McCarthy well—also his wife, Lottie. When I first met them in December, 1860, they were traveling together giving variety concerts. The “Bonnie Blue Flag” was composed and first sung by Harry McCarthy in January, 1861, the night of the day that the ordinance of secession was passed by the convention of Mississippi [in Jackson]. I did not hear McCarthy sing it that night, but afterward heard him sing it at Raymond, Miss.
“I attended several entertainments given by them, and one evening danced with Mrs. McCarthy after the entertainment was finished, the young folks of the town having organized a dance in the ball-room of the Oak Tree Hotel in Raymond.”
“I know that Harry McCarthy is entitled to all the honor which the “Bonnie Blue Flag” would bring to him, and no other claim should be considered. There have been imitations of this song, and additions to it, but none have been superior to the first edition, as written and sung by Harry McCarthy.”
EYEWITNESSES RECALL ORIGIN OF THE “BONNIE BLUE FLAG”
Harry Macarthy, of Scots-Irish extraction, immigrated to the United States from England in 1849, and by the time the war broke out had gained a reputation of being an excellent mimic and comic. Calling himself “the Arkansas Comedian,” he and his wife, Lottie Estelle, traveled the South with their “Personation Concerts,” which included their dressing in extravagant costumes, singing in dialects, and dancing to ethnic music. His imitation of dialects was said to be near perfection. The Arkansas Gazette of September 8, 1860, wrote ‘His dialect, acting and delineation of characters are true to the life.’ The article went on to say that Macarthy “embraced a range and variety which we have never seen equaled by one man. As a ballad singer he is among the best we ever listened to, and in presenting Yankee, Irish, English, Dutch, French, and Negro characters, he reminds one so much of the genuine article that it is difficult to realize the fact that he is only acting.”
In January, 1861, Harry and Lottie Estelle Macarty were in Jackson, Mississippi, for a series of concerts at the Spengler Hotel. The Mississippi Secession Convention was convened in the State Capitol at the same time. On January 9, 1861, Harry attended on the day of the adoption of the ordinance and witnessed the scene as described in the Secession Convention’s minutes:
On motion, the President was requested to have the Ordinance of Secession written on parchment, and appropriately arranged for the signatures of the members; also, to telegraph the result of this day's proceedings to the Mississippi delegation in Congress, and to the different slaveholding States. At this point, Mr. C. R. Dickson entered the hall, bearing a beautiful silk banner, with a single star in the centre, which he handed to the President of the Convention as a present from Mrs. H. [Horace] H. Smyth [Amanda A. Hilzheim Smythe], of Jackson. The President remarked that it was the first banner unfurled in the young Republic, when the members saluted it by rising--the vast audience present uniting in shouts of applause.
This “lone star flag” was not the first of its kind ever raised in Mississippi. When lower Mississippi, the portion extending south below the Hattiesburg area, was a part of Spanish West Florida in 1810, Americans led by the Kemper brothers planted their secession flag in Baton Rouge. The short-lived Republic’s flag was blue with a white star. Also, in 1836, the Republic of Texas’s Burnet flag bore a single star on a blue background, but that star was gold. By the time of the Civil War, most Mississippians knew that the lone star stood for independence.
In December 20, 1879, The Comet (Jackson, Mississippi), published a story that it had picked up from the Washington Gazette (Mississippi), a entitled “The Bonnie Blue Flag – An Interesting Account of Its Origin,” written by C. E. M. “That the air and words of this stirring song were composed in an hour by its brilliant young author, is known to but few; the story of its origin has never been written. In January, 1861, I was in attendance as a looker-on at the Mississippi State Convention, which passed the ordinance of secession.
“In the latter days of the preceding December, South Carolina had initiated the revolution by ‘going out of the Union.’ Mississippi was the next to follow suit. When her convention met at Jackson the first week in January, Hon. Wm. S. Barry was chosen President of that body …. just as twilight fell over the State house on the evening of January 9th, 1861, and the President of the Convention, the vote having been announced, rose, and slowly unfurled the little blue flag with its single [white] star in the centre, and proclaimed that Mississippi had " dissolved the political bonds which had connected her" with the Union of our fathers; strong men bowed their heads and wept. I shall never cease to recall this, the most solemnly impressive scene I have ever witnessed! But I have been led away by these memories from the object of my sketch, the origin of the ‘Bonnie Blue Flag.’
“During the last few days of the Convention, Harry McCarthy, supported
by a young lady, who accompanied him in his original and selected songs,
was giving a variety of entertainments at Spengler's Hall, in that city,
consisting of songs, serious and comic, dancing, instrumental music,
etc. On the afternoon of the 9th of January, Judge Wiley P. Harris, one
of the soundest lawyers living, met the gifted young Irish man on the
street, and remarked: ‘Mac, the Convention will adopt the ordinance of
secession sometime this afternoon, and you will have a large audience
this evening. Permit me to offer a suggestion: Why can you not compose,
a song pertinent to the occasion? Give us a patriotic song - one which
shall, perhaps, be universally received as a national air - something
soul-stirring and patriotic that may become as immortal as the ordinance
“The ‘dollar of the daddies’ was the currency at that time, and the audience absolutely showered gold and silver over the stage. I recall one gentleman who was seated about the centre of the hall, at a supporting column, and who had evidently taken on a little extra patriotism beforehand – whose agility, under the excitement of the hour, was equal to the supremest test. Wrapping his arms and legs about the pillar, he climbed up until his head struck the ceiling.
“The accompaniment on the piano was well executed, and whilst singing, McCarthy promenaded the stage back and forth, waving his flag. One verse especially, when first delivered, came near ‘bringing down the house’ literally:
“From that hour there was nothing but the ‘Bonnie Blue Flag’ in Southern air. As the visitors to Jackson returned home north, east, south and west they spread it everywhere. The rigid critic of the words, in the light of this hour, may not feel their full force as we experienced it then; but surely, the ‘Marseilles Hymn’ could not have been more warmly received than was our simple little ‘Bonnie Blue Flag,’ and of which one of the first lawyers in the South was the immediate inspiration.”
Colonel John Logan Power was the state’s official recorder of the Secession Convention, Secretary of State for two terms, and editor of the Jackson News, the Mississippi Standard and the Clarion Ledger. He wrote the following eyewitness account in the Jackson News, which was picked up by The Pascagoula (MS) Democrat-Star, September 10, 1897: "I have just been asked by Comrade Watts if it was true that the Bonnie Blue Flag was first sung in this hall [the Capitol]. It was not first sung here, but it was inspired by an incident that occurred just after the adoption of the Ordinance of Secession …. Immediately after the announcement of the vote, Mr. C. R. Dickson, then postmaster of Jackson, entered the hall bearing a small blue flag with a white star in the center which he handed to President Barry with the compliments of a young lady of Jackson, Miss Amanda Hilzheim [Mrs. Horace Smythe]. President Barry, after a brief pause, waved the flag, remarking: 'This is the first flag of the young Republic. The great audience saluted it by rising and applauding.
"Among the spectators was Harry McCarthy, a comedian, and a whole show in himself. He went from the hall to his room at the Bowman house and brought the words of the song to me before the ink was dry on the paper. I put it in type and printed him a thousand copies, and that night, at Spengler's Theater it was sung for the first time, just as it since has been printed and sung. The song was soon after published in New Orleans in the usual sheet music form and dedicated to Gen. Albert Pike, of Arkansas.
“Mr. Cashman, editor of the Vicksburg Post, informed Col. Power that the air of "The Irish Jaunting Car" is precisely that of the Bonnie Blue Flag….The flag was made by Miss Em Sue Cadwallader at the dress-making establishment of Mrs. Harriet Dudley, to whom Miss Hilzheim [Mrs. Smythe] gave the order that morning.”
THE REST OF THE STORY
Harry was indeed a brilliant performer, song writer, musician, and producer, taking his show all over the South and performing the Bonnie Blue Flag and other songs he had written before sold-out audiences. In New Orleans, Harry turned the patriotic song over to publisher A. R. Blackmar. It went through many editions, and verses were added to include all the states seceding. The production of the song went from Harry’s simply singing and Lottie waving the Bonnie Blue Flag, to their dressing in full Confederate costumes, engaging in close embraces, and opening a flag that revealed each Confederate state’s star as the music progressed.
The Macarthys became the most popular act in the South, and the “Bonnie Blue Flag” was their premier song. Confederates audiences loved Harry, and Harry loved the Confederates, too. He often gave free concerts or benefit performances for the men in their camps, and he also donated proceeds from shows to Confederate causes such as uniforms and hospitals.
When New Orleans surrendered in 1862, Confederates of all ages, even foreign ship crews, firemen, women and children, constantly irritated U. S. Gen. Benjamin “Beast” Butler with their singing, playing, whistling or humming the “Bonnie Blue Flag.” He retaliated with the notorious Order No. 28 targeting Confederate women and Order No. 40, which literally made the song, among other minor disobedient acts, treasonous. He often jailed or fined those attempting to perform the song. Publisher A. E. Blackmar was arrested, his building ransacked, and $500 worth of his stock destroyed, including all his existing copies of the “Bonnie Blue Flag.”
Eventually Harry and Lottie were forced to flee New Orleans. Always supreme actors, they escaped with the Overall family on board a flour boat which had permission to leave the blockaded harbor. Lottie posed as an Overall family member, Harry as a deckhand, and Harry’s man servant slipped on board with Harry’s banjo in tow. They were searched by a Federal patrol, but allowed to pass. Not completely out of sight of the patrol boat, Lottie hoisted a Confederate flag that she pulled from under her petticoats. The Federals gave chase, but they escaped and continued to perform in free cities of the South.
Near the end of the war, the Macarthys fled to England, not returning until 1867. By the 1880s, the big productions were over, and the large audiences faded away. Harry died a penniless actor in San Francisco in 1888 with Lottie at his bedside. He was fifty-nine.
In modern times Harry, performing his “Bonnie Blue Flag” was showcased in the movie “Gods and Generals.”
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