Harry Macarthy was in the right place at the right time. Author of the South’s most popular patriotic tune after “Dixie,” Macarthy was an actor, a singer, a comedian, and an unabashed self-publicist who proclaimed himself the National Poet of the South. Dressed in a traditional costume complete with diamonds, ruffled shirts and wristbands, he performed his “Personation Concerts” in every major city in the Confederacy, leaving behind a wake of patriotic fervor. The talented vocalist of Irish descent, English birth, and Arkansas upbringing also sounded his enthusiastic advocacy of the Southern cause in “Missouri,” “The Volunteer; or, Weep not, dearest, weep not,” and “Our Flag and its Origin, Southern National Song.” A rival composer, John Hill Hewitt, or the “Bard of the South” as he was called, judged Macarthy’s patriotics to be “wishy-washy” and “extremely popular for the reason that he was continually singing them at his public entertainments.” Nonetheless, the South heard them when they needed to be heard.
Written in 1861 when Southern states furiously debated the issues of secession, “The Bonnie Blue Flag” was sung on January 9 at the Mississippi Convention which passed the Act of Secession. There the South Carolina flag was flown, a blue flag with a single centered white star which was, at that time, the only Confederate flag around which to rally. Later in 1861 at the New Orleans Academy of Music, “The Bonnie Blue Flag” highlighted a performance before a house filled with Virginia-bound soldiers, and its fame and Macarthy’s reputation were secured. Its tune is “The Irish Jaunting Car,” familiar and easily adaptable as regimental march music. Macarthy’s lyrics proclaim a noble brotherhood fighting for property (later changed to “liberty”) honestly gained; verses were added as successive states left the Union. So influential was the song that General Ben Butler, the “Beast of New Orleans,” destroyed copies, arrested and fined its publisher, and imposed a twenty-five dollar fine on anyone caught singing or playing it.
Much loved in the South, “The Bonnie Blue Flag” was joyfully responded to and parodied in the North. John Hewitt contributed his own, zeroing in on Macarthy’s alleged draft-dodging and purely financial motives and concluding with a jab at Macarthy’s decision to move North, where his tune ostensibly changed. There, it is true, his popularity waned, but down South Harry Macarthy’s fame lived on, and for this “The Bonnie Blue Flag” must be credited.
The Bonnie Blue Flag
We are a band of brothers, and native to the soil,
Fighting for the property we gain’d by honest toil;
And when our rights were threaten’d, the cry rose near and far,
Hurrah for 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.
As long as the old Union was faithful to her trust,
Like friends and like brothers, 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 rais’d 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 rare,
Now rally round the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a Single Star. (Chorus)
And here’s to brave Virginia! The Old Dominion State
With the young Confederacy at length has linked her fate;
Impell’d by her example, now other states prepare
To hoist on high the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a Single Star. (Chorus)
Then here’s to our Confederacy, strong we are 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)
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)