The British Library’s American Civil War archives provided me with excellent sources that support my doctoral research into the Irish experience of the conflict and sentiments expressed in accounts, letters and contemporary song lyrics, writes Catherine Bateson, Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow 2015. A scrapbook of over two hundred American Civil War song-sheets revealed a wealth of songs about Irish military service, home-front experiences and hopes for an independent Ireland.
In January 2016, I undertook a research trip to the British Library supported by postgraduate fellowship funding from the Eccles Centre. My visit focused on primary and rare secondary sources in the Library’s American Civil War archives. It helped my research into the Irish experience of the conflict and sentiments expressed in accounts, letters and contemporary song lyrics.
The main focus of my research was a collection of over two hundred ballads gathered in a scrapbook of American Civil War song-sheets. These individual songs were bound together, making the Library’s collection incredibly rare. They form the foundation of my doctoral project as some thirty songs relate to Irish soldiers who fought in the
conflict. They complement other Civil War Irish American song-sheets and songsters I have researched in American, Irish, English and Scottish archives. They sing about Irish military service, views of the war, home-front experiences and hopes for an independent Ireland. The sources are also works of art; publishers decorated lyrics with intricate designs including drawings of soldiers, flags and African American minstrel caricatures. These were occasionally dyed in yellow, red and blue, and a few still retain vivid colouring. As song-sheets are ephemeral, their survival makes them special items in Civil War archives.
The Library also holds larger scrapbooks of Confederate musical song scores, including a collection entitled Celebrated Songs of the Confederate States of America. This contained a copy of the Confederate anthem The Bonnie Blue Flag, first written in 1861 by Ulster-Scotsman Harry Macarthy and set to a popular eighteenth century tune. Macarthy, the song and tune’s histories connect to my research into Irish music’s transmission across the Atlantic. This particular version of the song is unusual as it was part of a collection printed in London during the war and ‘Dedicated to the Confederate Exiles in Europe’. The collection also contained another song entitled Our Queen Varine, dedicated to Varina Davis, wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. While not relevant to my research specifically, it was an intriguing archive discovery. The songs hints at British and Confederate ties during the Civil War when the possibility of British recognition of Confederate sovereignty was a contemporary concern.
Other research at the Library included finding more Macarthy productions, including a one-act minstrel play, Deeds of Darkness, written in 1876. A ‘moral and laughable Ethiopian Extravaganza’, the piece reveals the continuance of popular racist minstrel shows in post-bellum America and provides evidence of Macarthy’s post-war career. My research had only traced the Ulster-Scot migrant’s pre-war and wartime professions, and it was interesting to find evidence of his post-Civil War activities. I also researched the histories of other Irishmen important to the history of Irish American Civil War songs and music. This included analysing works by and about General Thomas Francis Meagher, commander of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, who became the subject of several Irish wartime verses. Furthermore, I studied works by and about Charles G. Halpine. Originally from County Meath, Halpine served in the Union Army and wrote popular stories and songs from the perspective of fictional Irish solider Miles O’Reilly. His writings offer a particular satirical and lyrical commentary of the conflict.
A week of reading Irish American Civil War archives relevant to my research into Irish wartime experiences and sentiments expressed in song and music has provided me with excellent sources that support my doctoral project’s findings. It has also generated new avenues of enquiry for further research. Many thanks to the Eccles Centre for awarding the postgraduate fellowship and providing assistance in making my trip to the British Library’s American archives possible and successful.
Catherine Bateson is a second year History doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh, researching songs produced about the Irish during the American Civil War and the sentiments they expressed. She analyses the topics these songs sang about, how they maintained a transnational diasporic cultural heritage through the use of Irish tunes, and what these sources suggest about 1860s Irish American identity formation.