In its short existence, the Confederate States of America adopted two official flags. The Southern Cross flag so familiar today was adopted only in 1863 after it became apparent that the original Stars and Bars looked enough like the American Stars and Stripes to confuse soldiers in battle. No song about either flag ever approached the popularity of Harry Macarthy’s tribute to the Bonnie Blue Flag, which was never an official Confederate flag at all.
Search for “Confederate Flag” on Google, and you might find one or two references to the Bonnie Blue Flag, but it’s not the flag anyone means by “Confederate Flag” today. In fact, its origin has nothing to do with the CSA, which it predates by half a century. A single white star on a blue field was the flag adopted by the Republic of West Florida.
At the end of the American Revolution, the present state of Florida was a Spanish possession. Or at least most of it was. Sort of. Spain had a garrison in Pensacola, but France, with a garrison in Mobile (now in Alabama) claimed the western portion.
The end of the Seven Years War (1763) resulted in both East Florida and West Florida (basically the Panhandle, but extending all the way to the Mississippi River) coming under British sovereignty. But that lasted only until the Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended the Revolution and transferred both Floridas back to Spain. It didn’t specify boundaries.
Spain and France further complicated the situation with the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800. In 1763, France had ceded its entire Louisiana territory to Spain. The two nations became alarmed at the formation of a new nation and decided that France would receive it all back from Spain and agree never to transfer it to anyone else. They also decided not to tell anyone about the treaty.
The American government found out about the deal eventually. President Jefferson opened negotiations with Napoleon to purchase the port of New Orleans in order to reopen the Mississippi River to American shipping. Napoleon, in blatant disregard of his treaty with Spain, sold the entire territory.
The Spanish weren’t strong enough to do anything about it, but they still ruled East Florida and claimed that they had never ceded West Florida to France in the first place.
Are you confused? It must have been very confusing to live in West Florida at the time. But English-speaking residents, both American and British loyalists knew they didn’t want to live under Spanish rule.
On the night of September 10, 1810, 75 English-speakers attacked a sleeping Spanish garrison at Baton Rouge under a banner, as I said, of a single white flag on a field of blue. Three days later, they proclaimed an independent republic with Fulwar Skipwith as its president.
Apparently their intent was to negotiate joining the United States as a new state. The Madison administration simply claimed that it was American territory as part of the Louisiana Purchase and annexed it on October 27. Skipwith was furious and considered an armed rebellion against Washington.
Eventually the Republic of West Florida became parts of the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, which eventually seceded to form the Confederacy. Someone obviously remembered that blue flag that had ever so briefly stood against the federal government. It flew above the Mississippi state capitol after secession, and the sight of it inspired Harry Macarthy to write his song, which he sung to a tune called “The Irish Jaunting Car.”
The English-born Macarthy came to the United States in 1849 and settled in Arkansas. From that base, he traveled throughout the South as an entertainer. His act included singing and dancing to ethnic-sounding music in various dialects while wearing flamboyant costumes.
Macarthy was probably indistinguishable from dozens of other acts.There must have been others who had largely confined themselves to southern states before the war. After the war started, he apparently trained a cockatoo to shout, “Three cheers for Jeff Davis!” and added it to his act.
Upon seeing the flag of secession flying over the capitol building in Jackson, Macarthy wrote a poem about it that mentions each state of the new confederation. He introduced it in Jackson in the spring of 1861.
After a September performance in New Orleans, the important music publishing firm of A.E. Blackmar brought out the first of six editions of the song that it issued before the Union capture of New Orleans in 1864, when performance and sale of the song was forbidden. Macarthy decided to move to Philadelphia. That choice may have dampened enthusiasm for his song anyway.
We are a band of brothers, and native to the soil,
Fighting for our Liberty with treasure, blood and toil;
And when our rights were threaten’d, the cry rose
near and far,
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag, that bears a
Chorus: Hurrah! Hurrah! for Southern Rights, Hurrah! Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a Single Star!
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 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 link’d 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)
“The Bonnie Blue Flag” became an immediate hit with Confederate soldiers. Only “Dixie” was more popular. Besides the Blackmar editions of the song, Baltimore publisher Miller & Beacham issued its own edition.
I find four editions issued in London between 1864 and 1874, two with the title “We are a band of brothers,” taken from the first line of the text. For some reason the 1874 edition is attributed to a Thomas Westrop.
Even northern publishers took advantage of the song’s popularity, although of course with different words. Publisher J. Marsh of Philadelphia published at least two versions: one “respectfully dedicated to General John W. Geary and the Second Division, Twentieth Army Corps, United States Army by H.H.W.” and the other, subtitled “Southern Marseillaise,” by M.H.Frank. Mrs. C. Sterett, and A.W. Thierry.
The latter version, or one with the same three people named, was also published in New York by S. T. Gordon with the title “Reply to the Bonnie Blue Flag.” The St. Louis firm of Balmer & Weber published “The Bonnie Blue Flag with the Stripes and Stars : In Answer to the ‘Bonnie Blue Flag'” by Charles Balmer and J.L. Geddes.
More evidence of the popularity of “The Bonnie Blue Flag” appears in the number of instrumental arrangements that both southern, border state, and even Canadian publishers issued:
- Bonnie Blue Flag : Brilliant Variations / by Charles Weiss and Jacob Slinglandt (Louisville: Tripp & Craig, 1863)
- The Bonnie Blue Flag Lancers / by Frederick van Olker (New Orleans: A.E. Blackmar, 1866)
- The Bonnie Blue Flag Quickstep, / by J.C. Viereck (New Orleans: A.E. Blackmar, 1862)
- The Bonnie Blue Flag, : with Variations [or other copies, Harry Macarthy’s Bonnie Blue Flag with Brilliant Variations for the Piano]/ by Sebastian B. Schlesinger, Joseph Bloch, and W.H. Leeson (New Orleans: A.E. Blackmar; Macon: J. Bloch, 1864)
- Fantaisie pour piano sur le Bonnie blue flag / A. Cardona (New Orleans: publisher not indicated, 1862)–Probably a different printing of Variations on the Bonnie Blue Flag / A. Cardona (New Orleans: Young ladies of the Orleans Academy, 1862)
- Improvisation on the Bonnie blue flag op. 537 / by Théod[ore] von La Hache (New Orleans, A.E. Blackmar, 1862)
- La Marseillalise et Bonnie blue flag: grand fantaisie de concert / by Octavie Romey (New Orleans: Blackmar & Co.; Montreal: A.J. Boucher; Quebec: R. Morgan; Baltimore: Geo. Willig; Louisville: D.P. Faulds, 1864)
- Southern constellation : air Bonnie blue flag / by Robert F Carlin (Macon: Schreiner & Sons, 1863)
In 1890, Oliver Ditson of Boston issued a large commemorative set of the best loved songs of the Civil War. I have not yet explored it, but I suspect that northern songs were better represented than southern songs. Even if that suspicion turns out to be true, it would have been impossible to omit “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” The tune had inspired troops and citizens on both sides of the conflict.
Both illustrations are public domain
Library of Congress Civil War Sheet Music Collection
The Free and Independent Republic of West Florida
Civil War Music: Bonnie Blue Flag
Bonnie Blue Flag “Flag Of Secession”