The Stories Behind the Songs: 'Camp Song of the Chicago Irish Brigade'

The Stories Behind the Songs:
'Camp Song of the Chicago Irish Brigade'

By David Kincaid
Special to The Wild Geese Today

Other "stories behind the songs"

"The Irish Sixty Ninth" 
"Kelly's Irish Brigade"

Click to buy
"The Irish-American's Song"

Although this song's title describes it as a "camp song," the arrangement embodied in the song sheet is, ironically, hardly one for the soldier in the field. Written with full piano and four-part vocal arrangement, it falls into the category of Victorian "parlor music," a style in which many of the Civil War's most popular songs, such as "The Battle Cry of Freedom" and "Just Before the Battle Mother," were published. This four-part vocal style, popular long before the Civil War, would by the 1890's evolve into the a cappella style (vocal without instrumental accompaniment) known as "Barber Shop Quartet." The vast majority of Irish songs of the war were published as "broadsides" or lyric sheets with no music notation, and in most cases written to specified traditional Irish melodies. "Camp Song of the Chicago Irish Brigade" (words by Capt. William Carter Hughes, music by P.T. Hade Esq., published by Root & Cady, Chicago 1861) is a rare exception to this rule, having been composed and arranged in the above-mentioned Victorian style.

As has been discussed in my previous articles in this series, Irish units on both sides of the conflict of less than brigade strength would sometimes incorporate the name "Irish Brigade" into their monikers, wishing to link themselves with the French army's renowned Irish Brigade of the 18th century. Such was the case with the 23rd Illinois Infantry, also known as the "Chicago" or "Illinois Irish Brigade," or sometimes as "Mulligan's Irish Brigade" after the unit's commander, Colonel James A. Mulligan. Raised by him in Chicago in June, 1861, the regiment gof off to a rough start having been 

State Historical Society of Missouri 
Colonel James Mulligan

captured at the battle of Lexington, Missouri. in September 1861. Sadly, one of the Confederate units involved in this capture was another unofficial "Irish Brigade" under Capt. Joseph Kelly of St. Louis—this would not be the last time Irishmen would face each other in the war. The 23rd Illinois was exchanged the following November, however, and went on to fight in West Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley, and served in the Army of the James in pursuit of General Lee's army to Appomattox, developing a reputation as a solid regiment. Colonel Mulligan, wounded at Winchester in 1864, saw that the unit's colors were about to be captured as his men were carrying him from the field. Shouting to his men "Lay me down and save the flag!," he was then captured, dying from his wounds three days later. Two of the 23rd's soldiers, John Creed and Patrick Highland, both Tipperary men, won the Medal of Honor.

Other than this song's subject matter, it is not in the least bit Irish—the origin of its style being more Anglo-Saxon or Germanic. In fact, the opening melodic phrase is nearly identical to that of a German children's folk song called "Ich Geh' Mit Miener Laterne" ("I Go With My Lantern"). It strikes this writer that some of these songs were an attempt, through the style's slight nod in the direction of opera or classical music, to be perceived at that level of sophistication. This pretense only manages to make the style seem very quaint by today's standards (and was undoubtedly sneered at and snobbishly scorned by the era's true classical musicians), but was considered to be extremely fashionable by the polite society of the time. These statements are not meant in any way to put down this musical style¾I have developed a deep fondness for these songs, they being so representative of the depth of 19th century sentimentality and attitudes, and virtual musical windows into this period.

Irishmen were often depicted in negative political cartoons as having ape-like facial features and wearing tattered clothing.

The fact that songs in this non-Irish style would have been composed and published for, or by, the Irish at all, when they possessed such a vast, brilliant and ancient song tradition of their own, is a very telling comment on their condition in America then. Most of us are familiar with the "Irish Need Not Apply" attitudes of the mid-19th century, and the Irish struggle for acceptance in their adopted land. This manifested itself in many ways, including having themselves represented in a song form that would have been "acceptable" to the rest of America. The Irish musical tradition, like everything else about these immigrants, was considered by their detractors to be "foreign" and "un-American." Irishmen were often depicted in negative political cartoons as having ape-like facial features and wearing tattered clothing, wildly jigging about with shillelagh in hand to a piper or fiddler, a dudeen in the gob, bearing a savage grin. These images were as much a comment on the music as the characters they portrayed, and it is my belief that songs such "Camp Song," which would have been perceived to be "civilized" by American genteel society, were published as a means of helping to assimilate the Irish into American culture.

By all appearances the "Camp Song" became very popular, very quickly. One of the ways to gauge this is by considering how much a song was plagiarized (or stolen outright), which "Camp Song" was on several occasions. One was in broadside form (published by A.W. Auner, Song Publisher, 110 North 10th St., ab. Arch, Philadelphia), with identical lyrics under the simple title of "Irish Brigade." Like a great many period broadsides, this one made no mention of the song's date or author, although it specified "The Red, White and Blue" as its melody. This version also appeared in at least one newspaper, stirring up controversy between the authors and the paper's publisher. Patriotic stationary of the day often used lines or stanzas from songs or poems to accompany artwork printed on envelopes or letterhead designs. Such was the case with this song, as lines from it appeared with Irish-American symbolism (Irish harp and eagle or U.S. flag) on envelopes from at least two different publishers. The motif used for the cover of "The Irish-American's Song," in fact came from an envelope published by F. K. Kimmel, Nassau Street New York, and included the last verse of this song as part of the design.

Chicago Historical Society
A section of the "Camp Song" title page

There are many gratifying things about making and releasing these recordings of songs of the Irish in the American Civil War, and simply having made even a small contribution to the history of these men ranks right at the top. Another great and altogether unexpected benefit since releasing "The Irish Volunteer," my first album, is that I have become a sort of magnet for this kind of song material. Having been contacted on several occasions by people who either have, or have seen, a period lyric or song sheet, the whole process of collecting material, which began very slowly years ago, has been made considerably easier. One such incident happened not long after the February 1998 release of the first album, at which time I received an e-mail from WGT's own managing editor, Joe Gannon, informing me that he'd just seen the ornate title page of the "Camp Song" featured in Irish America magazine, the caption mentioning the song as being in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society. I immediately contacted this organization, and they very obligingly sent a copy of the song sheet and its title page. Tips like this are enormously helpful and appreciated, and I'd like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Joe for passing it along.WGT

The author gratefully acknowledges the help of Chicago Historical Society, for its copy of this song sheet and title page, and author/historian Joseph G. Bilby for historical background on the 23rd Illinois Infantry and Capt. Joseph Kelly.

Listen to a cut from the song.

Buy the CD now.

kincai2.jpg - 4.65 KEDITOR'S NOTE: Author David Kincaid, pictured right at Gettysburg, has been the lead singer and guitarist with the rock group, The Brandos, for quite some time. A Manhattan resident, Dave is a keen student of the Irish experience during the Civil War, and re-enacts with Company I, 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers. His new album, "The Irish-American's Song," can be ordered online from Haunted Fields Music.


Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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