bonnie blue

Scholars who have seriously studied the question of what Northerners and Southerners were fighting for during the so-called “Civil War” have generally concluded that slavery was not a major motivating factor on either side. “Just as most Northerners did not fight to end slavery,” explained the acclaimed historian James I. Robertson, Jr., “most Southerners did not fight to preserve it.” What, then, were they fighting for? The contrast between two different versions of a popular patriotic song, “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” illustrates the intentions of both sides. Although the song was originally written for the South – adapted from a traditional Irish melody – it was later appropriated by the North. Stealing songs from the enemy was a common practice during the Civil War. For example, “The Battle Cry of Freedom” originated as a Northern song (“Down with the traitors and up with the stars!”) but was adapted to the Southern cause (“Down with the eagle and up with the cross!”). Although there are different versions of the song, these lyrics were the most common for Southerners and Northerners:


Southern  Northern
We are a band of brothers and native to the soilFighting for our Liberty, with treasure, blood, and toilAnd when our rights were threatened, the cry rose near and farHurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star! Chorus:

Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights, hurrah!

Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star


As long as the Union was faithful to her trust

Like friends and like brethren, kind we were 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


First gallant South Carolina nobly made the stand

Then came Alabama and took her by the hand

Next, quickly Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida

All raised on high the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star


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 statesmen rare

Now rally around the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star


Now here’s to brave Virginia, the Old Dominion State

With the young Confederacy at last has sealed her fate

And spurred by her example, now other States prepare

To hoist on high the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star


Then cheer, boys, cheer, raise a 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


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

We’re fighting for our UnionWe’re fighting for our trustWe’re fighting for that happy landWhere sleeps our father dustIt cannot be disseveredThough it cost us bloody wars

We can never give up the land

Where floats the stripes and stars



Hurrah! Hurrah!

For equal rights, hurrah!

Hurrah for the good old flag

That bears the stripes and stars


We trusted you as brothers

Until you drew the sword

With impious hands at Sumter

You cut the silver cord

So now you hear the bugles

We come the sons of Mars

To rally around the brave old flag

That bears the stripes and stars


We do not want your cotton

We do not want your slaves

But rather than divide the land

We’ll fill your Southern graves

With Lincoln for our chieftain

We wear our country’s stars

And rally around the brave old flag

That bears and the stripes and stars


We deem our cause most holy

We know we’re in the right

And twenty million freemen

Stand ready in the fight

Our pride is fair Columbia

No stain her beauty mars

On her we’ll raise the brave old flag

That bears the stripes and stars


According to James M. McPherson, Pulitzer-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom, while Southerners “fought for liberty and independence from what they regarded as a tyrannical government,” Northerners “were willing to risk their lives for Union, but not for black freedom.” Indeed, in the Southern “Bonnie Blue Flag,” Southerners saw themselves as fighting against “treachery” for their “liberty,” “rights,” and “heritage,” just like the “patriots of old.” In the Northern version, Northerners were engaged in the “holy” crusade of saving the Union from being “dissevered.” Defending slavery is not specifically stated as a reason for fighting in the Southern version, while in the Northern version emancipating slaves is explicitly denied. Southerners insisted that they were loyal to the Union so long as she was “faithful to her trust,” but swore that they would die “rather than submit to shame.” Northerners, in turn, swore “equal rights” to all States in the Union, but threatened “bloody wars” and “graves” to those who would “divide the land.”

Defending slavery did not inspire Confederate soldiers to charge Cemetery Ridge or stand like a stone wall at Manassas, nor did destroying it inspire Federal soldiers to hold out in the Hornet’s Nest or march up Marye’s Heights. Northerners and Southerners each believed with total sincerity that they were the heirs to the American Revolution defending the fundamental principles of their country’s freedom. “Soldiers on both sides felt intensely this honorable burden on their shoulders, and, of course, the tragic irony, one of the tragic ironies of the Civil War, is that Confederate and Union soldiers interpreted that heritage in precisely opposite ways,” said McPherson in a speech at Manassas National Battlefield Park. “In the image of the Founders, Confederates professed to fight for liberty and independence from a tyrannical government. Unionists fought to preserve the nation created by the Founders from what they regarded as its dismemberment, destruction, and ruin.” In other words, Northerners believed that the Union was America’s paramount political ideal and that its preservation was their sacred duty. Southerners, by contrast, believed that America’s paramount political ideal was self-government and that they had a sovereign right to be free. These irreconcilable differences and mutual misunderstandings concerning each other’s motives led to the death and disability of over a million Northern and Southern soldiers, the despoliation of countless Southern citizens, and the destruction of the laws of the land – a cataclysmic loss of life and liberty which still scars not only the American landscape, but also the American consciousness.

James Rutledge Roesch

James Rutledge Roesch is a businessman and an amateur writer. He lives in Florida with his wife, daughter, and dog.

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