Harry Macarthy and the Academy of Music

In August 1861, Harry Macarthy, also known as "The Arkansas Comedian," arrived in New Orleans to perform a three-month stint of "Personation Concerts" at the Academy of Music, that included singing, dancing, and impersonations. Macarthy debuted “The Bonnie Blue Flag” at these concerts, a song Macarthy wrote in honor of the young Confederacy. On August 9, 1861 The Daily Picayune praised Macarthy as a man of "great versatility of talent" with "a fine voice.” Throughout his stay in New Orleans both Macarthy and his Confederate anthem were met with excitement and became quite popular.

The Bonnie Blue Flag refers to one of the first unofficial Confederate flags. However, the flag has a history in Louisiana that pre-dates the Civil War. The blue banner with a single white star in the center closely resembles the flag raised by the short-lived Republic of West Florida. The Republic included territory from Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, and only lasted a few months before its annexation by the United States. The flag reappeared decades later in Texas, a United States territory gained through similar means as the West Florida territory, and is commonly called the "Lone Star Flag" in that context. However, the popularity of Macarthy's song forever linked the flag to the memory Confederacy.

The chorus of “The Bonnie Blue Flag” intended to unite Southerners from different states under the principles of the new Confederacy:

"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 threatened, The cry rose near and far,
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag, that bears a Single Star!"

Macarthy also compared the South's fight to the American Revolution:

"Like patriots of old, we'll fight our heritage to save"

This line is perplexing in light of the Confederacy’s recent break from the United States, but is not an uncommon sentiment in Confederate rhetoric. America’s revolutionary past seemed to legitimize the South's fight for independence, casting the Northern states in the same imposing light as the English crown. Also, the perceived connection to "patriots of old" reminded Southerners of the founding principles of the United States that the South was fighting to regain.

During the Civil War, a repertoire of Confederate anthems was created to re-identify the seceded Confederate states as something new and separate from the Union. "The Bonnie Blue Flag," became one of the most popular of these anthems, particularly in New Orleans. The creation of cultural materials, such as national anthems, is one of the most important aspects of building a young nation. Alice Fahs points out, however, that by creating parallels between the Confederate cause and the cause of the American patriots, Confederate songwriters were essentially "inviting the very dependence on Northern culture that they spurned."

E. Lawrence Abel, a historian of Civil War music and expert on Harry Macarthy, claims that a riot took place during one of Macarthy's Personation Concerts. Abel writes that a group of Texas soldiers attended a Personation Concert on their way to the battlefield. When Macarthy sang "The Bonnie Blue Flag," a symbol that would have been recognizable both for their home state of Texas and the new Confederacy, the soldier’s excitement devolved into riot. The Daily Picayune reported on Macarthy's performances regularly, but never made explicit mention of this riot. However, on September 24, 1861, The Daily Picayune published the arrest of a Charles J. Muller who was fined ten dollars for "willfully [disturbing] the peace of the Academy of Music" and that others in attendance had to pay five dollars for "mere outside disturbances." This event may have been the one mentioned by Abel, or simply the effects of a rowdy crowd on a night out. Regardless, the riotous reaction to Macarthy's performance is now part of the historical memory of "The Bonnie Blue Flag."

Not long after Macarthy finished his stint at the Academy of Music, Federal forces arrived in New Orleans and occupied the city. Despite Union presence, "The Bonnie Blue Flag" remained part of the soundscape of New Orleans as a song protest throughout the war.

Images

"The Bonnie Blue Flag"

"The Bonnie Blue Flag"

The Bonnie Blue Flag is pictured on the left of this 1861 print of Harry Macarthy's Confederate anthem. It also demonstrates the connection between "The Bonnie Blue Flag," Harry Macarthy, and his Personation Concerts in New Orleans. On the bottom, you can see that the sheet music was published by A.E. Blackmar & Bro., one of the most prolific sheet music publishers in New Orleans in the nineteenth century. Library of Congress, Music Division. View File Details Page

Bonnie Blue Flag Song Sheet

Bonnie Blue Flag Song Sheet

This song sheet provides the lyrics to Harry Macarthy's Confederate anthem. Song sheets were another part of the sheet music industry during this time and could be purchased by those who didn't own the instruments to play sheet music, or could be passed out to audiences to sing along. Library of Congress View File Details Page

The Daily Picayune 8/10/1861

The Daily Picayune 8/10/1861

This review appeared in the newspaper the day after Macarthy's first show at the Academy of Music. It described the performance as "extensive and comprehensive," and referred to "The Bonnie Blue Flag" as the "National Song of the South." It also referred to wartime in New Orleans as "dull times" and thanked Macarthy for providing a source of entertainment for the citizens of New Orleans. Courtesy of the Times-Picayune View File Details Page

Harry Macarthy, "Songs and Ballads"

Harry Macarthy, "Songs and Ballads"

One of the only known lithographs of Macarthy appears here, on the cover of a collection of his most ardent Confederate songs. He is pictured with his wife Lottie Estelle, who often performed with him in New Orleans. Jules Lion, one of the most popular African American artists in New Orleans by the time of the Civil War, illustrated this cover and many other sheet music covers during the war. Virginia Historical Society View File Details Page

The Daily Picayune 8/28/1861

The Daily Picayune 8/28/1861

This article is a printed request by Macarthy's fans in Algiers, requesting an appearance in their area. Macarthy responded by performing two shows, the proceeds of which he claimed to donate to the Confederate war effort. Courtesy of the Times-Picayune View File Details Page

Academy of Music, c. 1870s

Academy of Music, c. 1870s

View of 400 block of St. Charles Street looking from the Masonic Hall at the corner of Perdido Street. The Academy of Music is visible on the left side of the street. The Historic New Orleans Collection View File Details Page

Academy of Music, c. 1880s

Academy of Music, c. 1880s

View of the Academy of Music, located at 408-410 St. Charles. People are visible on the balcony and in the street in front of the theatre. The Historic New Orleans Collection View File Details Page

Federal Writer's Project Slave Narrative

Federal Writer's Project Slave Narrative

This account came from an Arkansas man who recalled hearing "The Bonnie Blue Flag" during the war. His memory demonstrates the popularity of the song throughout the Confederacy. The lyrics he recalls do not match Macarthy's official publication, and represents how people were able to personalize songs during the sheet music period because there was no standard recorded version. Library of Congress View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Jessica Anne Dauterive, “Harry Macarthy and the Academy of Music,” New Orleans Historical, accessed May 24, 2017, http://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/813.
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