"Bonnie Blue Flag:" The Most Dangerous Song of the Civil War

The popularity of sheet music in the United States had reached its peak by the start of the Civil War. Well before the development of recording and broadcasting technology, the commercial music industry centered upon the circulation of sheet music played by both amateur and professional musicians. To enjoy popular music, consumers either had to perform the songs themselves, attend public concerts, or participate in informal gatherings. This made music a more interactive and socially engaging experience than the passive role today’s recording industry creates for listeners.

The nationalization of the sheet music industry in the late nineteenth century stifled the production of songs created by local musicians and composers. In the mid-1800s, however, music created by local and regional musicians readily found its way to audiences via the many music publishers found in various US cities. These conditions allowed a song popularized through performance in New Orleans to become a controversial anthem of the Confederacy. Historian E. Lawrence Abel speculates that A.E. Blackmar and Bro. ran the South’s most successful sheet music publishing house. Among other tunes, such as "Missouri, or a voice from the South," and "Dixie," Blackmar published one of the earliest imprints of Harry Macarthy’s song “Bonnie Blue Flag.”

In May 1862, Union forces entered New Orleans and the city became one of the first occupied territories in the South during the Civil War. From May to December 1862, General Benjamin Butler ruled over the city. His legacy is marked by his severe social policies. General Order No. 40 states that "Any person who has in his possession...any property of any kind or description whatever, of the so-called Confederate States...shall be liable to imprisonment and to have his property confiscated." With this order, owning or singing one of the most popular songs of the period became an act of treason. Arrest records from New Orleans papers reveal that men and women were regularly arrested for singing "Bonnie Blue Flag," and were charged with a range of penalties, from a fine to time in the workhouse to a full pardon.

A few months before Butler took over the city, advertisements for A.E. Blackmar and Bro. disappeared from the newspapers. Henry, the oldest Blackmar brother, relocated his publishing operation to Atlanta, where it remained successful for the duration of the war. Armand Blackmar stayed to run the shop in New Orleans, but was not quite as lucky. Butler, acting on General Order No. 40, is said to have arrested Blackmar and ransacked his shop, destroying all Confederate materials inside. By the time we see Blackmar in New Orleans again, Butler had been removed from the city and replaced by General Nathaniel Prentiss Banks, who is known to have pursued a more socially lenient approach to running New Orleans than his predecessor.

In November 1863, advertisements for Blackmar reappeared in the newspapers of New Orleans, but no longer promoted "The Bonnie Blue Flag." These advertisements also reported a change of address from 74 Camp Street to 167 Canal Street, where Blackmar continued to publish music for the duration of the war. Paper and ink were in scarce supply by this point in the war, forcing some publishers to print on recycled materials such as wallpaper and develop new ways to make ink for printing. However, despite material shortages and Union presence, Blackmar's success in the final years of the war suggests that the demand for sheet music remained strong in occupied New Orleans.

After the Civil War and the collapse of the Confederacy, "The Bonnie Blue Flag" developed a life of its own. In the second decade of the twentieth century, the song was revived as a symbol of "Lost Cause" mentality in the midst of fifty-year commemorations of the War. During the Civil Rights era, "The Bonnie Blue Flag" once again became a song of protest, this time against the integration of public spaces. It even found its way back into the classroom, as one New Orleans resident remembers learning it in his elementary school classroom in the 1950s. It can even be heard in current movies such as "Gods and Generals" and, more perplexingly, the video game "Bioshock." The song has changed meaning over time, and modern audiences have all but forgotten the song's origins in Confederate New Orleans, but "The Bonnie Blue Flag" has remained part of New Orleans' musical heritage.


"Bonnie Blue Flag"
This controversial song was popular in New Orleans and throughout the South during the Civil War. After occupying the city, Benjamin Butler outlawed the song as a source of protest against the Union. Here, a group of musicians called Roscoe, Lee, and...
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