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, a then popular play house located on St. Charles Avenue. 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, Civil War and material culture historian, 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.