Harry Macarthy stood at center stage in the New Orleans Academy of Music one day in September 1861, singing to a packed house. His song was one few people had ever heard, but the audience of Confederate soldiers–men from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, passing through the city on their way to the Virginia front–took to it immediately. They stood and cheered as Macarthy sang.
The consummate performer, Macarthy was not just singing; he was also playing a role, the part of a Confederate volunteer heading off to war. He was dressed in a full Confederate army uniform just like the men in the crowd. His wife, Lottie Estelle, played the sweetheart he was leaving behind. As Macarthy sang, Lottie dashed onto the stage waving a blue silk flag with a single white star on it, a popular symbol of Southern independence. When Lottie reached her husband, she threw her arms around his neck. It was a scene the young soldiers in the audience remembered vividly, and they could barely restrain themselves as Macarthy took ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’ into its chorus:
Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights, hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.
With every ‘hurrah,’ the soldiers jumped up to cheer. The gathering was on the verge of mayhem, so Macarthy, experienced stage performer that he was, waited until the crowd settled down before he launched into the second verse.
Still, the more he sang, the more the audience howled. One soldier in the crowd, a member of Terry’s Texas Rangers, was so worked up that he remained on his feet, cheering in oblivion after everyone else had sat down. His blind enthusiasm attracted the attention of a policeman patrolling the hall. The officer approached, tapped him on the shoulder, and told him to sit down. But the young man was too wound up. He responded with a blow that sent the officer tumbling.
In an instant, all was bedlam. Police tried to subdue the troublemaker, but the Rangers were not about to let one of their own be hauled off to a New Orleans jail. More police streamed into the hall to help, but to no avail. Chaos reigned until someone was struck with the good sense to summon Colonel Frank Terry and Mayor John T. Monroe. Both men rushed to the scene and called off their men. Order was restored, and Terry led his rowdy Rangers back to the relative quiet of camp.
Within 24 hours of the near riot, ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’ had spread throughout the Confederate army. Talk of Macarthy spread, too. Not only had he given the memorable performance of the song in New Orleans; he himself had also written the stirring lyric, setting them to the tune of an old Irish folk song called ‘The Irish Jaunting Car.’ Macarthy was a hit, and for the rest of the war, he would do his best to keep his song and himself popular, taking his show on the road all over the South and providing diversion for thousands of civilians and soldiers. He lifted the morale of war-weary Southerners much as comedian Bob Hope would do for Americans during World War II. Like Hope in his days of entertaining GIs overseas, Macarthy was the most popular performer in his country, the Confederate States of America.
Actually, the South was not Macarthy’s native land. He was an Englishman of Scotch-Irish descent and was 16 years old by the time he came to America in 1849. He launched his entertainment career shortly after arriving, starting out in 1850 playing bit parts in Philadelphia, and then joining an acting troupe in New Orleans in 1855.
He was a talented actor with the good looks and charisma typical of a popular performer. One of the few existing descriptions of him says he was ‘a small, handsome man, and brimful of the humor and the pathos and impulsive generosity of the Celtic race.’ The only known pictures of him are those that grace the covers of a concert program and two pieces of sheet music. All were published at the height of his career and show him clean-shaven with thick black hair covering his ears. He had a straight nose and thin lips.
Macarthy made a breakthrough in his prewar career in 1859, when he began touring Arkansas with what he called ‘personation concerts.’ These shows featured Macarthy imitating people with various dialects. On September 8, 1860, an article in the Arkansas Gazette lauded the performer as one of the most versatile and accomplished actors of the day. ‘His dialect, acting and delineation of characters are true to the life,’ the article stated, explaining that he ’embraced a range and variety which we have never seen equaled by one man. As a ballad singer he is among the best we ever listened to, and in presenting Yankee, Irish, English, Dutch, French, and Negro characters, he reminds one so much of the genuine article that it is difficult to realise the fact that he is only acting.’ Macarthy was so overwhelmed by his reception in Arkansas that he began calling himself the Arkansas Comedian.
From Arkansas, Macarthy traveled to Mississippi and found still more inspiration waiting for him. He was in Jackson in January 1861, during the state’s secession convention, when the delegates voted to break from the Union. There, he saw a delegate’s wife parading around with a blue flag and was inspired to write the tune that would make him famous.
He wrote several other songs, too, both before and after ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag.’ Among those published during the war were those heralding the Confederate flag, ‘Our Flag and Its Origin,’ also called ‘Origin of the Stars and Bars’; ‘Missouri!’ which urged the Show-Me State to link its fate with the Confederacy; and ‘The Volunteer; or, It Is My Country’s Call,’ which celebrated the South’s victory in the July 1861 First Battle of Manassas.
When the Civil War broke out, Macarthy, still a British citizen, could have traveled north with little difficulty had he chosen to do so. But his loyalties lay with the Confederate cause, so he remained in the South to tour and give concerts in towns, cities, and army camps. The greatest of these events had to be the nearly riotous day in New Orleans.
The following year, 1862, Macarthy’s decision to remain in the South began to have negative consequences. On April 23, he and his wife opened their act once again at the New Orleans Academy of Music. By that time, growing pressure from nearby Union forces had frightened almost every other prominent entertainer out of the city. But the Macarthys decided to stay, expecting, as most of the citizens did, that the Federal gunboats would never get past Forts Jackson and St. Philip, which guarded the strategically critical waterborne entrance to the city. They were wrong, however, and the city fell on April 29, trapping the Macarthys behind enemy lines.
Soon after the fall of New Orleans, Union Major General Benjamin Butler was appointed military governor of Louisiana. Cruel, cunning, and unprincipled–according to the unhappy Confederates under his control, who called him the Beast–the general methodically quashed all signs of civilian resistance. The populace was disarmed. All men and women over the age of 18 were forced to take an oath of allegiance to the Union. Male slaves were encouraged to abandon their former masters and join all-black army regiments. Newspapers were forbidden to print anything unflattering to the Federal government, and every news item had to pass the scrutiny of censors before it could be published. Free assembly became illegal, and singing ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’ became a treasonable offense. A publishing house owned by Armand Blackmar was demolished for publishing the song, and Blackmar was fined. Macarthy felt it was only a matter of time before he would be arrested, so he began plotting his escape. None of the possibilities he considered seemed viable, however, and success seemed unlikely–until John W. Overall entered the picture.
A resident of New Orleans, Overall had been away from the city when the Federals captured it. Learning of the town’s surrender, he immediately returned, sneaked through Federal lines, and began searching for family members whom he wanted to rescue and take back through enemy lines to Mobile, Alabama. During his search, he met Macarthy.
Overall soon found his relatives and then went to see Union Brigadier General Godfrey Weitzel, Butler’s handpicked interim mayor of New Orleans. Overall wanted to persuade the mayor to give his family a pass to leave the city. His attempt may have seemed a long shot, given Butler’s reputation for strictly enforcing rules, but Butler realized he could not jail everyone in the city, so passes were quietly issued to a few troublesome and vociferous–or potentially troublesome and vociferous–disloyal citizens to cross Lake Pontchartrain to the Confederate lines on the north side. Thanks to Butler’s pragmatism, Overall got the pass. In return, he promised not to provide information, aid, or comfort to Confederates or their sympathizers, or to carry contraband such as gunpowder and bullets with him.
The next challenge Overall faced was to find a boat to carry his family and a few others, including Macarthy and his wife. He finally found a flour boat that was allowed to make runs between New Orleans and Mobile, and he loaded his family aboard. Although he had given his word about specific forms of contraband, he had not mentioned others. ‘I carried out with me on the truce-boat my wife, daughter, and brother; Mrs. Macarthy, under the name Mrs. MacMahon, a member of my family; Harry Macarthy, disguised as a deck hand; and a negro manservant, who bore Macarthy’s banjo,’ he recalled.
Out on the water, Federals sighted, stopped, and boarded the boat, but the escape party was allowed to continue on its way. Once a safe distance separated the boat from the Federals, Lottie whipped out a full-size Confederate flag from under her skirts and hoisted it into the breeze. The Federals immediately gave chase, but the little boat was quick and soon sailed under the protective guns of Fort Morgan, the Confederate-held fort that stood on the east side of the mouth of Mobile Bay.
Free from the suffocating clutch of enemy occupation, Macarthy returned to what he did best. During the winter of 1862-63 he found that the soldiers liked his shows even more in the cold months, when they were stuck in camp with little to do besides cook, eat, clean, and sleep. For diversion, they played cards or checkers, visited friends and relatives in other regiments, exchanged news and gossip, or traded for popular but scarce commodities such as tobacco and coffee. Some men were lucky enough to be entertained by professionals such as Macarthy. General Braxton Bragg’s army had had that treat at Pensacola, Florida, in December 1861. Now, in 1862, Brigadier General John Bell Hood’s Texas Brigade enjoyed a show in northern Virginia. Macarthy undoubtedly entertained Confederate troops elsewhere, but there are no known records of other performances.
In December 1862, Macarthy and his wife found themselves in the Broad Street Theatre in Richmond. The advertisement for the show billed Macarthy as ‘The Author, Actor, Vocalist, Dancer, Composer, Banjoist, Mimic, and man of many parts.’ Reserved seats were 75 cents each. According to the playbill, each night Macarthy would impersonate ‘nine or ten different characters selected from the English, Irish, Scotch, French, Dutch, Ethiopian and American, with their National songs, Dialect Costumes and Dances.’
Macarthy was still playing in the city on March 13, 1863, when a tremendous explosion at the Confederate Ordnance Laboratory killed more than 30 people and injured many others. Nearly all the victims were women. In the aftermath, Macarthy gave evidence of his longstanding dedication to charity. He donated the proceeds of a concert to survivors of the deceased. Among his other philanthropic acts was donating the profits from a July 1863 show in Savannah, Georgia, to Captain James T. Buckner ‘to be used for the widows and orphans of the men of the 63d Ga. Regiment who fell at Fort Wagner.’ Again, a month after that, he gave a substantial personal contribution to the Savannah Wayside Home, a refreshment station for traveling soldiers.
Macarthy seemed to spend much of his time on the road lifting his heels just out of reach of the nippy jaws of approaching Union forces. In the summer of 1864, Macarthy played in Savannah, Georgia; a few months later, in December, the coastal city would fall to Major General William T. Sherman’s Union forces. On September 2, 1864, he was in Wilmington, North Carolina, for a benefit performance with some other popular entertainers, including singer Ella Wren and actor Walter Keeble. This city would be surrendered in February 1865, a few months after Macarthy’s visit.
After performing in Wilmington, Macarthy returned to Richmond and nearby Petersburg, Virginia. By then, the Federal noose was tightening fast around the Confederacy’s neck, and Macarthy decided he had better head north. Somehow he managed to squeeze through Union lines, and the next time he turned up, he was in Philadelphia. Soon afterward, he returned home to Great Britain.
He did not stay home long, however–just long enough for the sectional animosity in the reunited United States to cool off a bit. In the beginning of 1867, he was back in the States, receiving rave reviews wherever he went, North or South. In January, he appeared briefly in Indianapolis, Indiana, before heading to New Orleans. The New Orleans Daily Picayune, described his reception at the familiar Academy of Music as ‘one of the most enthusiastic demonstrations of welcome ever witnessed within the walls of the Academy.’ The concert was sold out, and hundreds of fans waiting in line had to be turned away.
The 1870s were the last fruitful decade of Macarthy’s entertainment career, and he spent most of his working hours giving his personation concerts. By the 1880s, though, the public had lost interest and stopped coming to see him. Although he had earned quite a bit of money over the years, he had spent it all and suddenly was forced to find work as a journeyman actor. He settled in New York City and, when he could not find any more jobs there, he moved to San Francisco. One night in 1888, just before he was about to take the stage, he took ill and died. The Bob Hope of the Confederacy’s passing in a lonely rooming house in Oakland, California, went almost unnoticed.
An obituary for Macarthy appeared in the New Orleans Daily States on November 25. It wound its way through Macarthy’s long career, concluding with an insightful observation about his showmanship–and his ineptitude with financial matters: ‘His dialect was almost perfect; his Irish was inimitable; his Scotch was perfect; his negro was fine; his cockney was true to life; his Yankee was perfect, and then he could sing and dance and could write his own songs, in fact he could do anything but hold on to what he got.’
Macarthy’s death presented a vexing problem for newspaper editors. Because so little was known about his private life, huge holes riddled the stories about him. Many newspapers solved the problem of not knowing much about Macarthy’s personal life by inventing things. The Richmond Dispatch, for example, said Macarthy was a member of Terry’s Texas Rangers, an assertion no doubt rooted in the story of the ruckus that had erupted in New Orleans.
Despite all the accolades he received in his day, Macarthy was soon all but forgotten. No book-length biography was ever written about him. In fact, until now, not even a magazine feature has been published about this man who entertained troops in the field and gave generously to Confederate charities on the home front.
But the veterans he had entertained and inspired never forgot him. Decades later, memories of Macarthy from the greatest years of their lives were still fresh. For many of them, he was much more than the Civil War South’s most popular entertainer. To them, he was simply the greatest entertainer of all.
This article was written by E. Lawrence Abel and originally appeared in the December 2000 issue of Civil War Times magazine.
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