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Shortly after the Civil War began in April 1861, a feisty 60-year-old met with President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia, and asked for a commission in the Confederate army. He was a graduate of West Point, he said, and wanted to serve his country. Davis took the man at his word, but refused to give him the requested commission because of his age. Instead he offered him a job as a drillmaster for new recruits. Such a post would never do for John Hill Hewitt. He felt he was worthy of much more, so he turned down Davis’s offer and returned to what he did best: writing songs and managing theaters. In the process he earned for himself lasting distinction as the ‘Bard of the Confederacy,’ and perhaps served his country better than he ever would have as a soldier.

Hewitt was not merely an aging man with patriotic pride when he met with Davis. He was one of the country’s best-known songwriters, the first native-born American to receive international fame for his songs and, before the rise of Stephen Foster, the country’s most popular tunesmith. He was also a playwright, dramatist, poet, and essayist, as well as a concert musician adept at the piano, organ, and flute. Hewitt embodied the restless can-do spirit of a young America. He had grown up with the fledgling republic, and had personally witnessed some of its most important technological firsts. As a boy in August 1807, he was on hand the first time a steamboat sailed on the Hudson River. In the early 1830s he rode the first train to be pulled out of Baltimore by a locomotive, and in 1844 he was present when William Morse sent the first telegraph message from Baltimore to Washington.

Though his life would become identified with the South, Hewitt was a native Northerner. Born in New York City in 1801, he was the eldest son of John Hewitt, a prominent New York musician who had led the orchestra at the court of King George III of England before coming to America. The elder Hewitt did not want his son to follow in his musical footsteps, and apprenticed him with various tradesmen. But young Hewitt would not be ‘prenticed’ and kept running away. Finally, when he was 17, he decided he wanted a military career, and with help from some of his father’s friends, he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Hewitt could not buckle down to his studies at West Point, and when he reached the end of the program, he didn’t have the grades to graduate. When the superintendent advised him to repeat his final year, Hewitt accused him of treachery and challenged him to a duel. Others wisely intervened and the duel never occurred. Hewitt resigned from the academy, but in his own mind he was a West Point graduate.

The same year that Hewitt left West Point, his parents separated, and his father invited him to become the leading songwriter and musician for a theatrical company he had formed. Hewitt agreed to meet the troupe in Augusta, Georgia, but the enterprise never got off the ground. Soon after the company arrived in Augusta, the theater where it was to play caught fire and all their instruments and props were lost. Crestfallen, the troupe broke up. Hewitt’s father returned to New York, but Hewitt had fallen in love with the South. ‘I loved the genuine hospitality of the Southerners,’ he later wrote in his autobiography. He decided to stay in Augusta, where he opened a music store, selling instruments and giving lessons on the piano and flute.

Although Hewitt was often invited to the homes of his affluent pupils, he felt snubbed by the students’ fathers because they did not invite him to participate in their political discussions after the meal. ‘Upon being invited to dinner,’ he wrote, ‘I was expected to provide music for ladies while they gossiped, instead of joining the men in stimulating conversation.’ Hewitt attributed this ostracism to the low opinion Southerners typically held of ‘mechanics and laborers,’ which included musicians.

Hewitt desperately wanted to be accepted in these social circles and so, after spending only a year in Augusta, in 1824 he moved to Columbia, South Carolina, to study law. Scandal involving a music student cut short his stay. Hewitt claimed he had been out riding with one of his female pupils when a storm suddenly came up. The two had found shelter in a deserted cottage, and though they wanted to leave as soon as the storm subsided, a prowling bear made that impossible. It wasn’t until the next day that a search party found them in the cottage. Hewitt’s explanation was unconvincing, and he was soon on his way out of town. He took a job in Greenville, South Carolina, as a music teacher at the Baptist Female Academy and moonlighted giving private music lessons and editing a literary journal.

In 1825, while Hewitt was still in Greenville, he wrote what would become America’s first international song hit, ‘The Minstrel’s Return’d from the War.’ Later that year, he traveled to Boston, where his brother James had kept up the family music-publishing business. James wasn’t very impressed with the song, but published it anyway, albeit without copyrighting it. It was a costly mistake. ‘The Minstrel’s Return’d’ became a worldwide hit and earned Hewitt the title ‘father of the American ballad.’ His brother later confessed that by not copyrighting the song, they had lost at least $10,000 in royalties, which in today’s money, would have been at least $1 million. (Interestingly, in the 1940s, the ‘Minstrel’s Return’d’ was the mystery tune on a radio quiz show called Stop the Music. The contestant who correctly identified it won $30,000.)

‘The Minstrel’s Return’d’ was what is now called a ‘parlor song’ — a tune that required only a limited vocal range, could be played on the parlor piano by anyone with a little training, and dealt with a theme that was becoming universal in the first half of the 19th century — the separation of families due to emigration, military service, or death. Hewitt would continue to write successful songs on this model during the 1830s and 1840s.

Hewitt returned to Boston in 1827 after his father’s death, and took up residence. There, he met and married his first wife, Estelle Mangin, with whom he eventually had seven children. In 1828, the newspaper he was working for went out of business, and the jobless songwriter headed south with his wife. He soon found a job in Baltimore as a newspaper and magazine editor, and began writing plays, poems, and songs on the side. But once again he ran into trouble — this time with another writer who lived in Baltimore at the time, one Edgar Allan Poe.

In 1833 both Hewitt and Poe entered a literary contest held by The Visitor, one of the newspapers Hewitt was editing. Hewitt entered a poem under a nom de plume. Poe entered a prose piece called ‘Manuscript Found in a Bottle’ and a poem titled ‘The Coliseum.’ The judges awarded Poe the $100 first prize for his short story, and Hewitt the $50 first prize for poetry, but only because they felt the two first prizes should not go to the same contestant. Because Hewitt had previously criticized Poe’s abilities, Poe believed he had rigged the poetry award. When the two met by chance on the street, tempers flared and they began throwing punches.

Intensely competitive by nature, Hewitt seemed to resent success in others. Years later he wrote that Poe’s reputation was undeserved. He accused Poe of plagiarizing The Raven from an old English poem. And still smarting over being bested in the short story contest, he accused Poe of adapting ‘Manuscript Found in a Bottle’ from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Hewitt was equally uncharitable toward other successful performers. Of matinee idol Henry Russell, who in the 1840s toured America and held audiences spellbound with his songs, Hewitt said his act was little more than a ‘bombast,’ and dismissed Russell as nothing more than ‘an expert at wheedling applause from an audience.’ He was particularly vicious toward Harry Macarthy — whose song ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’ rivaled ‘Dixie’ as the Confederacy’s unofficial national anthem — calling him a plagiarist and a coward.

Personal shortcomings were not enough to keep Hewitt from becoming the Confederacy’s most prolific songwriter and a successful theater manager. In November 1861, seven months after Davis rebuffed his request for a military commission, Hewitt became manager of the Richmond Theater, a position he held until 1863. During that time he wrote some of his best-known songs, including ‘Rock Me to Sleep Mother,’ which was issued four separate times, and the music for ‘All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight,’ which was reissued on five separate occasions and which one music historian regarded as ‘arguably the best song to come out of the war.’ The lyrics of ‘All Quiet,’ written by Northerner Lamar Fontaine (the pseudonym of Ethel Lynn Elliot Beers), tell the story of a picket’s last moments as he walks patrol, a soldier whose death ‘will not count in news of the battle’ because he is ‘only one of the men’ and ‘not an officer.’ The soldier’s lonely death resonated in the hearts of millions of Northerners and Southerners. Although the words were set to music by several composers, it was Hewitt’s setting, said one music historian, that ‘unobtrusively allow[ed] the disconsolate text to speak directly to the listener,’ and immortalized it as the most poignant song of the war.

While he was manager of the Richmond Theater, Hewitt met the Queen Sisters — a singing and acting group — and their manager-father, Alfred Waldron. The girls, along with their three brothers, were the darlings of the South, and they captivated Hewitt. After leaving the Richmond Theater, he moved back to Augusta to manage the concert hall and work with the Waldron family. There, he wrote many musical plays and dramas for the Waldrons — comedies such as The Exempt! Or Beware of the Conscript Officer, and two of his best-known musical plays: a patriotic operetta called The Vivandiere, which debuted another of his best songs, ‘The Valiant Conscript,’ and a satire, King Linkum the First, which characterized Abraham Lincoln as a henpecked husband. He dedicated his well-received song ‘You Are Going To The Wars, Willie Boy!’ to one of the sisters, Fannie Waldron. In 1864, he wrote another of his best-known songs, ‘Somebody’s Darling,’ which became so popular its publisher, Herman Schreiner, couldn’t keep up with orders. Modern audiences can still hear its haunting melody in the 1939 MGM film Gone With the Wind.

Hewitt’s personal life underwent profound changes over these years. His wife Estelle died in 1860, and three years later he married Mary Alethea Smith, who would give him four more children.

In April 1865, Hewitt began a music publishing business in Augusta, but the venture collapsed after the war. Unable to find work, he returned to Virginia where he found work at ‘female institutes,’ finishing schools for girls. He continued to change jobs regularly until 1874, when he moved back to Baltimore and opened his own music school, the Baltimore Academy of Music. As in the past, he earned additional money by writing for newspapers and local journals, and writing plays and musicals such as The Revellers, a work reflecting the growing temperance movement in the late 19th century. He also began work on his autobiography, Shadows on the Wall, or Glimpses of the Past, eventually publishing it in 1877.

Though he was aging, Hewitt remained indefatigable, writing songs, musical plays, and revising older works almost until his last days. In his late 80s he was still walking five miles a day. Time finally caught up to him in 1888: he fell down the stairs and broke his hip. He never recovered fully and remained housebound until he died a year and a half later on October 7, 1890. In one of life’s little ironies, it was the same date on which his longtime rival Poe had died in 1849.

Hewitt’s career, said historian Richard Harwell, ‘is the story of music in the Confederacy.’ The songwriter’s early works spoke to America’s coming of age and the social changes that impacted on families; his wartime songs chronicled the tragedy that tore families and the country apart; and his postwar tunes reflected the country’s Victorian morality. He was, in the opinion of many musical historians, one of America’s most prodigious composers, dramatists, musicians, and writers. He composed more than 300 songs, and 18 of his wartime tunes were published as sheet music. He unquestionably earned the title ‘Bard of the Confederacy,’ and in the words of music historian N. Lee Orr, ‘Visiting with him and his music for a time deepens our understanding of the story of America’s music.’

This article was written by E. Lawrence Abel and originally appeared in the October 2003 issue of Civil War Times magazine. For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!