“The Cumberland and the Merrimac”

The Sinking of the “Cumberland” by the Ironclad “Merrimac, off Newport News Va.
March 8th 1862
– Currier and Ives, 1862


This week we return once again to the American Civil War for some music that might make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.  Any civil war is fratricide writ large.  Certainly, we’ve seen that in our weeks thus far considering songs from that era in American history – “Hiram Hubbard“, “Two Soldiers“, and “The Southern Girl’s Reply“- all of which are deeper and more moving than the patriotic anthems and marching songs that usually pop in to our minds when someone uses the phrase “music of the American Civil War.”  That the murders in these deeper songs are done in the name of politics matters little – in the broadest sense they are, or at least function quite similarly to, murder ballads.

Now, I’ve made the observation before that the songs from the Civil War that survive today in America tend to focus more on personal loss than on specific military events.  There is, for example, no song titled “The Battle of Gettysburg” that survived as an American popular ballad in to the post-modern age the way that several ‘battle ballads’ did in Scotland and other parts of the British Isles.  I’ll certainly stand by that claim, if you’ll allow me to account for an exception or two.  Today’s featured ballad is clearly one of those exceptions; though, as in true murder ballad form, it keeps close to the personal and it all takes place in that dark, deep water we’ve come to know in this blog.

“The Cumberland and the Merrimac” recounts the story of the one and only day the Confederate Navy ruled the waves, the story of the initial deployment into combat at the Battle of Hampton Roads of the ironclad steamer CSS Virginia.  The Virginia was and still is often known incorrectly by her name before conversion, the Merrimack – a screw frigate scuttled by the U.S. Navy to prevent capture by secessionist forces in 1861.  Raised by the Confederates and fitted with thick iron armor, she was also given a massive ram; ancient technology which had all but disappeared from modern warships, but which figures centrally in our song today.

While the best-known part of the battle involves the Virginia’s standoff with the Union ironclad USS Monitor, this ballad tells the bloodier part of the tale.  Indeed, while the famous ‘duel of the ironclads’ was a draw with few casualties, the damage done earlier by the Virginia to the blockading wooden ships, most particularly to the USS Cumberland and her crew, helped make the Battle of Hampton Roads the single costliest day in American naval history before World War II.  Two hundred and sixty one officers and sailors of the U.S. Navy gave their lives, and this ballad turns that abstract number into something concrete, something up close and personal.  This song really isn’t about brilliant naval maneuvers, it’s about one captain murdering another captain and his brave and loyal crew.  

Murder – I don’t use that word lightly when it comes to warfare, but I use it purposefully because I think the song makes that indictment.  It is an unfair charge, but the song makes it nonetheless, and so we get the kind of story we love to parse in this blog.  Before I outline that case though, let’s hear the song and get to know the basics.

“It’s of a dreadful story I will unfold to you…”

Here we have another deeply touching ballad brought to life by Tim Eriksen, a performer to whom we often return in this blog.  Even the casual listener will note the power of Tim’s voice and of his approach to this performance.  The instrumentation is highly evocative yet sparse, never rising to interfere with the narrative.  So, though we can revel all we like in the music itself, this song is first and foremost a delivery vehicle for a great and (partly) true story.  If you’ve listened, then you already know what I’m talking about.  

Still, this blog isn’t about that history, and you can easily find those details for yourself if you wish.  (Here’s another great link.)  I’m more interested today in teasing out how the song and Tim’s delivery really serve to do more than memorialize a brave and loyal crew.  The history matters less then, except of course where it’s been changed to make a better story.  

Let’s get the ‘ballad identification’ out of the way first though, as thereby hangs a different and decidedly *not* dreadful tale.  

Tim is singing a song cataloged by Malcolm Laws as A26, and known in the Roud Folksong Index as #630 with 12 citations.  The Library of Congress catalogs an early broadside called “The Good Ship Cumberland” that is clearly the same song, though no date is provided.  However, some catalog librarian did some impressive digging, noted in this Worldcat record, based on the available evidence printed on the broadside.  “Second imprint at head of title: Auner’s Printing Office, 110 N. Tenth St., ab. Arch. A.W. Auner is listed at 110 North 10th Street in Philadelphia city directories for the years 1862 and 1863.”  Who the author “E.F.M” might be is not obvious, but it seems circumstantially sure that “The Good Ship Cumberland” is indeed the original ballad and was in fact written during the Civil War, no later than 1863.

“Yankee” John Galusha – ca. 1940
photo by Frank Warner

I’m almost certain though that Tim wasn’t working primarily from this broadside.  It’s clear enough that his performance is based on a snippet of one by Yankee John Galusha, recorded by collectors Anne and Frank Warner during one of their many visits with him between 1939 and 1950.  You’ll see what I mean when you hear it.  We know that the Warner Collection provided Eriksen with other sources for his performances as well, (see, for example, the end of this post.)

The biographical page linked in the paragraph above is well worth reading, but let me hit the highlights.  Galusha was born in 1859, and reported an early memory of the return of his brother from the Battle of Cold Harbor with a mortal wound in 1864.  He worked most of his life as a logger in the Adirondacks, and spent much of that time singing songs he learned in the lumber camps and from friends and neighbors in upstate New York.  He was noted among other things for “particularly intense” performances of songs from the Civil War.

Given what we’ll see below of other performances of our featured song, I’ll offer an educated guess that Galusha learned this one in the lumber camps – but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Listen to Galusha’s performance; it’s short. It is here included on an album that clearly references the movie Deliverance, yet seems instead to be a collection of the Warners’ recordings.  (You’ll forgive me if I neglect to dig in to just what is going on here?)  If you can’t use Spotify, the link above to John Galusha’s biography allows you to listen to the clip as well.  Either way you’ll hear, I trust, that Galusha seems clearly to be Eriksen’s source.

We do have some other independent performances that give us more clues that lead to the lumber camps.  Ellen Stekert cut a version of “The Cumberland and the Merrimac” on her 1958 album for Folkways Records Songs of A New York Lumberjack.  While she accompanied herself solo on the album, the liner notes make clear that she learned all of the songs from Ezra “Fuzzy” Barhight, aged 81 at the time.  She made every effort to faithfully reproduce them.  He learned his songs in the lumber camps of New York and Pennsylvania, and from his mother.  

Stekert also cites another recording in her notes for this particular track. “The Sinking of the Cumberland” by Warde Ford, a lumberjack from Wisconsin, is clearly the same ballad, and is included on the 1956 Folkways album Wolf River Songs.

Finally, Orlo Brandon cut a version of the song on the 1964 album for Folkways Songs of the Great Lakes.  The notes explain that most of the tracks are sailor’s songs, but that Brandon likely learned the more popular cousin of “The Merrimac”, called “The Cumberland’s Crew” (Laws A18) and also on the album, “in the lumbercamps rather than on the lake boats.”  Though the notes say little of “The Merrimac”, it seems likely that it was for Brandon, as those above, a lumber camp song.

All this gives us some triangulation for our claim regarding “Yankee” John Galusha’s general source. This ballad certainly seems to have survived best in the post-bellum northern lumber camps.  No longer would the masts for great wooden sailing ships come from those forests, but they were certainly peopled by veterans of the War of the Rebellion, and by younger men who were no doubt eager to hear their songs and stories when the day’s hard labor was done.  And one of those stories told of the death of those old sailing ships and the men who manned them.

“…you can sink me and be damned!”

Craig Symonds, in his book Decision at Sea, argues that the key revolution brought on by ironclad technology was a radical change in the relation of sailor to ship, a change that forced seamen to became working parts of industrial machines of war as opposed to crewmen with a direct and natural relationship to their vessel and the sea.

Perhaps “The Cumberland and the Merrimac” serves today as an evocation of such a view.  Maybe even those old lumbermen who were ex-sailors understood viscerally, and in part were mourning, the loss of the old ways when they sang this song.  But it would be silly to think that only ex-sailors became lumbermen, and at any rate a careful read of the lyrics shows this is certainly not a song meant to specifically highlight that perspective.  (If you’re interested in hearing a song written to do so, check out Tom Lewis’s “A Sailor Ain’t A Sailor (Last Shanty)”.)  

No, this is a much more personal and violent tale – it’s not about the history or the ‘big picture’ per se.  But even so, why consider it a murder ballad?  I believe one can argue that it is functionally just that, and I rest that claim on the following lines.

In vain we poured our broadsides into her ribs of steel,
But still no breach was in her, no damage did she feel.
Up stepped the Rebel commander, in a voice of thunder spoke,
“Pull down your flying colors, or I’ll sink your Yankee boat!”

Then our captain’s eyes did glisten, his face grew pale with rage,
And in a voice of thunder to the Rebel commander said,
“My crew is brave and loyal, and by me they will stand,
And before I’ll strike my colors you can sink me and be damned!”

You perhaps won’t quite get what I’m saying without listening to Eriksen’s singing of these lines.  I don’t get the same tingling down my spine when I hear them in the other versions above (remembering, of course, that Galusha’s is incomplete.)  Is that because Tim takes a song that is basically patriotic history and makes it more personal than it was meant to be?  Or is it rather because the mid-20th century interpreters above toned down the personal in favor of the political elements?  I can’t answer that with certainty, but I suspect the latter.  For this song to have persisted across the northern lumber camps as it did, it must have been originally more personal, a true folk ballad – it had to speak deeply to a young man like “Yankee” John Galusha who, at five years old, saw his brother taken from him by the Rebels.
And that’s the crux here – a sense of utter unfairness.
What do I mean?  Consider.
Franklin Buchanan, in a U.S. Navy uniform
ca. 1855-1861, photo by Matthew Brady

The Virginia’s captain, Commodore Franklin Buchanan, made a choice that is perhaps harder than we might imagine – to kill a captain and his crew who were his countrymen and had only a year earlier been his comrades in the U.S. Navy.  Buchanan, for example, had been the first superintendent of the Naval Academy.  And his brother served on the USS Congress, the ship Buchanan attacked and burned after sinking the Cumberland!   Fratricide, indeed.  There is, as well, another question of honor here that is somewhat foreign to most of us after The Blitz and Pearl Harbor, after Dresden and Hiroshima. Part of the British legacy that persisted in America until the Civil War was the chivalric dictate that a gentleman simply did not do in a defenseless peer, whatever offense might have been given or politics were at stake.  Remember “Matty Groves”?

Little damage had yet been done to the Virginia.  She was the unquestioned master of the seas in that moment.  The Cumberland had no weapon that could touch her as long as her iron plates met the waterline.  If we accept the timeline of events presented in the song, then every intelligent man on board both ships, despite any fog of war, must have known this by the time the Virginia prepared to use her ram.  It was, of course, the military imperative to do whatever he could to damage the Yankee blockade, and specifically the powerful Cumberland, that moved Commodore Buchanan to such action.  But the song leaves that perspective out.
The Virginia rammed the helpless Cumberland, and so we get the pathos of the concluding verses.  When the Cumberland’s captain yells “You can sink me and be damned!” he means it literally – ‘you will go to Hell for what you’re about to do.’  The song posits that choosing to ram the Cumberland was choosing to kill defenseless men.  This, I think, is what sets it apart and allows it to function as a murder ballad.  We could have a separate debate about whether it’s fair at all to indict Buchanan and his crew for murder.  But it seems to me that the song works because it does precisely that. 
There is, of course, no evidentiary standard for an accusation of murder in folk ballads.  The Virginia is painted ‘with extreme prejudice’, though very much as many common soldiers and sailors of the Union would have seen her at the time – as a ship manned by traitors who acted without honor and took their brothers away in death.  Remember, the song was written well before the War was over.  Such stark lines of moral contrast also, not accidentally I’m sure, make for a much better story.  
On that point, if you need more evidence that this song is in some ways more fiction than history, consider that the brave Union captain’s ‘going down with his ship’ is something that never happened.  The Cumberland’s captain, William Radford, was on board another vessel during the battle because of a military tribunal.  Her executive officer, George Morris, commanded during the battle but survived the action and the War.  
As well, it’s true that the Cumberland refused surrender but only *after* the Virginia’s ram had sealed her fate.  This I think is the key revision.  The truth would make for a *great* story on this point, but rearranging these particular actions makes it possible to imply murder instead of honorable combat.  In the song, Buchanan knows the Cumberland is finished before he rams her, and that just ain’t right!  But, enjoy the song as we might, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that it just ain’t true.
Now, several men did die bravely in the manner the song suggests.  The Cumberland did go down with many of her guns served and her colors still flying.  That’s worth remembering whether your slant is personal or political.

Wreck of the USS Cumberland shortly after being sunk – watercolor, ca. 1862,
by François d’Orléans



I want to end today with something odd, and no doubt a product of the intersection of early Rock and Roll and folk music during the Great Folk Scare.  I found this track in looking for versions of “The Cumberland and the Merrimac” on YouTube.  It’s… it’s… well, assign your own adjectives.
The group was called The Inspiriations and was apparently started by a high school teacher.  Perhaps he thought Doo Wop might make folk songs with historical content more appealing?  Maybe it was a folk-inspired take on the ‘splatter platter‘ craze?  (That reminds me, we really need to do a week on those songs this year!)
Anyway, thanks for reading and enjoy!

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