The Saucy Juvenile Ballads Yankees Used to Taunt Jefferson Davis

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Aug. 23 2013 12:45 PM

The Saucy Juvenile Ballads Yankees Used to Taunt Jefferson Davis

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This sheet is only one of many broadside ballads printed during the Civil War that targeted Confederate President Jefferson Davis for ridicule.

The “Uncle” in the title of this ballad is “Uncle Sam,” a man who Davis “tried to whip, but found it wouldn’t pay.” “Root, hog, or die,” an expression that recurs in this song but that’s now largely forgotten (save, perhaps, by fans of June Carter Cash), derived from the farmer’s practice of turning pigs loose to forage for their own food. In the  19th century, Americans used the idiom to tell others to be self-reliant and strong or suffer the consequences.

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By taunting Davis (and his general, John B. Floyd) with the expression, Union partisans framed the rebellion as the Confederacy’s failed attempt to “root” for themselves.

Broadside ballads, as an excellent introduction to the subject on the New York State Library’s website explains, were quickly produced songs that commented on current events, often with a liberal dose of attitude. More often than not, they were penned by anonymous authors and were sold on the street.

Thanks to Ken Burns, we now associate the Civil War with the mournful “Ashokan Farewell,” but many of the popular songs people sang about the war were anything but dignified. Another Davis song issued by the same publisher, in which the singer bemoans his diminished quality of life since “Jeff Davis … brought these hard times unto me,” wishes a series of childish curses upon the Confederate leader’s head:

May his tree never bear, may his head have no hair
May bunions like onions grow out of his toes!
May Dr. Zumblety [presumably a reference to this mountebank] drug him, and John Heenan plug him,
The vile Traitor, that brought these hard times unto me!

Another, “Jeff Davis or the King of the Southern Dominions,” recounts Davis’ deeds at the beginning of the war using a vulgar double entendre: “On Sumpter Fort he played his tricks/ And with big [cannon]balls ‘put in big licks.’ ”