Entry 6: The Civil War’s Feminist Anthem

http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/media/loc.natlib.ihas.200001829/001.tif/1574

“We’ll Go Down Ourselves.” Words and music by Henry Clay Work.

Release Date: December 13, 1862.

Available: audio (fast forward to 33:35) and as sheet music.

I’ll admit that this gem from Henry Clay Work slipped under my radar until I was asked to make some remarks about it for a Civil War music concert at the Newberry Library. My previous research largely focused on the war’s most popular songs and there isn’t much evidence that “We’ll Go Down Ourselves” enjoyed much popularity, then or now, but it’s a fascinating piece for a number of reasons.

As I noted in my last post, Work often wrote within the minstrel genre. By definition, minstrel songwriters had to adopt a persona–“blacking up” and presenting themselves as African Americans. Here, however, Work is lending his voice to a different group, one that male songwriters often wrote for but rarely identified with: northern women. What’s more, he once again expressed his contemporary radicalism by making his female speakers independent, politically aware, and dismissive of the male-led northern war effort. Indeed, in each chorus Work’s women declare their intention to “lay” the North’s political and military leaders “on the shelves / And we’ll go down ourselves, / And teach the rebels something new.”

The song is framed as a recalled interview between Work’s central, presumably male, speaker and “some ladies whom I met.” The chorus quoted above is the only part of the song in which the women actually speak–each time prompted by a question. At first the speaker asks only about the army’s military failures in Virginia and the seemingly doddering politicians in Washington, but some of his subsequent questions are potentially more radical and indicative of larger problems. In the second verse, for instance, he offers to “call our soldiers home” and end the war effort, only to be rebuked by the chorus that he can do so but the women will take the soldiers’ place and win the war themselves. The third verse asks the reverse, wondering “What shall we do when all the men / For battle have enlisted– / and yet the rebels hold their ground, / and law is yet resisted?” Again, the women repeat the chorus and offer to provide the additional numbers to win the war.

There’s a lot to unpack in these lyrics. Having a group of women state they are smarter than their male leaders is radical enough for the mid-nineteenth century, but having them offer to take up arms against the South goes a big step further. Work is walking the same fine line here as he did in his minstrel songs–balancing mocking his subjects and promoting them. The song’s message is either absurd or transgressive, depending on the audience’s point of view. The cover image conveys this very effectively. Work’s women are fighting the rebels with symbols of their domesticity (mainly brooms), creating a comical juxtaposition, but they also look deadly serious, making us wonder if the humor is really a smokescreen and Work truly believed northern women could win the war if given the chance.

“We’ll Go Down Ourselves” is also clearly a product of 1862–the North’s most frustrating year of the war. The one thing the song’s male and female characters have in common is extreme exasperation with the northern war effort. The questions Work’s speaker asks are extremely pessimistic. He laments military defeat but also openly wonders if the North should call off the war or, conversely, if every last man should be sent down to fight. The women’s answers–not just suggesting they fight but that everyone currently involved in the war pack it in to make room for them–express a similar lack of confidence in the Union’s ability to end the rebellion. It’s a side of Work that is largely absent from his other songs. While “Kingdom Coming” and “Wake Nicodemus” view the war as an opportunity to end slavery, “We’ll Go Down Ourselves” expresses frustration at North’s inability to deliver on that promise. Work used women’s rights to criticize Washington’s commitment to the war by suggesting that northern women possessed a vigor to win that was missing from the ranks in the armies and in the halls of government.

Perhaps that frustration and pessimism accounts for the song’s relative lack of success. A small number of popular northern pieces suggested the horrors of war (“All Quiet Along the Potomac, Tonight,” “When This Cruel War is Over,” “The Vacant Chair”) but almost no popular songs expressed any lack of faith in the war effort itself. Only a sub-genre of scathing Copperhead songs condemned the conduct of the war directly, and they had no audience outside of the Peace Democrat conventions. “We’ll Go Down Ourselves” may have been too radical and too negative for northerners in late 1862, who at that time were still gleefully singing George Frederick Root’s determined “Battle Cry of Freedom.” It didn’t help that Work gave his seemingly feminist anthem a fairly forgettable melody. Nevertheless, “We’ll Go Down Ourselves” stands as another of Work’s sneakily radical tunes and one of the only Civil War tunes by a popular songwriter to take women seriously.

Additional Dispatches:

  • Of course, white southerners would spend a great deal of effort after the war characterizing Confederate women in almost the same way Work characterizes northern women in this song. As Caroline Janney observes in Remembering the Civil War, postwar northern women lacked a similarly popular image, but Work was clearly depicting them as loyal and fierce during the war while similar characterizations of southern women were yet to be written.
  • I really do love this sheet music cover. I’d rank it with my other two favorites: “Babylon Is Fallen” and “The Captain with His Whiskers.”
  • Does it mention slavery? No, which is surprising for Work. His women may well be committed to defeating the Confederacy but they do not declare themselves as emancipationists. This is especially surprising, since Root & Cady published the song mere weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

Next Entry: “Marching through Georgia.”

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