“Flecking the hedges with red”: Palmer’s Ballad on the Maryland 400


A photograph of John Williamson Palmer who wrote ‘The Maryland Battalion’

In the past, we have written about poems and songs relating to the Maryland 400. [1] They were celebrated years after and during the Revolutionary War, with newspapers often containing poems and songs. Such poems included one about William Sterrett in 1776 and a song by Tom Wisner titled “The Old Line.” Poems and ballads, which are narrative poems, not only appeared in newspapers but also in books. This post analyzes the 1901 ballad titled “The Maryland Battalion in the Battle of Long Island” and its author. [2]

The ballad’s author was a native Baltimorean named John Williamson Palmer. He was a physician by profession, but later became a journalist, and served as a New York Tribune correspondent in Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War. [3] He traveled across the world to India and elsewhere in East Asia, worked for the East India Company, and warned acclaim after contributing to numerous periodicals. [4] During the Civil War, Palmer wrote the well-known ballad titled “Stonewall Jackson’s Way” during the Battle of Antietam in 1862. [5] This ballad became one of the South’s most popular lyrics. This is not surprising because Palmer joined the Confederate Army and later served on the staff of John C. Breckinridge, the Secretary of War of the Confederacy. [6] After the Civil War, he published a book of folk songs and numerous other books of note. He had become, as his former employer, the New York Tribune, called him, “a veteran balladist” who will “be long remembered” because of his good verse. [7] By the early twentieth century, some claimed that he become a writer with “vigorous lyric faculty.” [8]

“The Maryland Battalion” was originally printed in a 1902 book titled Every Day in the Year. The book was a “poetical anthology” which commemorated “the most striking events in history” and the men and women who “have left an imprint on their day and generation.” [9] The ballad was printed with an introduction making it clear it was about the Battle of Brooklyn. [10] His ballad fits with those he wrote about Stonewall Jackson and the Battle of the San Jacinto in 1836 by exhibiting a patriotic theme, from his point of view. [11]

The text of this ballad is reprinted below [12]:

Spruce Macaronis, and pretty to see,
Tidy and dapper and gallant were we;
Blooded fine gentlemen, proper and tall,
Bold in a fox-hunt and gay at a ball;
Prancing soldados so martial and bluff,
Billets for bullets, in scarlet and buff—
But our cockades were clasped with a mother’s low prayer
And the sweethearts that braided the sword-knots were
fair [13]

There was grummer of drums humming hoarse in the hills,
And the bugles sang fanfares down by the mills,
By Flatbush [14] the bagpipes were droning amain,
And keen cracked the rifles in Martense’s lane [15];
For the Hessians were flecking the hedges with red [16],
And the grenadiers’ tramp marked the roll of the dead

Three to one, flank and rear, flashed the files of St. George [17],
The fierce gleam of their steel as the glow of a forge.
The brutal boom-boom of their swart cannoneers
Was sweet music compared with the taunt of their cheers—
For the brunt of their onset, our crippled array,
And the light of God’s leading gone out in the fray.

Oh, the rout on the left and the tug on the right!
The mad plunge of the charge and the wreck of the flight!
When the cohorts of Grant [18] held stout Stirling [19] at strain,
And the mongrels of Hesse [20] went tearing the slain;
When at Freeke’s Mill the flumes and the sluices ran red,
And the dead choked the dike and the marsh choked the dead!

“Oh, Stirling, good Stirling, how long must we wait?
Shall the shout of your trumpet unleash us too late?
Have you never a dash for brave Mordecai Gist [21]
With his heart in his throat, and his blade in his fist?
Are we good for no more than to prance in a ball,
When the drums beat the charge and the clarions call?”

Tralára! Tralára! Now praise we the Lord
For the clang of His call and the flash of His sword!
Tralára! Tralára! Now forward to die;
For the banner, hurrah! and for sweethearts, good-by!
“Four hundred wild lads!” May be so. I’ll be bound
’T will be easy to count us, face up, on the ground.
If we hold the road open, though Death take the toll,
We’ll be missed on parade when the States call the roll—
When the flags meet in peace and the guns are at rest,
And fair Freedom is singing Sweet Home in the West. [22]

At the time, the ballad was positively received. Noted writer Rossiter Johnson said it reminded him of classic lyrics of another balladist, while the Chicago Tribune said that the ballad, along with his other writings, had become “familiar to the American people.” [23] The St. Louis Republic called it “blood-stirring” and the Baltimore Sun said it had no less “dash and ring” than his other ballads and would, which “rouse the blood to action and enthusiasm.” [24] Acclaimed poet Charles D. Roberts even praised it, calling it a “splendid piece of work, inevitable and unforgettable.” This flattery is not surprising because the ballad was written in style of that time by catering to a Victorian appetite for heroes and legends and preserving the Maryland 400’s story, while cultivating Maryland pride.

Burkely Hermann, Maryland Society of the Sons of American Revolution Research Fellow, 2016.


[1] Another post on this blog also put the ‘Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’ into context as it relates to Maryland.

[2] Alan, a volunteer at the Baltimore County Historical Society, gave me a copy of this ballad this summer when I made a trip to this historical society. In order to be consistent, the word ballad is used even though some refer to it as a poem.

[3] Henry E. Shepard, The Representative Authors of Maryland: From the Earliest Time to the Present Day With Biographical Notes and Comments Upon Their Work (New York: Whitehall Publishing Company, 1911), 100; American History Told by Contemporaries: Welding of the Nation 1845-1900 (ed. Albert Bushnell Hart, Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2002, reprint of 1921 edition), 282.

[4] Rand Richards. Mud, Blood, and Gold: San Francisco in 1849 (San Francisco: Heritage House Publishers, 2008), 201; Shepard, 100; American History Told by Contemporaries282.

[5] Richards, 86, 101; Southern Life in Southern Literature: Selections of Representative Prose and Poetry (ed. Maurice Garland Fulton, New York: Ginn and Economy, 1917), 259-261.

[6] American History Told by Contemporaries, 282; “Words of the Hour”: A New Anthology of Civil War Poetry (ed. Faith Barrett and Cristanne Miller, Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 389; Herman Melville, Correspondence (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 516; Women reading Shakespeare 1660-1900: An anthology of criticism (ed. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts, New York: Manchester University Press, 1997), 110; Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition. The Merchant of Venice (ed. William Baker and Brian Vickers, New York: Thoemes Continuum, 2005), 86; Shepard, 100-101; Southern Life in Southern Literature, 259. Before the war, in 1855, he married Henrietta Lee, a Baltimorean who was a prolific writer and reader of Shakespeare. Palmer also had correspondence with the acclaimed novelist Herman Melville after the Civil War.

[7] “A Southern Poet.” The Evangelical Episcopalian. Vol. 14, no. 1. March 1902. pp. 464; Every Day in the Year: A Poetical Epitome of the World’s History (ed. James L. Ford and Mary K. Ford, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1902), v. Others called him “one of America’s real poets,” before his death in 1906.

[8] John Wanamaker, Book News: A Monthly Survey of General Literature. Vol. 19 (Philadelphia: John Wanamaker, 1901), 684.

[9] Every Day in the Year, 289.

[10] Ibid, 133, 157-158.

[11] Poetry of the People (ed. Charles Mills Gayley and Martin C. Flaherty, Boston: Ginn & Company Publishers, 1904), 238-239; The Home Book of Verse: American and English 1580-1918 Third Edition (ed. Burton Egbert Stevenson, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918), 2429; Index of Current Literature (ed. Edward J. Wheeler). Vol. 40. New York: The Current Literature Publishing Company, Jan-June 1906, 449-450.

[12] The tune of this ballad is not known.

[13] “Scarlet and buff” is a reference to the uniforms Smallwood’s soldiers and said to have worn. In actuality they did not wear these uniforms. Instead, they wore white linen or hunting shirts, leather breeches, leather belts, stockings, leather shoes with buckles, and felt hats.

[14] General Sullivan was driven back by the Hessians, hired soldiers fighting for the British, and flanked by Clinton’s forces in Flatbush.

[15] Martenese’s lane was a road that was the Greenwood cemetery’s southern border in Brooklyn

[16] As a private of the Maryland  William McMillian put it in his description of the battle, “We were surrounded by Healanders [Scottish Highlanders] on one side, Hessians on the other.”

[17] The “files of St. George” are British soldiers.

[18] A British general named James Grant commanded the left wing during the battle.

[19] Lord Stirling, or William Alexander, was a veteran of the Seven Years War, and was a brigadier general during the battle.

[20] Refers to Hessians.

[21] Mordecai Gist was a native Baltimorean and commanded the Marylanders during the Battle.

[22] The last lines are saying that people should fight at any cost for their freedom and is challenging readers to fight and not be weak.

[23] The Missionary Review of the World vol. 24, part 2. Funk & Wagnalls, 1901, 160.

[24] The Missionary Review of the World, 115, 160, 181-182; The Literary Digest Vol. XXII, no. 25. June 22, 1901, 1A2.

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