Wednesday, February 20, 2013
By Bob Hurst

Almost eight years ago, when I first began writing this column, it was my intention to write about the great figures of the Confederacy during the War for Southern Independence and to also discuss the activities of the descendants of those great Southerners by chronicling events and actions of heritage and historical organizations, especially the Sons of Confederate Veterans, that are active today in protecting the memory and true history of those magnificent Southerners.

Naturally, many of my articles have been about the iconic figures of the Confederacy, and rightfully so. Not enough can ever be written about the greatness of Lee, Jackson, Davis, Forrest, Stuart, Cleburne and so many more. I have also, occasionally, written about lesser-known Confederates that I thought made outstanding contributions to the Cause and would make for interesting reading for you fine people who read this column each month. A few examples of these are Jedediah Hotchkiss, Sally Tompkins, General James Lane, General Hylan Lyon, Bennett Young and Richard Kirkland.

Interestingly, I have generally gotten more feedback from readers about these columns and most of it dwelt on the theme that they were happy to read about Confederates who were hitherto unknown to them.

I am sure that this column will fall into that category for most of you. In fact, until I recently came across a reference to the individual who is the topic of this piece, I had never heard of him. I just had to research him and what I found was an amazing story of an extremely interesting person who made great contributions to the Confederacy during the War without firing a single shot or giving a single order.

His name was John Hill Hewitt and his contribution to the Cause was to give hope, joy and inspiration to the Southern people through his gift of music . What makes his contribution even more remarkable is that John Hill Hewitt was not even a Southerner.

John Hill Hewitt was born in New York City in 1801. His father, James Hewitt, was a noted musician in New York and in his native England. Interestingly, the father did not wish for the son to become a musician, nor did the son desire to. John wished for a military career and, at age 17, entered the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Hewitt was at the Academy for four years and completed the course of study. Unfortunately, his grades were not sufficient for him to graduate and receive a commission. To rectify this, the superintendent of West Point recommended that he repeat his senior year. This brought about from young Hewitt a display of the temper for which he would become well known – he challenged the superintendent to a duel. Fortunately, the duel was not fought and Hewitt quickly resigned from West Point.

In the meantime, his father had formed a theatrical company and invited young John to become a songwriter and musician for the troupe. John agreed and went South to join with the group which was then performing in Augusta, Georgia. Unfortunately, disaster struck soon afterwards and fire destroyed the theater where the group was performing and, in the process, also destroyed their props and instruments.

The troupe broke up and most, including John’s father, returned to New York. John, however, in the short time he had been in Augusta, had become enamored with the South. He decided to stay in Augusta and open a music store where he sold instruments and also taught music lessons (he was proficient on the organ, piano and flute).

After a year in Augusta, Hewitt moved to Columbia, South Carolina, to study law and teach music lessons. Unfortunately, he soon became entwined in a scandal involving a young female music student. He soon moved to Greenville, South Carolina, to teach music at a Baptist Female Academy and give private music lessons on the side. It was while Hewitt was living in Greenville that he wrote "The Minstrel’s Return from the War" (1825) – a song that became America’s first international hit song.

Following his father’s death, Hewitt moved to Boston in 1827. Boston was where his brother had moved the family’s music publishing business. John took a job working for a newspaper and soon married, but the newspaper closed the following year and the Hewitts headed South. They ended up in Baltimore and John took a job with a newspaper and also edited a magazine. Here he began writing poetry, plays and songs on the side.

Unfortunately, the temper that was first displayed at West Point again came to the fore. Especially unfortunate was that the target of his ire this time was one of the most popular of America’s writers – Edgar Allan Poe. The dispute with Poe, in fact, continued until Poe’s death in 1849.

Another target of Hewitt’s vitriol was the Ulster-Scots entertainer Harry McCarthy who, in 1861, would write one of the most beloved of all Southern songs – "The Bonnie Blue Flag". Other than our beloved "Dixie" , there is no other song that stirs Southern hearts like "The Bonnie Blue Flag".

So who could imagine that with this background John Hill Hewitt would become the Confederacy’s most prolific songwriter? He most assuredly did, though!

John Hill Hewitt’s Confederate Odyssey began on a less than auspicious note. In 1861, Hewitt approached President Jefferson Davis and asked for a commission in the Confederate Army. Since he had completed four years at West Point he considered himself a graduate of the Academy. He presented himself to President Davis as a graduate and expressed a desire to serve his country (by now he was a committed Southerner). The president refused his request for a commission but offerred him a job as a drillmaster for new recruits. Since this was well below his desires and expecrations, the energetic 60-year-old Hewitt decided to return to what he did best.

By mid-1862, Hewitt was managing a Richmond, Virginia, theater and writing songs at a rapid pace. These were not merely songs, though, but rather tunes that became instant classics and were beloved throughout the South.

Hewitt was adept at writing both melodies and lyrics. For some of his songs he would write the melodies and use the lyrics of others. Some example are: "Dixie: the Land of King Cotton" (1863) with lyrics by Captain Hughes of Vicksburg; "Flag of the Sunny South" (1860) with lyrics by E.V. Sharp; "The South" (1862) with lyrics by Charlie Wildwood; and the most famous of his Southern songs, "All Quiet Along the Potomac To-Night" (1863) with lyrics by "Lamar Fontaine", a pseudonym for Mrs. Ethel E.L. Beers.

His jaunty melody "The Stonewall Quickstep" (1863), however, was written purely as an instrumental piece.

Hewitt would also take an established melody and apply his own lyrics as he did with "The South Shall Rise Up Free" (1863); "When Upon the Field of Glory" (1864); and "Yes We Think of Thee at Home" (1864).

And then there were the songs where he wrote both the melody and the lyrics such as "The Young Volunteer" (1863); "The Unknown Dead" ((1863); and "You are Going to the Wars, Willy Boy!" (1863).

Undoubtedly, the melody written by John Hill Hewitt that has been heard the most is the beautiful "Somebody’s Darling" (1864), with lyrics by Marie Ravenal de la Coste, which was selected by MGM to be a part of the score for one of the most popular (and rightly so) motion pictures of all time, the magnificent GONE WITH THE WIND.

After the War, things did not go well for Hewitt as he experienced almost ten years of constant moves and job changes. In 1874 he moved back to Baltimore and opened his own music school. Being multi-talented, he supplemented his income by writing for newspapers and journals, and writing plays and musicals. He also completed his autobiography which was published in 1877.

He remained active into his late 80s writing and managing productions. He also found time to walk five miles a day. Sadly, he fell down some stairs in 1888 and broke a hip. He never recovered and died in October of 1890.

His body of work was prodigious. He composed more than 300 songs including ballads, polkas, serenades, romantic ballads, marches, hunting songs, descriptive songs, cantatas, quadrilles, operettas and more. He was also noted as a poet and an essayist in addition to being an acclaimed theater manager.

His greatest legacy, though, is his role during the Great War of 1861 to 1865. The historian, Richard Harwell, explained it well when he said that Hewitt’s story is "… the story of music in the Confederacy." Although he never wore a uniform or carried a weapon, his place in the pantheon of Southern heroes is secure. During a time of great hardship, distress and sadness caused by the invasion of our beloved Southland by the hordes from the North, the music of John Hill Hewitt delighted Southerners and brought joy, hope and inspiration into their lives. This unique individual was truly "The Bard of the Confederacy".


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