Old Tobacco Box, The (There Was an Old Soldier)
DESCRIPTION: "There was an old (soldier) and he had a wooden leg. He had no tobacco; no tobacco could he beg." He asks a comrade for tobacco, and is refused. He is told to save; then he will have tobacco. He gets even by stabbing the other with a splinter from his leg
EARLIEST DATE: 1893 (Tony, the Convict)
KEYWORDS: soldier humorous begging drugs injury
FOUND IN: US(Ap,MA,MW,Ro)
REFERENCES (14 citations):
Warner-TraditionalAmericanFolkSongsFromAnneAndFrankWarnerColl 182, "The Old Geezer" (1 text, 1 tune)
Cazden/Haufrecht/Studer-FolkSongsOfTheCatskills 143, "The Old Tobacco Box" (1 text, 1 tune)
Thompson-BodyBootsAndBritches-NewYorkStateFolktales, p. 363, "(no title)" (1 excerpt)
Brewster-BalladsAndSongsOfIndiana 93, "The Soldier's Song" (1short text)
Sandburg-TheAmericanSongbag, pp. 432-433, "There Was an Old Soldier" (1 text, 1 tune)
Flanders/Brown-VermontFolkSongsAndBallads, p. 50, "The Auld Soldier" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-SongsOfTheCivilWar, pp. 207-208, "There Was an Old Soldier" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-SoldierSongsAndHomeFrontBalladsOfCivilWar, p. 32, "There Was an Old Soldier" (1 text, 1 tune)
Beck-SongsOfTheMichiganLumberjacks 91, "The Old Geezers" (1 text)
Silber/Silber-FolksingersWordbook, p. 242, "There Was An Old Soldier" (1 text)
Darling-NewAmericanSongster, p. 258, "The Old Soldier" (1 text)
Pankake/Pankake-PrairieHomeCompanionFolkSongBook, p. ,143 "The Was an Old Geezer" (1 text, tune referenced; this is a partial parody but consists mostly of traditional elements)
ADDITIONAL: Charles Townsend, _Tony, the Convict_ (T. S. Denison & Company, Chicago, 1893; available on Google Books), p. 24, [no title] (2 verses)
cf. "Turkey in the Straw" (tune & meter) and references there
NOTES [577 words]: This piece is often sung to the tune of Turkey in the Straw, and the lyrics often float back and forth, but also exists on its own with its own tune (as was vehemently pointed out by the Warners' informant, Tom P. Smith; Jerome S. Epstein calls it similar to "The Red Haired Boy," but it's Ionian).
It is often listed as a Civil War song, and probably is, but I have not been able to find any Civil War reference to this which clearly distinguishes it from "Turkey in the Straw."
On the other hand, the Civil War is one of the few wars in which a man with a wooden leg really could be on fairly active duty. As the war dragged on, and the number of crippled soldiers rose, the Union in 1863 decided to recruit an "Invalid Corps," later renamed the "Veteran Reserve Corps" (Catton, pp. 143-144). The men were classified as "first battalion" men, considered to be fit for garrison duty away from the front lines, and "second battalion" men, who were no longer fit enough even to carry a musket (they were supposed to serve in hospitals as nurses and cooks, according to Boatne's, article on the "Veteran Reserve Corps").
Yet Catton, pp. 144-146, tells how 166 of these poor second battalion men were once sent out to march and fight at Belle Plain. They naturally had to travel without knapsacks (more than half the men in their unit had been unable to march at all), so it would have been perfectly reasonable, on that occasion, for a soldier with a wooden leg to be in the front lines and begging for tobacco. I doubt that explains the origin of the song -- but it *could* have happened.
We might note that there were also a fair number of officers with wooden legs, the most senior being Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Ewell (who was wounded during the Second Bull Run campaign; Harpers, p. 385) and full General John Bell Hood (who lost the leg at Chickamauga; Harpers, p. 546. He had earlier lost the use of an arm at Gettysburg). As officers, however, they were permitted to ride rather than march -- Hood, in fact, had to be strapped to his horse, though Ewell was able to mount and dismount on his own. We might also add that, though both had been fine division commanders before being wounded, neither performed very well following amputation and promotion. Ewell's hesitation at Gettysburg may have cost the Confederates that battle; Hood's performance in the Atlanta and Nashville campaigns finally doomed the Confederacy.)
For whatever reason, the Union doesn't seem to have had as many active-duty officers who lost legs. At least, I can't recall reading of many. Daniel Sickles lost his at Gettysburg (Harpers, p. 512), but he was an incompetent and was put on the shelf after that -- indeed, it was his incompetent direction of his corps which cost him his leg. There was a young fool named Ulric Dahlgren who led a cavalry raid on Richmond after losing a leg, but he was only a colonel -- and was killed in the Dahlgren Raid, his only active service after his injury (Harpers, p. 523). There were some fairly senior men who had lost an arm -- Philip Kearney (who lost his left arm in the Mexican War; Boatner, p. 449) and Oliver O. Howard (who lost his right arm at Fair Oaks; Boatner, p. 413), But losing an arm doesn't seem to have been as debilitating as losing a leg. Hard to shoot a musket, though....
The versions called "The Soldier's Song" should not be confused with the song of that name which is the national anthem of Ireland. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.0
- Boatner: Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary, 1959 (there are many editions of this very popular work; mine is a Knopf hardcover)
- Catton: Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox, Doubleday, 1953
- Harpers: Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden, Harper's Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion in the United States, 1866 (I use the facsimile published by The Fairfax Press as Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War; this is undated but was printed in the late Twentieth Century)
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2021 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.