Charles Edgerly & “John Brown’s Body”

Charles Edgerly enlisted and mustered in on 26 Jun 1861 at age 22 as a Sergeant in Company E, 12 Infantry Regiment, MASS Volunteers for 3 yrs with a listed civilian occupation of  a clerk.   He was a training and drill sergeant with the 12th Infantry.  He mustered out 11 Nov 1862 with a Disability Discharge.   He re-enlisted with a commission in Company D, 84th Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops out of Boston on 18 Dec 1863.  In that Regiment, he served in both Companies I and D and was promoted to Full 2nd Lieutenant in 18 Dec 1863.  He received a disability discharge from Company D on 28 Jul 1864 with a rank of Captain.

He was born 1839 Newmarket to Jacob and Susan Edgerly. He was schooled in town and grew up here.  He filed for a disability pension Sep 1864.  He married Lucy Ann Bouley in Newmarket on 4 Apr 1870; they had a son Charles H.P. Edgerly born 5 Feb 1871 with an ethnicity listed as Canadian.  He and his wife ran a boarding house in Boston from 1890 until his death 14 Oct 1896.

  United States Colored Infantry

The Colored Infantry was first organized in Tennessee 24 July 1863 as the 1st Alabama infantry (African descent).  Designation was later changed to 84th U.S. Colored Troops on 4 April 1864.  The 84th entered into the Red River Campaign March 10-May 22.  Advanced from Franklin to Alexandria March 14-26. Retreated from Alexandria to Morganza May 13-20.  Mansura May 16.  Near Moreauville May 17.  Yellow Bayou May 18.  Duty at Morganza until May, 1865. Action near Morganza November 23, 1864.  Duty in Northern District of Louisiana and Dept. of the Gulf to March, 1866.  Mustered out March 14, 1866.   Designation changed to 1st U.S. Colored troops, later to 12th U.S. Colored infantry.  The regiment had ten Companies which provided railroad guard and garrison duty in the Dept. of the Cumberland till  mustering out 16 Jan 1866.

 (photo: recruitment poster for US Colored Infantry)


Lyrics to John Brown’s Body

When the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter young men of the north flocked to the Boston headquarters of the organized military units to enlist for immediate service in the South.  Many made their way to the headquarters of the 2nd Battalion, Boston Light Infantry, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, an old unit popularly known as “The Tigers.”  

(photo: view of Fort Warren, Boston Harbor)

Organized in 1798, the “Tiger” companies had been maintained very largely for social and ceremonial purposes. So many enlistments were made in the first few days after Sumter that a new company was formed and on April 29, 1861, under command of Major Ralph W. Newton, the battalion was ordered to occupy Fort Warren, one of the defenses in Boston Harbor.  The fort was unfinished; work on it stopped when Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War, and as a natural result “fatigue-parties” were very numerous.

After the day’s work was over,  a favorite amusement was singing, for there were some excellent voices in the company, notably one quartette—Charles E. B. Edgerly, James Jenkins, Newton J. Pemette, and John Brown. The latter, a Scotsman, was the subject of many jokes and puns, owing to his short. stout build and an odd gait,  and the similarity of his name to that of the famous Ossawatomie Brown, who had been recently executed at Harper’s Ferry.

At first the Scot resented all the jabs which only made them more outrageous.  He looked very much like a dead man in formation, but “he had a lively gait for a corpse,” etc.   The regimental history indicates that one evening, when two members of the quartette returned to the Fort—John Brown and the other fourth member was seated near the sally-port—one shouted “What’s the news?” Promptly came the retort, “Why, John Brown’s dead.” Someone added “But he still goes marching round.” Ideas piled up one on top of another, and by dark the camp-meeting tune had undergone several revisions.  The quartette was chanting:  “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, But his soul goes marching on”.

                                             (photo: drill formation at Fort Warren, Boston, MA)

 Set to the easy swing of a simple old Methodist air [“Say, brothers, will you meet us?” one line for each verse repeated three times with a tag-line “On Canaan’s happy shore.” The grand old “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” chorus was a special favorite].  “The quartette slightly jazzed it up with a beat that made it an almost perfect marching tune. The air was an easy one that required no vocal gymnastics.  The “doggerel” verses of the original composition were easy to remember.  They had humor, and it fit with the patriotic frenzy of the early months of the war. Made to order for untrained voices, and with a regiment on the march it could be roared out in such volume as to shake the walls of Jericho.” [1]

(Daguerreotype of John “Ossawatomie ” Brown c.1856)

On 25 May 1861, the “Tigers” left Fort Warren. But  previously, but by May 7,  when the Twelfth Massachusetts Volunteers had reached the Fort, many of the ” Tigers ” enlisted in the Twelfth or ” Webster” Regiment.  The quartette separated:  Jenkins and Brown to Company A;  Pernette and Edgerly to Company E.  All four were drill sergeants, so of course they carried their song with them, and it became the fashion after dress-parade for the regiment to strike up the song and march around the parade-ground.

As other regiments heard the song, it took on a life of its own.  It ceased to be the exclusive property of the original four sergeants, who gradually disused it. Perhaps the fate of (their) John Brown, who was accidentally drowned at Front Royal, June 6, 1862, may have had a deterring influence; the song was never used in the later days of the regiment’s existence.

The citizens of Boston heard the John Brown song sung on the march in July 1861 when it was reviewed on Boston Common and received a flag from the ladies of the city.  The Regiment left for the front after the defeat of the Union forces at First Bull Run.  The Regiment made its greatest impression when it marched down Broadway in New York City roaring the wild strains of “John Brown’s Body.”

“The New York papers commented at length on the march and particularly on the rendition of the song.  They gave the regiment the nickname “Hallelujah Regiment” — and it was really this triumphant march that gave the impetus and started the “John Brown song” on its eternal way.  Baltimore heard it on July 26. On the spot where Ossawatomie was hanged, the Webster Regiment sang it on July 28th and at Charles Town, Maryland a couple of days later — scenes of John Brown’s defeat and execution — where the song was rendered with special fervor. It had officially become an accepted part of the war effort.” [2]

The first printed version soon went public by the Boston music publisher C.S. Hall of Charlestown, Mass. He printed five verses and added a verse of his own:

“John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the grave.”

 This was the first verse as a jibe at Sgt. John Brown of Boston.

“He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord.”

 Still Sgt. Brown’s borrowing of a pet expression from army chaplains who referred to the Union volunteers as “the army of the Lord.”

“John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back.”

Again Sgt. Brown, a short, stout chap who had considerable difficulty in adjusting his knapsack and blanket roll. The next line, told of its content:

“It is filled with leaden bullets and moldy hardtack.”

“His pet lambs will meet him on the way.”

 This is the sole vestige of the effort to inject Colonel Ellsworth’s name into the song. His regiment was nicknamed “Ellsworth’s pet lambs” **

“They will feed Jeff Davis sour apples and hang him to a tree,”

is a line that was modified for print from the quartette’s version of  ”We’ll feed him on sour apples till he has the di-ar-rhee!”

The Chicago Tribune, August 9, 1861, — after the song had reached the shores of Lake Michigan — wrote “It is a queer medley, but the soldiers like it and sing it with great energy….  The Virginians will think that John Brown is worshipped as a Northern hero, in spite of all denials…. So on all hands providence seems to be involving slavery with the war, not-withstanding the most sincere efforts of patriotism and statesmanship to keep the constitutional lines distinct.” 

 Edward Rowe Snow, in his book,The Islands of Boston Harbor, writes:

When the Fourteenth Regiment … went to Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Julia Ward Howe visited the camp of Massachusetts soldiers.  The stirring strains of “John Brown’s Body” so moved Lincoln that Julia Ward Howe was asked to compose a national hymn, and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was her inspired answer. [3]

The morning after hearing the song, Julia Ward Howe wrote her own words to the tune. Soon after, it was published in the “Atlantic Monthly” as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“My poem, which was soon published in the Atlantic Monthly, was somewhat praised on its appearance, but the vicissitudes of the war so engrossed public attention that small heed was taken of literary matters. I soon was content to know, that the poem soon found its way to the camps, as I heard from time to time of its being sung in chorus by the soldiers.”

— —from Reminiscences 1819-1899 by Julia Ward Howe, Boston, Massachusetts, 1899.

(photo: Julia Ward Howe, published in Atlantic Monthly)

Alfred S. Roe in 1883, wrote at any one time there were probably more people in America who could sing “John Brown’s body” than any other song or hymn.  It was now a war song that roared through all the four years of the Civil War — and it was carried over with but little loss of popularity into the immediate post-war years.  

“It was a song for the camp and field, and for the long marches — but it also caught the popular fancy of the folks at home. It was heard everywhere: in homes, at public meetings and on the streets in the Northern and Mid-western States. Indeed the records also disclose that its popularity spread to foreign lands where it was sung in English and in alien languages. New verses were being constantly added as the men of the battalion snake-danced around the parade each evening.  Probably more lines had been added to the original verse before the song reached its larger audience than soldiers in World War I hooked on to the immensely popular “Hinky, Dinky, Parley- voo.” (4)

The new national war song changed from the ribald to the sublime, but it was rooted on the acts and movements of the little Scot Sergeant, with special emphasis on his “deadness” and his ability to go marching ‘round. The song no longer became the provincial property of Boston and the quartette.  It became a war song of the Northern abolitionist movement. The nation knew nothing of Sergeant John Brown of Boston and his quartette.  It was John Brown of Ossawatomie and Harpers Ferry that they sang about.

Publishers in Boston, New York and Chicago made money from sale of their sheet music, but the original quartette never saw one penny.

Their fate:

John Brown the Scotsman  - never lived to hear the final version. He died early in the war, drowned in the Shenandoah River at Front Royal, Virginia on 6 June 1862.

 Charles Edgerly - returned to Newmarket, with a severe wartime disability.

 James Jenkins - when discharged from the 12th Mass Volunteer Infantry at age 20 on 12 Aug 1862 with a promotion to 2nd Lieutenant, he enlisted in the 21st Wisconsin Infantry where he was admired for his singing and nicknamed “Bostin”.  His singing was cut short when he was captured 20 Sep 1863 and taken as a Prisoner of  War incarcerated at Chickamauga, GA.

 Newton J. Pernette – mustered out 8 July 1864 as a Sergeant from Company E.  He was a salesman in Providence RI by 1867, moving in 1869 to Medford working as a clerk.  In Oct 1890 he had filed for a military disability pension; and he died at age 57 on 23 Nov 1893 in Augusta, ME of paralysis brought on by illnesses caught in the Gulf during the war.


. ** [Ellsworth, the First Union Officer Killed in the Civil War had become a Union Martyr and a national “rock star” phenomena.  A personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, he was murdered when he moved the huge Confederate flag from the roof of the Marshall House  in Alexandria, VA.  He went on his own peronal mission so that the “offending rag” could no longer be seen across the Potomac River from the White House.

(photo: The Death of Colonel Ellsworth, shown in this portrait clutching a flag.  Painting at the Chicago History Museum, Bridgeman Art Library International)




 Sources: James Beale, “A Famous War Song” The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries, Vol. 12, (July-December 1910), pp. 71-72)

[3] The Islands of Boston Harbor, by Edward Rowe Snow, Commonwealth Editions, Carlisle, MA, 1935.

[1] [2] [4] John Browns’ Body – Boyd Blynn Stutler (Google Books, On Line Library)

 (source: Lt. Col. Benjamin F. Cook, History of the Twelfth Massachusetts Volunteers)