By Ken Perkins
In 2002 the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of ‘Greetings From America’ stamps, with designs resembling commercial ‘Greetings From…’ postcards. One of them, Scott #3603, honored the state of Texas. It features three iconic symbols of Texas: the Alamo, a longhorn steer, and in the upper right, the fabled ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’.
Anyone who attended elementary school in the American West of the 1950s probably remembers singing ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’, a light-hearted, easy to remember folk song. I was recently listening to my playlist while working (playing?) with my stamps when what should come around on the random shuffle but Hoyt Axton’s rendition of the song (see https://youtu.be/xoPQqPJ7fbQ).
But wait a minute! This isn’t the light ballad I remember. This is a tired, defeated Confederate soldier singing a sad song. And what’s that last verse about?
Now I’m going southward, for my heart is full of woe I’m going back to Georgia, to find my uncle Joe
You may talk about your Beauregard And sing of General Lee. But the gallant Hood of Texas played hell in Tennessee But the gallant Hood of Texas played hell in Tennessee.
A little research reveals that the ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’ has a long and varied history. The song was first published in Christy’s Plantation Melodies. No. 2 in 1853 and was sung by the Christy Minstrels, a white blackface singing group. Instead of the ‘soldier’ of Axton’s song, the original identifies the singer as a ‘darkey’ who’s longing for his ‘yellow girl’. In fact, the first line of the 1853 version is: “There’s a yellow girl in Texas…”, referring to what was then called a ‘mulatto’, a mixed-race African American woman. So the original ‘yellow rose of Texas’ wasn’t a flower, it was a woman. And the singer was an African American.
The song later became popular among Confederate troops of the Texas Brigade in the Civil War, with ‘soldier’ replacing ‘darkey’ throughout the lyrics. Confederate General John Bell Hood made it an official marching song upon taking command of the Army of Tennessee in mid-1864.
And that last verse? It cites Confederate heroes: “Uncle Joe” refers to Confederate General Joseph Johnston, “Beauregard” to General P. G. T. Beauregard, and “General Lee” of course to General Robert E. Lee. Marching in retreat to Tupelo, Mississippi, the remaining troops of the all-but- destroyed Army of Tennessee sang bitterly of “the gallant Hood of Texas” who led them to total defeat and the end of the Army of Tennessee as a fighting force in the Battle of Nashville in December of 1864.
General Hood relinquished his command in January of 1865. He surrendered to Federal troops on May 31 of that year.
The American Civil War ended in May of 1865.
For much more on ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’, see the Texas State Historical Association at https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/xey01