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One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

June 2024
4min read

“Oh! Susanna”

On September 11 Stephen Foster’s first great song, “Oh! Susanna,” received its initial public performance at Andrews’ Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Its composer was not identified, and few members of the sweet-toothed audience would have recognized the name of Foster, a twenty-one-year-old Cincinnati bookkeeper who wrote songs as a hobby. (Foster had been born on July 4, 1826, which was also the fiftieth anniversary of independence and the day John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died.) The bouncy tune was an instant hit, and minstrel shows immediately began spreading it across the country. By mid-1849 at least fifteen different editions of the sheet music had been published, most of them pirated. Foster’s name was usually omitted, which did not bother the budding songwriter. He wanted to be recognized as the composer of sentimental songs like “Open Thy Lattice, Love” (1844) and had no wish to be associated with lowbrow “Ethiopian” numbers like “Oh! Susanna.”

The 1840s were not famous for their multicultural understanding, but even by the standards of the day, minstrel shows were crude, with racial jokes and stereotyped antics interspersed between bogus “Negro” songs whose lyrics were rendered in exaggerated dialect. Foster’s efforts in this line, including the later “Camptown Races” and “Nelly Bly,” were less coarse than most. Even so, the later verses of “Oh! Susanna” are rarely heard today as originally written because of such lyrics as “I jumped aboard de telegraph / And trabbelled down de riber / De lectric fluid magnified / And killed five hundred Nigger.”

One 1930s scholar credited Foster with the following dubious accomplishment: “He took the minstrel portrayal of the negro as a loud and flashy individual and replaced it with the kindly and devoted darky.” By 1851, when he wrote “Old Folks at Home,” Foster had overcome his uneasiness about the genre: “I had the intention of omitting my name on my Ethiopian songs … but I find that by my efforts I have done a great deal to build up a taste for the Ethiopian songs among refined people by making the words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to songs of that order.”

Fortunately the melody of “Oh! Susanna” is so irresistible (you’re probably humming it right now) that its appeal does not depend on any specific lyrics or setting. It became an augury of America’s future cultural hegemony; as early as the 1850s travelers heard it sung in China, India, Central America, and every major European country. (In Italian, for example, the chorus went “ Son venuto dal Alabama / Con la mia chitarra al braccio .”) It was embraced as the unofficial anthem of the gold rush (“I’m going to Sacramento with a washbowl on my knee” was one of countless variations). Despite its remoteness from authentic African-American music, Harriet Tubman adapted the song for passengers on her Underground Railroad (“Farewell, old master, don’t think hard of me / I’m on my way to Canada, where all the slaves are free”). The antislavery activist Sojourner Truth wrote her own version, which began, “I’m on my way to Canada, that cold but happy land / The dire effects of slavery I can no longer stand.”

Throughout his life Foster was careless with money. He handed out manuscript copies of “Oh! Susanna” like spare kittens, and in 1848 he sold what remained of the rights for one hundred dollars to a publisher who would earn an estimated ten thousand dollars from the song. Still, “Oh! Susanna” launched Foster’s career as a songwriter. Over the following decade and a half he turned out such classics as “Old Dog Tray,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Massa’s in de Cold Ground,” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” making little money from them and saving none, before he died a drunken pauper’s death in a New York City slum in 1864.

The Halls of Montezuma

On September 14 the United States Army, commanded by Gen. Winfield Scott, raised the American flag over Mexico City, capping a year and a half of sporadic fighting that had begun in a dispute over the Texas border. After defeating the Mexicans at Cerro Gordo in April and occupying nearby Perote and Puebla in May, the Americans had spent three months resting, firming up supply lines, and awaiting reinforcements. In August the revitalized army, a bit more than ten thousand strong, struck out for Mexico City. The capital lay seventy-five miles away over desert and mountain terrain infested with fever and guerrillas. It was defended by almost three times as many troops and a fearsome collection of well-placed artillery.

In England the Duke of Wellington, who had defeated Napoleon three decades earlier, foresaw disaster: “Scott is lost—he cannot capture the city and he cannot fall back upon his base.” Yet in a campaign that saw “four of the hardest foug[h]t battles that the world ever witnessed” (as Lt. Ulysses S. Grant wrote to his fiancée), the Americans obtained their objective at strikingly little cost.

On August 19 and 20 they began to tighten the noose by winning a pair of battles on the city’s outskirts. The Mexicans obtained an armistice on the pretext of seeking peace, but their demands were completely unrealistic, and it soon became clear that they were just stalling. On September 8 the Americans renewed the offensive with their only major misstep of the campaign. They attacked a small group of buildings called Molino del Rey, where the Mexicans were reportedly melting church bells to cast artillery pieces. After incurring almost 800 casualties (116 dead, 665 wounded—a fourth of those engaged), the Americans finally captured the installation. They found no evidence of a foundry—nothing, in fact, but the guns the Mexican troops had used to defend themselves.

With that misbegotten battle concluded, the Americans began planning the final push to the city’s gates. Over those last few days, Scott’s most valuable scout and engineer, Robert E. Lee, stayed awake for more than sixty hours straight while surveying terrain, carrying messages, and building artillery positions, before he finally fainted in his saddle from exhaustion. On September 12 the Americans began shelling Chapultepec, the last remaining fortification guarding Mexico City’s gates. Early the next morning an infantry attack captured the stronghold in another bloody struggle, the final major battle of the war. With Chapultepec’s fall, the remaining Mexican troops evacuated the city and municipal officials surrendered to the invaders.

In a brilliantly conceived and executed campaign, Scott had captured a well-fortified enemy capital with a greatly outnumbered army cut off from supplies and reinforcements. Wellington was as effusive in praise of Scott as he had earlier been dismissive: “His campaign is unsurpassed in military annals. He is the greatest living soldier.”

Unfortunately the war was not a board game that ended with the capture of the opponent’s flag. Peace negotiations went slowly, in part because neither side was sure who was in charge. Mexico’s government was in constant turmoil, and America’s chief emissary, Nicholas Trist, was recalled in November but wavered for weeks before deciding to ignore the order. While diplomats dithered, American forces dealt with snipers and rebels within Mexico City, beat off a siege of their garrison at Puebla, talked warily with separatists in Baja California and the Yucatán, made plans to occupy the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, skirmished with guerrillas who harassed their supply lines, occupied more towns and seaports, and quarreled fiercely among themselves over who deserved credit for the victory. Finally, on February 2, 1848, a peace treaty was agreed on. Formal ratifications were not exchanged until late May, and the last American troops did not leave Mexico until August, nearly a year after the capital had fallen.

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