Troubadour spins Civil War yarns at library concert

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Tue., Apr. 12, 2011
State troubadour Tom Callinan is flanked by a pile of replica Civil War-era flags. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
State troubadour Tom Callinan is flanked by a pile of replica Civil War-era flags. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Singer-songwriter Tom Callinan says he can’t prove that the Peter Callinan who fought on the Union side in the Civil War as part of Connecticut’s Ninth Regiment is related to him. But he doesn’t need to.

“I don’t have proof of it, but I feel it in my body,” he said.

Callinan, Connecticut’s first official state troubadour performed a concert of songs at Otis Library April 11, marking the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. The date marked the eve of the onset of hostilities, which began with the Confederate firing on a federal outpost at Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina in 1861.

Callinan said that Corporal Peter Callinan of New Haven served in Company G of the Irish Regiment during the War Between the States. The regiment was composed largely of recent immigrants from Ireland, and Callinan’s song about the unit was written to the tune of “Rosin the Bow,” a popular Irish folk tune.

The unit trained in New Haven and saw duty in New Orleans and at Vicksburg, where they were put to work in the summer heat – wearing wool uniforms. “One hundred fifty men of that regiment died from heatstroke and exhaustion, because they were wearing wool and wearing leather shoes in May through August in Mississippi, digging a canal,” Callinan told his listeners.

Callinan’s own ancestors hailed from Ireland via New Haven, and were blacksmiths, as Peter’s service record indicates he had been. “I think there’s a fairly good chance he was a relative of my grandfather,” the singer said. Family stories tell of an older cousin who used to visit Callinan’s grandfather and who spoke Gaelic. “There’s some conjectural evidence, but no hard proof,” he said.

Callinan regaled his audience with stories about the proliferation of flag styles on both sides of the war. As states entered the Union, stars were added to the field of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” In the South, the “Bonnie Blue Flag,” with its single white star, gave way to the well-known Confederate battle flag, often incorrectly identified as the Stars and Bars.

The true Stars and Bars had a field of blue with a circle of stars, similar to the Betsy Ross flag of Revolutionary times, and just three broad stripes of red and white. But the name of the Confederate flag is “not worth getting into a fight over,” Callinan quipped. “That already happened, and it didn’t end well.”

Along with familiar sing-along standards of the Civil War era – “Dixie,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Callinan interspersed his repertoire with original tunes. Besides memorializing the Connecticut Ninth, he also paid tribute to the 29th Connecticut Colored Volunteers, a unit made up of black, white and native American soldiers – including one woman dressed as a man and hiding her identity.

Despite its racial make-up, the unit had only white officers, said Callinan. “How shocked they would be 150 years later to see ‘one of those people’ in the White House,” he said.

Both Callinan’s songs about the Connecticut units were sung at the dedications of the units’ two respective memorials, which took place during the same year, he said. He told the audience he’s received moving letters from descendents of the 29th, saying they couldn’t believe someone wrote a song about the unit.

Callinan himself attends Civil War re-enactments, as part of a group of Connecticut Ninth descendents. He joked that he sings on both sides of the battle lines, simply switching his hat from blue to grey, as he frequently did during the Otis Library concert.

A CD of Callinan’s recording “Brother Against Brother: Songs From and About the Civil War” is available through his website,

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