How a US Civil War battle song became a Sri Lankan school cheer

(This is an edited and updated version of a post I wrote back in 2014.)

In the urban areas of Sri Lanka, schools tend to be mostly single-sex K-12, and among the boys’ schools there were intense sporting rivalries. During those games, boys would show their support for their teams using generic cheers that were common to many schools. These cheers originated long before my own time. One of them was used when one’s team had suffered a setback and was meant to rally one’s side to show that this was not a cause for concern. It consisted of the following words set to music.

Hurrah for the Mary! Hurrah for the lamb!
Hurrah for the [school name] boys who do not care a damn!
Now everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

Each school would simply insert their own name, making the cheer available to any school.

This cheer made no sense whatsoever even by the extremely low standards of Sri Lankan school cheers. But the last line was particularly puzzling since, apart from being absurd (a lamb shouting?) it was a complete non-sequitur. I used to vaguely wonder how and where this cheer could have possibly originated but after leaving school, I forgot both the cheer and the puzzle of the last line.

Fast forward to 2014. I had family members from around world come to Cleveland for my daughter’s wedding and on July 3 we decided to give them a taste of Americana by taking them to the annual Independence Day concert at the Blossom Music Center nearby, a beautiful outdoor venue where members of the Cleveland Orchestra play in a clamshell-shaped open-air amphitheater to thousands of people who sit on blankets and lawn chairs on a grassy hillside.

The program for this annual event consists of ‘patriotic’ music, essentially paeans to American greatness and exceptionalism. I find such displays of nationalism verging on jingoism jarring even if the music is good but went to the concert to give our guests a first hand taste of it. But on scanning through the program before the concert started, I was startled to see one selection titled Battle Cry of Freedom by George F. Root. It immediately brought to mind that old school cheer and I could not wait to hear what the music sounded like, even though there would be no words. And sure enough, as soon as the orchestra played, I recognized the familiar tune from that old cheer.

Intrigued, I immediately decided to investigate this and when I later looked it up, it turns out that Root’s song was composed in 1862 for the Union side during the American Civil War. Here is that version.

The chorus goes:

The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitors and up with the stars!
While we rally round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

The Union version was such a huge hit that it quickly spawned a rival Confederate version with different words but the same tune with a different musical arrangement. Here’s the Confederate version:

This chorus goes:

Our Dixie forever! She’s never at a loss!
Down with the eagle and up with the cross!
We will rally round the Bonnie Flag, we’ll rally once again,
Shout, shout, the battle cry of freedom!

So that solved one mystery, that of the origin of that last line of the cheer and the tune, as well as, with the Union version, the source of the word ‘hurrah’. But that opens up an even deeper mystery and that is who decided to create a mashup of a Civil War song and the well-known nursery rhyme ‘Mary had a little lamb’ and why the resulting product managed to grab the imagination of generations of Sri Lankan schoolboys in the form of, I am willing to bet, the most stupid cheer ever invented,

Intrigued by this mystery, I did some searching online and found something in the minutes of the Tenth Annual Reunion of the Army of the Potomac held on June 18, 1879 in Albany New York. It appears that these reunions started with a formal business session followed by a more boisterous (and likely drunken) portion and it was during the latter part that some soldiers sang a parody of Root’s song that reportedly “created much amusement” among those present. It had the following chorus:

Hurrah for Mary! hurrah for the lamb,
Hurrah for the soldiers who do not care a (ahem)!
For we’ll rally round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again
Shouting the battle cry of freedom

So it looks like soldiers had, as they are wont to do, replaced the words of a popular song with their own doggerel. The (ahem) I imagine is the recorder of the minutes censoring a swear word, probably ‘damn’ since that rhymes with lamb. I am not sure if this was the very first occurrence of this variation but it seems to have caught on widely, at least within the military, appearing in a Michigan military songbook in 1892 with another variation appearing in the songbook of the 1st US Infantry.

The next step in the evolution of this song can be found in a songbook for the Boy Scouts where the chorus goes:

Hurrah for the Mary, Hurrah for the Lamb 

Hurrah for the teacher, who didn’t give a particle
If all the lambs at (insert your camp name here) came marching into school
Shouting out the battle cry of freedom!

Presumable the word ‘particle’ is a substitution for a word that scouts are not supposed to use, though it is an odd choice. Unfortunately, I could not find out when this song first appeared in the scout songbook. But we see that with the scouts, the song had become more localized, enabling the insertion of a particular group, and transferred it to a school setting rather than the military. This was the likely version that, with further modifications, traveled across continents and ended up in Sri Lanka.

The trail ran cold at that point and I can only speculate how the song actually got there. There were many American missionaries who came to Sri Lanka and some of them taught in schools. Some schools also had Boy Scout troops. I suspect that the song was introduced by an American missionary who had been a scout and then got modified to the form that Sri Lankan schoolboys now use.

If that is the case, then it is possible that other countries where American missionaries went also have some form of this cheer. But that was as far as I got to solving the mystery of the origins of the world’s most stupid cheer.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    Interesting bit of history. I’ve never heard this song before, which surprises me a bit because when I was in elementary school in Arizona we had an excellent music program which taught us a lot of popular songs from America’s past. We even were taught a song that lionized Jesse James, but we weren’t given the context that he was a Southern sympathizer and basically a mad-dog murderer. Maybe my music teacher was also sympathetic to the Confederacy, and so she skipped over a song that refers to them as traitors, even though she did teach us The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    I take it back, I think I have heard it before. I think Ken Burns used a piano solo version of this in his Civil War series.

  3. says

    So the Union song was so good the Confederates had to cobble up their own version…and it sucked. “Down with the eagle and up with the cross!?” They’re calling for a Christian theocracy there (and remember, it’s the particular brand of Christianity that explicitly supports one of the most heinous forms of slavery in human history); which flatly contradicts the “battle cry of ‘freedom!'”

    I’ve never heard this song before, which surprises me a bit because when I was in elementary school in Arizona we had an excellent music program which taught us a lot of popular songs from America’s past.

    Wow, that’s kinda weird. Maybe some closet-Confederates didn’t want anyone hearing such a rousing anti-slavery song?

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the source of the word ‘hurrah’…

    Pretty sure that goes way back before the 1860s.


    hurrah. (interj.). 1680s, apparently an alteration of huzza; it is similar to shouts recorded in German, Danish, and Swedish; perhaps it was picked up by the English soldiery during the Thirty Years’ War. Hurra was said to be the battle-cry of Prussian soldiers during the War of Liberation (1812-13), “and has since been a favourite cry of soldiers and sailors, and of exultation” [OED].

  5. OudhMeta says

    Pretty sure “source” is referring to how and when the “hurrah” was incorporated into the cry rather than when the word entered the lexicon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *