Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Their walls are built of cannon balls/Their motto is don't tread on me."

The Song: "Uncle John's Band," The Grateful Dead. Words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia. Track 1 of Workingman's Dead, 1970.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1991.
Listen/watch here.

My friend Scott, a Charleston native, told me once that he'd heard these lines referred to Fort Moultrie, which has cannonballs in its walls. Kathy and I climbed on those walls as children, during summers in Charleston with our grandparents. They probably don't let you do that any more.

Fort Moultrie is now part of Fort Sumter National Monument, which is getting a lot of attention today as it's the 150th anniversary of the first shots fired in the Civil War. I suspect that not as many tourists visit Fort Moultrie, which is a shame, because I always thought it was even more interesting than its counterpart in the harbor. It was the official federal garrison in Charleston before South Carolina seceded in December 1860; after secession, the federal troops moved to Fort Sumter, surrounded by water, with the idea that it would be easier to defend.

After the Civil War, Fort Moultrie was a working Army installation through the Second World War. My mother remembered seeing German prisoners of war sunbathing there, when she and her family spent summers on Sullivan Island. She was a tiny child then, and her lasting memory was of envying the prisoners because they had chocolate bars, which were rationed.

Fort Moultrie is one of a handful of places I've visited that I would say, beyond question, is haunted. The Seminole leader Osceola died of malaria there, three months after being lured to Fort Payton under false promises of a peace negotiation. He's buried at Fort Moultrie, despite a bizarre scheme to steal his bones as recently as 1966. I don't know whether he haunts Fort Moultrie, but it wouldn't surprise me.

This song is probably my single favorite Grateful Dead tune, and an infallible mood lifter. It's the first track on my "Music for a Bad Mood" playlist, which I created as a mix tape at least 15 years ago, and have updated only slightly in the conversion to MP3s.


AnswerGirl said...

I've just deleted two rather baffling comments that seemed to think this was a post about the causes of the Civil War. Sorry, it's not. I have no interest in discussing that topic here.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the reference is to fort moultrie. "their motto is don't tread on me" must refer to the gadsden flag, which was designed by Christopher Gadsden who was from south carolina. I've always thought "uncle john" is a reference to John Bull which was a popular personification of England. "he's come to take his children home" i think refers to the English fleet that was attempting to sail into Charleston harbor when they were repulsed by the defenders of fort moultrie, which was then called fort sullivan.