“The Old Tobacco Box (There Was an Old Soldier)”


"There was an old (soldier) and he had a wooden leg. He had no tobacco; no tobacco could he beg." He asks a comrade for tobacco, and is refused. He is told to save; then he will have tobacco. He gets even by stabbing the other with a splinter from his leg


This piece is often sung to the tune of Turkey in the Straw, and the lyrics often float back and forth, but also exists on its own with its own tune (as was vehemently pointed out by the Warners' informant, Tom P. Smith; Jerome S. Epstein calls it similar to "The Red Haired Boy," but it's Ionian).

It is often listed as a Civil War song, and probably is, but I have not been able to find any Civil War reference to this which clearly distinguishes it from "Turkey in the Straw."

On the other hand, the Civil War is one of the few wars in which a man with a wooden leg really could be on fairly active duty. As the war dragged on, and the number of crippled soldiers rose, the Union in 1863 decided to recruit an "Invalid Corps," later renamed the "Veteran Reserve Corps" (see Bruce Catton, _A Stillness at Appomattox_, Doubleday, 1953, pp. 143-144). The men were classified as "first battalion" men, considered to be fit for garrison duty away from the front lines, and "second battalion" men, who were no longer fit enough even to carry a musket (they were supposed to serve in hospitals as nurses and cooks, according to Mark M. Boatner, _The Civil War Dictionary_, McKay, 1959, article on the "Veteran Reserve Corps").

Yet Catton, pp. 144-146, tells how 166 of these poor second battalion men were once sent out to march and fight at Belle Plain. They naturally had to travel without knapsacks (more than half the men in their unit had been unable to march at all), so it would have been perfectly reasonable, on that occasion, for a soldier with a wooden leg to be in the front lines and begging for tobacco. I doubt that explains the origin of the song -- but it *could* have happened.

(We might note that there were also a fair number of officers with wooden legs, the most senior being Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Ewell and full General John Bell Hood. As officers, however, they were permitted to ride rather than march -- Hood, in fact, had to be strapped to his horse, though Ewell was able to mount and dismount on his own. We might also add that, though both had been fine division commanders before being wounded, neither performed very well following amputation and promotion. Ewell's hesitation at Gettysburg may have cost the Confederates that battle; Hood's performance in the Atlanta and Nashville campaigns finally doomed the Confederacy.)

The versions called "The Soldier's Song" should not be confused with the song of that name which is the national anthem of Ireland. - RBW

Cross references


  1. Warner 182, "The Old Geezer" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. FSCatskills 143, "The Old Tobacco Box" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Brewster 93, "The Soldier's Song" (1short text)
  4. Sandburg, pp. 432-433, "There Was an Old Soldier" (1 text, 1 tune)
  5. Flanders/Brown, p. 50, "The Auld Soldier" (1 text, 1 tune)
  6. Silber-CivWar, p. 32, "There Was an Old Soldier" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. Beck 91, "The Old Geezers" (1 text)
  8. Silber-FSWB, p. 242, "There Was An Old Soldier" (1 text)
  9. Darling-NAS, p. 258, "The Old Soldier" (1 text)
  10. Pankake-PHCFSB, p. ,143 "The Was an Old Geezer" (1 text, tune referenced; this is a partial parody but consists mostly of traditional elements)
  11. DT, (TURKST2)
  12. Roud #3342
  13. BI, FSC143


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1927 (Sandburg)
Found in: US(Ap,MA,MW,Ro)