Today (Nov. 1 2023) McShane & Shaw announce the release of their new single: Pension for a Soldier.
Pension for a Soldier was written by Chris McShane and is one of the earliest numbers in their repertoire. The song, featuring Millhouse Green Male Voice Choir and Ciarán Boyle (on Bodhran), is available digitally from the McShane & Shaw Bandcamp site and the video can be viewed here on the McShane & Shaw YouTube Channel.
The central character of the song is an Irish ancestor of Chris McShane’s called Michael McShane who became a soldier during the American Civil War. Ralph Shaw asked Chris McShane how he came to write the song:
Thousands of Irish people, including many of my relatives, moved to America as a result of the famine and many of these immigrants were caught up in the Civil War. A family member of mine, by the name of Michael McShane, got drafted in 1864.
With the help of researcher Emily Meier (author of Suite Harmonic about an Irishman in New Harmony, Indiana) I learned that Michael McShane was buried in a Union veterans grave in a place called Mount Vernon near New Harmony. I imagined his story through his eyes and wondered, ‘How did things occur?’ I knew he’d been drafted, and the name of his regiment, but not much else. That is until I discovered his letters asking the government of the day for a better pension. The story you hear in the song came from these letters written by Michael and his housekeeper.
Having been badly injured during the Civil War he noticed others in the community who had not been as badly impacted but were receiving far better pensions than he was. In his letters he gives a detailed account of his treatment and injuries.
He fought in the Battle of Spring Hill on November 26, 1864. Lieutenant General John Bell Hood of the Confederate side had invaded Tennessee with his army. Major General Schofield, the Union general there, moved his troops in to defend Tennessee and the two sides engaged in a place called Spring Hill. It was not in itself a major battle but next day The Battle of Franklin came to be a huge battle with great loss of life.
Michael McShane was wounded in the ankle and captured at Spring Hill. Then, while being marched off to captivity, limping with an improvised crutch, he was bayoneted in the back because, in his words, “I was unable to keep up with the measure of the men”. There were no Geneva conventions in those days and people on both sides were treated roughly.
Wounded and bleeding he was marched off to the notorious prison of Andersonville a truly horrendous experience due to the unsanitary conditions. There was a creek that ran through the camp that was used for everything. Dysentery, malnutrition and all kinds of diseases ran rife and literally thousands of people died there. Michael’ gums rotted and he lost all his teeth to scurvy. The ankle wound stayed infected for years after and his housekeeper complained that it stank worse than a polecat.
Five months later the war ended and in April 1865, he was paroled and sent up the Mississippi back to freedom. One of the steamships carrying former prisoners back up the Mississippi was called The Sultana. Overloaded with men it sank in the Mississippi resulting in over a thousand deaths. It was a terrible thing to happen and we don’t know whether Michael McShane was there. He may have missed the ship from being too wounded or indeed was on it and survived the sinking. We’ll likely never know. Things were so haphazard at that time; there was no passenger list.
Michael came home but, thanks to his injuries, was never able to regain the life he’d had before the war. By writing these letters, he was simply trying to get a better deal for him and his wife. In creating the song I thought about the relevance of Michael McShane’s story to any person returning from any war who comes back physically and mentally broken while looking to find some kind of normality for themselves.
I kept rereading these accounts and thinking, all he wants is a better pension. The line “a pension for a soldier is all I ask you see” (which wasn’t in the letters) popped into my head. He’s just asking for a slightly better deal. Then the final line: a pension for a soldier who fought to set men free. Theoretically this was what the Union were fighting for. At that time emancipation had already been announced by Lincoln on Sept 22 1862.
Many draftees didn’t know what they were fighting for and didn’t want to be there but they fought anyway. Going back to the Civil War period, and looking at the situation through the eyes of the people at that time, there was a sense of duty that we don’t have to the same extent today. Whether they believed in what they were fighting for, or not, it was duty that came first.
It was hard at first to imagine joining the military out of a sense of duty but through conversations with ex-servicemen, such as with my older brothers and even a young South Korean tuba player who had served his country, I developed an understanding of what that sense of duty might have felt like.
It’s an interesting thing to put yourself in someone else’s boots and imagine how they would they tell their story. Luckily, through some of the language in the letters, like when Michael talks about being “unable to keep up with the measure of the men”, it puts you in that place straightaway.
Pension for a Soldier is now available as a downloadable song and has been made into a video. Do you have any hopes for what might come from it?
It’s an observation. A lot of songs about war are observations and you hope people will listen to it and go, “Yeah, something needs to change”. It’s like we’ve never learnt anything. It just continues. We jump from one war to another and there doesn’t seem to be any let up. If anything, songs like this are an attempt to help people wake up to the pointlessness of it all.
In the same tradition we have songs like The Unknown Soldier by Buffy Sainte-Marie, Imagine by John Lennon, Masters of War and With God on Our Side by Bob Dylan. These songs are powerful. And, while ever we are able, we songwriters should continue to say something about it. Better to stand up and say something than to say nothing.
I’m not going to sit by and accept this. When we look back at the history of wars, we realise that none of them achieve anything. Everyone loses. So, it’s our duty as songwriters to keep reminding people that wars are a waste of lives and resources and there are far better things we could be doing with our brief time on this precious earth.