The Story Behind the Song – Three Days in July

On the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg – July 1 3, 1863 – it is timely to look at the story behind Three Days in July, written by Mark Simos and Jon Weisberger.

The song was recorded by the Infamous Stringdusters on their eponymous album released on June 10, 2008.

The Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – sometimes referred to as the upside-down battle, due to the corresponding bearings of the combatants (the Rebels incongruously actually approached the town from the north whereas the Yankees did so from the south) – was a turning point in the American Civil War, it being a relatively rare victory for the Union army.

It was the battle with the largest number of casualties in the five-year long conflict.

At Gettysburg, Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac defeated attacks by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, thus ending Lee’s invasion of the north.

Elements of the two armies initially collided at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, as Lee urgently concentrated his forces there, his objective being to engage the Union army and destroy it. Low ridges to the northwest of town were defended initially by a Union cavalry division under Brig. Gen. John Buford, and soon reinforced with two corps of Union infantry. However, two large Confederate corps assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders retreating through the streets of town to the hills just to the south.

On the second day of battle, most of both armies had assembled. The Union line was laid out in a defensive formation resembling a fishhook. In the late afternoon of July 2, Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank, and fierce fighting raged at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, and the Peach Orchard. On the Union right, demonstrations escalated into full-scale assaults on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. All across the battlefield, despite significant losses, the Union defenders held their lines.

The Battle of Gettysburg as illustrated in Harpers WeeklyOn the third day of battle, July 3, fighting resumed on Culp’s Hill and cavalry battles raged to the east and south, but the main event was a dramatic infantry assault by 12,500 Confederates against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, known as Pickett’s Charge. The charge was repulsed by Union rifle and artillery fire, at great losses to the Confederate army. Subsequently Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia.

Between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both armies were casualties in the three-day battle.

It is perhaps famous world-wide due to the lyrical two-and-a-half-minute speech – the Gettysburg Address – made by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, at the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the fallen Union soldiers and re-define the purpose of the war.

So much for the context, Jon Weisberger shares some information about the actual writing of Three Days in July ….

“Mark Simos and I wrote this song in the spring of 2003; I don’t remember whether the invasion of Iraq was already under way, but it was on our minds, and we wanted to write a song that would address the tragedy of war but also offer some reminder of common humanity. Our thoughts naturally turned to the Civil War, as several bluegrass songs have used that as a setting to touch on similar themes, and we thought it would be neat to turn the usual bluegrass identification with the southern side on its head – and that led us to think of Gettysburg, one of the few major battlefields in the north. I think Mark already had some melodic fragments in mind and, as the son of an historian, I was familiar with the proposition that the Confederate army had moved on Gettysburg because there was a shoe factory or two there – and once we put those two things together, the song was written in a couple of hours.

About a year after that, Mark and I organized a demo recording session with Jeremy Garrett, Ned Luberecki, and Stephen Mougin. Jeremy really took a liking to Three Days In July and I thought he did a great job singing it, so, although we pitched the song to a few artists, we also turned down a couple of requests by others for permission to record it because of his interest.”

Mark Simos has this to say …..

Mark SimosIt is one of my favorites – not just of my collaborations with Jon but altogether.

My recollection of writing the song has always been that it began from a melodic fragment I had (it popped into my head driving in the car to Jon’s the day we wrote the song). What’s delightful to me is that we worked backward from the melody to the story, rather than starting with the story. That is: ‘Hmm, if I were a song with a melody like this what would I be about?…’

It clearly wanted to be a ballad and had an old sound – and that no doubt put Jon in mind of the historical information he had about Gettysburg (which was new to me when he told me). So I use the song as an example of the idea that you can really start a song from any direction – music, lyrics, story idea – and that just because you don’t start from the story doesn’t mean you won’t end up with a strong story in the final song.

The other thing I clearly recall was that we wanted the details to be accurate, even if fictional. I even recall checking the web to make sure that a farm boy in Pennsylvania could plausibly have heard the guns of the battle – getting the facts at least plausible was important to us both.

Last but not least, I love the surprise build into the song and felt that we handled the narrative aspect in a particularly satisfying way – one of the pleasures of working with someone like Jon who is such an experienced writer on so many levels.”


Three Days in July
Mark Simos and Jon Weisberger
Devachan Music, BMI and Use Your Words Music, BMI © 2003

I was born in Pennsylvania in 1851
Grew up on my father’s farm, the youngest of three sons
The Civil War was raging the year that I turned twelve
My father joined the ranks of blue and left us by ourselves

Refrain: Boys I’ll tell you true, I learned things I never knew

In summer heat we prayed for rain, the first day of July
Far off thunder rumbling, no storm clouds in the sky
My brothers grabbed their rifles—”stay,” my mother urged
Mama, that’s the sound of cannon up by Gettysburg

Refrain: Boys I’ll tell you true, I learned things I never knew

Two fearful days and sleepless nights, we waited with no word
‘Til the guns fell silent on the morning of the third
My mother watched the road all day, and kept me there close by
‘Til dusk was hard upon us and the water jug was dry

With bucket and a lantern I crossed the field alone
Heard the sound of snapping twigs, and then a quiet moan
Captured in my lantern light, his face an ashen grey
Huddled in a bloody coat a rebel soldier lay

Refrain: Boys I’ll tell you true, I learned things I never knew

“I see you have a kind face, please don’t raise the cry
If I am taken prisoner, I know I’ll surely die
I’m wounded and I mean no harm, just need to rest a spell
I have fled the battlefield, I’ve seen the face of hell

We came by tens of thousands, the battle for to lose
And we only marched on Gettysburg, because we needed shoes”
I looked down at his swollen feet, and tried to understand
And wondered if my brothers had died at this man’s hand

Refrain: Boys I’ll tell you true, I learned things I never knew

I walked back in the cabin, I set the bucket down
I spoke no word to mother of why I’d been so long
All night we sat beside the fire, praying for good news
Then mother she looked down and asked: “Son, where are your shoes?”

Refrain: Boys I’ll tell you true, I learned things I never knew

Boys I’ll tell you true, I learned things I never knew

All Rights Reserved


For those readers who would be interested in a more technical report about the composition of Three Days in July, we have the opportunity of sharing Mark Simos’s presentation for the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism in Boston in March 2009.

Look for that later this week.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.