Many of the games and songs we shared on the playground during childhood have a much more complex background than we realize. The origins of those games were not always benign. In fact, there were many things we did and said as kids that we didn't truly understand (that weird "S" thing is a prime example). One such mystery is handclap game "Miss Mary Mack."
So where did the song and game come from? Although there are many theories surrounding its past, the song's history has been more of an oral one than an officially documented one. However, most of the theories floating around today agree on a common thing; "Miss Mary Mack" is composed of references to the emancipation of enslaved people and the Civil War.
Some believe the song is based on a Civil War battle involving a ship called the USS Merrimack, some say the elephants jumping over the fence are Republicans defeating the South. Some say the mother in the song is a representation of the Confederacy. For such a seemingly simple and silly tune, it contains a lot of heavy references for people to unpack over a century later.
Corn Ditties Were The Original Handclap Games Taught To Enslaved Children As Distractions
Corn ditties were the original spirituals, and many of them were rhymes paired with clapping patterns. The songs were meant to distract from the horrors of everyday life on plantations, especially for the children. Many early songs were also codes, laden with symbolism and cleverly hidden secrets. "Miss Mary Mack" is included among those early, symbolic songs.
It Might Be A Reference To The USS Merrimack
One popular theory is that "Mary Mack" really referred to the USS Merrimack. The idea stems from the similarity in the names, paired with the ship's appearance (it was "all dressed in black," with the rivets being the "silver buttons all down her back"). The USS Merrimack was set on fire and nearly destroyed at the beginning of the Civil War. Later, it was scrapped to build ironclad warship USS Virginia.
The First Verse Possibly Describes A Famous Civil War Battle Between The USS Merrimack And The USS Monitor
Some believe that part of "Miss Mary Mack" describes the Battle of Hampton Roads, which took place in March 1862. It was one of the Civil War's most important Naval battles, occurring on the Elizabeth River near Hampton Roads, Virginia. The USS Merrimack had been transformed into intimidating ironclad warship USS Virginia, and it had taken down the Union's USS Cumberland and USS Congress before calling it a night. The next day, the Virginia was stalking the Union's USS Minnesota when it encountered the opposing ironclad USS Monitor.
The battle between the Virginia and the Monitor was sometimes referred to as the Battle of the Ironclads. That water fight was the first time in history that two ironclad ships had fought against each other. Both sides claimed to be the winner, but it was the Virginia who retired first. The Monitor stayed to guard the Union's shipyard, insuring that the Virginia couldn't do any further damage to their wooden fleet.
The Elephants Could Be A Reference To The Republican Party
Most Americans easily recognize the elephant as being the symbol for the Republican Party, just as the donkey represents the Democrats. But back in Abraham Lincoln's time, the parties were not as easily defined as they are now.
The Republican group was founded by former members of the Whig Party who opposed slavery. Abraham Lincoln was known as an early member of that organization, and he was, of course, responsible for the political process that granted enslaved people their freedom.