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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Sleeper's Song

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
As a long-time Texas lawyer, Ben Sleeper wrote many a legalese-laden petition alledging this or that in behalf of his clients, but few if any of them ever knew of – much less heard – the patriotic song he composed as a young Army officer in training back during World War I.

Of course, the European conflict the United States entered in 1917 wasn’t known as World War I until a second world war exploded in 1939. Prior to World War II, Americans generally referred to the bloody campaign against Germany as the Great War.

Born in Waco Dec. 11, 1894, after high school Benjamin Risher Sleeper attended the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn. but joined the Army when the U.S. declared war on Germany.

His first duty station was Camp Funston, one of a series of subposts around Fort Sam Houston in Bexar County. Established in 1907 as Leon Springs Military Reservation, in May 1917 it had been designated as the First Officers Training School and named in honor of the late Maj. Gen. Frederick Funston.

A Spanish-American and Phillippine-American War hero, Funston had been one of the Army’s highest ranking officers when he suffered a fatal heart attack in the lobby of San Antonio’s St. Anthony Hotel on Feb. 19, 1917 while listening to an orchestra play “The Blue Danube Waltz.” Had he not died when he did, historians believe he would have been selected to lead the American Expeditionary Force to Europe.

Swept up in the patriotic fervor that comes in the early stages of most wars, infantry officer-in-training Sleeper wrote a song called “Camp Funston, When the Star Spangled Banner Floats over Berlin.” With music added by Adrian F. Levy, Sleeper’s song was published at Camp Funston in 1917 as a four-page piece of sheet music.

Meanwhile, after three months of instruction in how to be an officer and gentleman, Lt. Sleeper and his fellow “90-day wonders” left for the front in France. By war’s end in 1918, Sleeper wore captain’s bars.

While the war song he wrote has long since entered the public domain, in the parlance of the rare book and ephemera trade, “…When the Star Spangled Banner Floats over Berlin” apparently remained unknown until Baylor Univeristy’s Texana collection acquired a copy in 2009. For posterity’s sake, here are Sleeper’s lyrics:
1. All the reg’-lar boys in Tex-as near and far
At Camp Funston are preparing for the war
Ere long they’ll be in motion
Far across the briny ocean
Helping Uncle Sam to show the Teuton Hun
Something that will start him on a backward run
Now Mister Kaiser
We’ll make you wiser before this war is done

2. Can’t you see them as they’re marching down the line
Ev’-ry but-ton’s button’d; how they step in time –
Now won’t they wel-come them in France
When on the front our men ad-vance
As skir-mishers they ex-e-cute with-out a break
Right by squads and left by squads and no mis-takes –
When can-non wheeling –
Their fire re-veal-ing
Old Wil – helm’s hordes we’ll take.

3. At Camp Funs-ton they are drill-ing ev’ry day
Not a sin-gle moment do they throw a-way
They’re not the least ex-cit-ed –
But there’s wrongs that must be righted
They have just one mot-to – It’s to Do or Die”
For our Dou-ble Ea-agle must be forced to fly –
This German fra-cas –
Will on-ly make us –
A-mong World Pow’rs, most high.

Down in that Lone Star State
They’re going to celebrate
When all the boys go marching home

At Funston they are learning how
To clean the blood-stained German plow
To puncture Zeppelins and shatter submarines
To fight as true blue Yankees do

You’ll know Vater land what a fix you are in
And when our Star Spangled Banner floats over Berlin
For Texas great, and every State
Will make you answer to your Uncle Sam
After the war, Sleeper earned a bachelor of law degree from the University of Texas in 1919. He first hung out his shingle in the booming West Texas oil town of Breckenridge, but returned to his hometown in 1922 to join his family’s law firm. Founded by his grandfather, Fabius H. Sleeper, the firm also included his father, William Markham Sleeper. On Aug. 1, 1923 he was married in New York to Frances Boyd (1898-1984), a Washington-born woman schooled in Europe.

When World War II began, Sleeper returned to the Army, this time serving in the Judge Advocate General's Office. He spent time in England and later France.

Sleeper went on to become senior partner of Sleeper, Williams, Johnston, Helm and Estes, the successor to his grandfather's and father's firm. He also taught at Baylor Law School.

A past president of the Waco-McLennan County Bar Association and a fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation, his professional affiliations also included the State Bar of Texas and the American Judicature Society. He was a member of the Philosophers' Club and a vestryman at Waco’s St. Paul's Episcopal Church, where he taught Bible class.

Sleeper died on Nov. 5, 1972 and is buried in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery. And not far away at Baylor is the only known copy of the sheet music he wrote in the heady early days of the Great War.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
April 20, 2011 column
More Columns

Related Topics:
World War I Chronicles

World War II Chronicles

Texas Music


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