The music of the American Civil War has many tales to share. Its background is religious and the soldiers on both sides never doubted that they deserved God's blessings. Music celebrates lofty political ideals; union and states' rights. It commemorates heroes and martyrs. It glimpses human dramas behind the fighting lines; the wife urges her husband to battle; the mother weeps for her son; the dying soldier clings to memories of home. Thus both Confederate and Union music are twined together. Their themes are universal.
Music inspired by the Civil War ranges from stirring band parade music to piano fantasies for concert audiences. There was a large volume of sheet-music songs finding a home in the American parlor for those who did not fight in the war. It identified and fixed images of meaning for citizens who were seeing their world changed by circumstances beyond their imagination. The songs had a singable melody, words repeated, and an uncomplicated piano arrangement.
Musical borrowing was an accepted popular technique. " The Bonnie Blue Flag" was set to a traditional song called "The Irish Jaunting Car." The German Christmas carol "Oh Tannenbaum" provided the tune for "Maryland, My Maryland." 1
On the home front, music of the North and South was a mixture of Negro spirituals, gospel tunes, minstrel and folk songs, transmitted orally rather than in print. Both sides borrowed music and changed the lyrics to express an opposing point of view. Individual soldiers carried their homemade instruments, banjos, and violins. When darkness settled over the battlefield and soldiers bedded down, music and voices blended from both Union and Confederate camps.2
Several of the Confederate musical songs were popular before the Civil War began. "Home Sweet Home', which often brought both sides together when played the night before a battle,3 was written before 1852 by John Payne. Stephen Collins Foster in "The Old Folks at Home" used tenderness to reflect his words printed before 1864. The famous song "Dixie" was written for "Bryant's Minstrels", playing in New York in 1859 on the eve of the Civil War.4 Its words were taken up by the people, sung among the streets and soon carried to the battlefield where it became the great inspirational song of the Confederate Army.5
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One of the most famous folk love ballads is "Aura Lee."6 The lyricist was W.W. Fosdick and the composer was G.R.Poulton. This song was very popular with the Union soldiers as well as the confederate soldiers. Many nights, both sides would be camped so close to each other, they could hear the other side singing. Sometimes one side or the other would begin singing songs. Then the other side would pick it up. Before long they were singing and harmonizing together. They knew that tomorrow they would be aiming their guns at each other and death would again prevail. For a few brief moments, there was a camaraderie as thoughts of home and sweethearts pushed away the horrors of war. Think of golden hair and blue eyes ! This music was popularized by a young troubadour from Memphis, Tennessee ,with the name, Elvis Presley. His song was "Love Me Tender."7 which was actually the love song, "AuraLee."8
"All Quiet Along the Potomac" was a poem first published as "The Picket Guard" by Ethel Lynn Beers in Harper's Weekly, November 30, 1861, but many authors claim ownership, including Thaddeus Oliver of Georgia, a confederate soldier. It refers to official telegrams reporting, all is quiet tonight" to the Secretary of War by Major General George B. McClellan. It refers to the post-First Manassas period of the war, when theUnion and Confederate troops occupied opposite banks of the Potomac, waiting for the moment to strike. Though there was little actual fighting during this period, men were lost to snipers with some regularity. The lone sentry on duty thinks of home as he steps into the forest dreary. In 1863, the poem was set to music by John Hill Hewitt, who was serving in the Confederate Army.9
The first battle of the Civil War was fought at Bethel, Virginia on June 10, 1861. The fame of this battle is remembered in the song,"The Battle at Bethel," sung to the tune of Dixie.
Excluding "Dixie", the most popular song in the South and with the Confederate army was"The Bonnie Blue Flag" written by Harry Macarthy. It was first presented by Marion Macarthy, sister of the author and "Arkansas comedian," at the Varieties Theatre in New Orleans for one of Harry's Personation Acts. Troops enroute to Virginia sang it at the New Orleans Academy of Music in September, 1861. The flag was displayed at the Mississippi Convention of January 9, 1861 which passed the act of secession, and the delegates chanted the new air. The words tell the story of secession and reveal the"temperament of the states at war and invite other states to join in. The song fans the Flames of War.
Brander Matthews tells us when General Butler was in command of New Orleans, he "made it very profitable by fining every man, woman, or child who sang, whistled, or played it on any instrument $25.00, besides arresting the publisher, destroying the sheet music and fining him $500.00.10
The success of the "Bonnie Blue Flag" in the South soon invited parody from the North. While a prisoner of war in Selma, Alabama, Col. J.L. Geddes of the Eighth Iowa Infantry wrote," The Bonnie Blue Flag with the Stripes and Stars". It was sung by members of his regiment in answer to the Southern song.11
In a geographic location within the United States, "Dixie" defines the 11 Southern states that seceded to form the Confederate States of America. They are ( in order of secession): South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia,Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Today it is most often associated with those parts of theSouthern United States where Old South traditions and legacies of the Confederacy live most strongly and are most widely celebrated and remembered.12
The song "Dixie" written by Daniel Emmett in 1860 became the unofficial anthem of the Confederate States. This tune's minstrel-show origins created a strong association of "Dixie" With the Old South. Today some view the song as offensive and racist while others see it as a legitimate part of Southern heritage.13 for William deceived his Misses, who died with a broken heart.
"The Flag of Secession" is a song written in1862 celebrating the secession of the Southern states from the Union. The song is sung to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner," the national anthem of the United States. The author of the song is unknown.
The "Flight of Doodles" is also known as "Root Hog or Die" because it was sung to the tune of a popular minstrel melody of the same name. This song commemorates the smashing Confederate victory at the Battle of First Manassas on July 21, 1861. The title refers to the mad dash of the "Yankee Doodles" back to the safety of Washington following their defeat.
"Old Fuss-and-Feathers"Scott was Army veteran General Winfield Scott, Commander in Chief of Union forces at the time of the battle. The"Tiger" from the Crescent City was a member of the New Orleans Tiger Rifles, who wore on their hatbands the motto "Lincoln's Life or a Tiger's Death."
The term "root hog or die" is an old country expression meaning that one must often"work like the devil under terrible conditions" in order to survive-or as Emma Dusenberry of Arkansas put it,"All of us have got to work to make our own living. Hogs have to root in the woods or starve, and you have to work or starve."14
"Take Your Gun and Go, John" was often sung by families at home. Singing was important to those left behind. Mothers and Fathers, sweethearts and wives, passed the long evenings at home singing songs about longing and being apart, waiting for their boy to return. The second verse refers to family shame if John had not enlisted for the Cause.
An example of daily camp life on the Front is the song,"Goober Peas." "Soldiering can be a very dull job," Says BellWiley in his Life of Johnny Reb. One way of passing the time, when not on the march or at drill, was to get together around the campfire and enjoy some informal singing. This delightful Confederate song has a simplicity with that spirit of songmakingand rhyme that lets the mind forget the orders, the dust, and the blistering feet.15
During the war, products from the New England cloth mills were embargoed so young women asked their mothers and grandmothers how to make their own fabrics. It became a badge of honor to wear a homespun dress. The homespun dress received high praise in a poem by Carrie Bell Sinclair. The second verse says:" My homespun dress in plain, I know; my hat's palmetto, too; But then it show what Southern girls for Southern rights will do."
Near present day Marthaville, Louisiana, according to local legend, a young Confederate soldier or"Rebel" became separated from his unit during a skirmish at Crump's Corner. Alone in the woods and confused about where he was, the soldier began searching for other Confederates. It was at a spring where he stopped for a drink of water that the lad was spotted by three Union cavalrymen and killed.
The Barnhill family, local residents who had spoken with the soldier shortly before he was shot, discovered his body and buried him beside the road where he had died. For nearly 100 years after that incident, each generation of the Barnhill family cared for the grave. In 1962 the people of the area placed a marker on the spot in honor of the Unknown Confederate Soldier.16
"Oh, I'm a Good Old Rebel" and "The Rebel Soldier" was written by Major Innes Randolph, Confederate States ofAmerica. The words give a musical legacy of the War and shows planning for the future to Mexico. The "Rebel Soldier" gives examples of the hardships and death of his daily life.
"Lorena" was one of the most popular sentimental ballads sung around the campfire of the Confederate Army. It became identified with the Southern cause and "Hundreds of Southern girls were named for the song's heroine." The Reverend H.D.L. Webster moved to Zanesville, Ohio. He fell in love with Eleanor Blockson. She was in love with him and expected to marry him. Her father threatened to disenherit her if she married a poor preacher. She returned his ring and he left town. To get over his heartbreak, he wrote a poem, which he called"Lorena," rearranging the letters of her name to avoid embarrassing her. He also wrote,"Lorena's Reply" which was called "Paul Vane." And published in 1863.17
On April 19,1861, soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry passed through Baltimore, Maryland, on their way toWashington, D.C. A pro-secession mob attacked them, and the first blood of the War Between the Stats was shed. Although the lyrics to this fervently Southern Song suggest that Maryland was on the verge of joining the Confederacy, she remained loyal to the Union. A great relief as far as Abraham Lincoln was concerned, for a Confederate Maryland would have proved a thorn in the Union's side.
The poem enjoyed its first real success as a song when Jennie Cary of Baltimore and her sister Hetty suggested singing it to the tune,"O Tannenbaum." It was adopted as the state song of Maryland in 1939. The second verse says, "My mother state, to thee I kneel."18
One hundred forty years ago this May 10, at fifteen minutes past the hour of three o'clock p.m., one of the best known generals of the American Civil War passed beyond the veil. Lt. General Thomas Jonathan Jackson, Provisional Army of the Confederate States, was wounded in friendly fire. His left arm was shattered and required amputation. He was placed in a room in a small plantation to recuperate. He slowly died from a case of pneumonia. The disease had started before the Battle of Chancellorsville. This first song describes the impact of the death of Stonewall on the Southern Confederacy.19
"Richmond Is A Hard Road to Travel" takes you into the heart and soul of the soldier, expressing his mood and emotions.
"Ridin A Raid" describes Stonewall watching his Rebels and encouraging them to fight for honor and right; a fighting song.
The "Rose of Alabamy" was sung well before the start of the War Between the States. It was a special favorite with theAlabama Troops as a Rallying Song of the South.
A river in Virginia, Shenandoah originated as a river shanty and became popular with sea-going crews in the early 1800's. The lyrics tell the story of a roving trader in love with the daughter of an Indian chief; the rover tells the chief of his intent to take the girl with him far to the west, across the wide Missouri.20 The gentle music reminds the soldier of the girl left behind and was probably sung in the quiet of the evening. In recent years, John Denver sang about country roads and Blue Ridge Mountains to bring Shenandoah to the front again.
Music, reflecting moods and emotions, shows through in "The South I Love Thee More. The writer embraces the South with its change and sorrow and calls it "Sacred" and loves it more.
"The Southern Soldier Boy" written by Captain G.W. Alexander was sung to the tune"The Boy With the Auburn Hair." His sweetheart sings her love and concern and hopes for the best as she waits at home.
John Williamson Palmer was a physician, poet, playwright, and newspaper correspondent who wrote Stonewall Jackson's Way during the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. The song was quickly put to music by and unknown composer and sung by Jackson's men during the right remaining months of the General's life. The line" pay off Ashby's score" refers to General Turner Ashby, Jackson's cavalry chief during his famous Valley campaign, who was killed by the Union troops while fighting a rear-guard action near Harrisonburg, Virginia, June 6, 1862. The piece was originally published inBaltimore, Maryland. In order to deflect the suspicion of the Union Provost Marshall'Office away from the true author Palmer, it was reported that the original copy was found on the body of a sergeant in the Stonewall Brigade.21
A second song written by Captain G.W. Alexander, "The Southern Soldier" described the daily life of the foot soldier and was also sung to the tune"The Boy With the Auburn Hair." It was a favorite camp song and reminded the soldiers of home.
Another camp song that cheered the heart and dispelled the gloom was the "Upidee Song." It had a rousing chorus.
As the war progressed, the songs changed temperament, rhythm and mood. "We Conquer or Die" by James Pierpointdescribes the war drum beating, prepare for the fight."
"The Wearing of the Grey" describes the torment of the southern soul where justice and perfect rest are found alone in heaven with God's Blessings. The melodies have gone from bright marching songs to a heavy hearted beat.
Last , but not least, is The Yellow Rose of Texas, which showed up again and again as a fighting song of the South. It was written in 1836, during the war for Texas Independence and has an unknown author. The 1955 version from Mitch Miller made it popular again.
The Civil War lasted for four long years. During these years, numerous songs and ballads were composed. While many documents and artifacts of the Civil War have not survived, most of the music has survived. The songs of the North and South intertwined, with both having songs of bravery, daily life, and love of home. The internet is rich with books, tapes, sheet music, and history of the Civil War.
I leave with you a question. What music from today will reflect the current war and the bravery of our soldiers involved in this conflict? One hundred fifty years from now will music reflect the patriotism and sacrifice of our young people today?
1 Crawford, Richard, The Civil War Songbook, 1977, p.v-vi.
2 Vicksburg National Military Park, Singing Soldiers
3 Heinrich,Ann, email 10/1/07 Decatur, Alabama
4 Hall &McCreary Co.,The Golden Book of Favorite Songs, p.10
6 Vicksburg National Military Park, Love Ballad.
7 jdweaver.com/poemcomm/auralee,May 20,2006
9 wikipedia.org/wiki/All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight
10 Vicksburg national Military Park, Patriotic, The Bonnie Blue Flag
11 Vicksburg National Military Park, The Bonnie Blue Flag with the Stripes and Stars
16 www.Sabine Historical Site
18 user.civilwar poetry.org/confederate/songs/maryland
20 www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oh Shenandoah