Songs of the Civil War and What We Can Learn

by akoloy

Throughout American history, our wars have both popularized or produced songs that stay acquainted to us at this time.

The American Revolution introduced us many songs, however solely “Yankee Doodle” has stood the check of time. Sung to an previous tune and written initially as a tune of English derision geared toward Americans in the course of the French and Indian War, patriots of the Revolution took the tune for their very own, modified the phrases, and proudly performed and sang it of their encampments. “Yankee Doodle” stays the state tune of Connecticut.

spirit of 76
“The Spirit of ’76,” as Archibald MacNeal Willard’s portray got here to be recognized, is without doubt one of the most well-known photographs referring to the American Revolutionary War—and due to this fact reveals the necessary hyperlink between music and the American combating spirit. (Public Domain)

The War of 1812 gave us our nationwide anthem. World War I introduced hits like “Over There” and “Pack Up Your Troubles.” American troopers, sailors, and airmen in World War II knew the lyrics to such hits as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” “Lili Marleen,” and “The White Cliffs of Dover.” 

The Vietnam War discovered extra troopers listening to music than singing it, however even then that they had their favorites, like Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” and protest songs like “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” 

But absolutely the songs of the American Civil War high the playlist of titles nonetheless remembered at this time.

July 1863: The Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The battle came about from July 1 to July 3, 1863. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Music Goes to War

The commanders and generals of the Union and Confederate armies valued music. Most regiments sported brass bands, and singing across the fires within the camps was a favourite pastime of the troopers of each North and South. Several occasions, when their traces had been shut collectively, the bands struck up tunes for males on each side to take pleasure in. 

Music woke the troopers within the morning, known as them to mess, and put them to sleep at night time. “Taps,” for instance, grew to become in style after Union General Daniel Butterfield took an previous model of the tune and formed it into its current type. “Taps” was tailored by each the Union and Confederate armies, and it’s performed at this time at varied army funerals and ceremonies honoring the useless.

Civil War army bugler
Music woke the troopers within the morning, known as them to mess, and put them to sleep at night time. A postcard exhibiting a musician of the U.S. Army Cavalry in the course of the Civil War, circa 1861. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Abraham Lincoln as soon as wrote to George Root, who composed greater than 30 songs in regards to the struggle, “You have done more than a hundred generals and a thousand orators.” Union General Phil Sheridan as soon as mentioned, “Music has done its share, and more than its share, in winning this war,” and was seconded on this opinion by Robert E. Lee, who stated, “I don’t believe we can have an army without music.”

And a lot of that Civil War music grew to become an everlasting a part of our cultural heritage.

George Root
American composer George Frederick Root (circa 1870), who’s most remembered for his Civil War songs “The Battle Cry of Freedom” (1862) and “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” (1865). (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Songs From My Childhood

When we had been youngsters, my brother and I performed “Civil War” together with some associates within the woods and fields close to our home. We’d cost one another, taking pictures toy weapons and throwing grime clods and sticks at one another as bombs. Inside the home, we’d line up armies of the Blue and the Gray, and have our plastic troopers do battle by throwing some small object—a wadded-up piece of paper, a damaged pencil—on the enemy power, with the winner being the man with the final soldier standing.

Songs Of War
Songs grew to become a preferred solution to doc the Civil War. The cowl of “Songs of the War,” circa 1865, written by Private Miles O’Reilly. (MPI/Getty Images)

One Christmas, our dad and mom gave us two document albums: “The Union” and “The Confederacy.” Over and over once more, we listened to those albums, studying the phrases not simply to in style songs just like the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie” but additionally to items unfamiliar to us, like “The Invalid Corps” and “The Conquered Banner.” 

These albums additionally contained General Lee’s “Farewell Address” to his military and Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” Repetition put each speeches into my thoughts, and I can nonetheless stumble by means of these addresses 60 years later.

Some have criticized these albums and the person who organized the music, Richard Bales, as being inauthentic with their cantatas and orchestral items, however for my brother and me the songs on these data had been platinum gold.

A Sad Story of War

We can see the large influence of music on these troopers of way back in an incident that came about within the winter of 1862–1863 at Fredericksburg, Virginia. In a booklet accompanying “The Confederacy”—I purchased this boxed CD years in the past at a library ebook sale—historian Bruce Catton describes the gathering one night of some Federal bands on the banks of the Rappahannock River simply throughout from the Confederate military: “The Northern bands played Northern war songs, of course—‘John Brown’s Body,’ ‘Rally ‘Round the Flag,’ and the favorite tear-jerker of the sentimental Yankee soldier, ‘Tenting Tonight.’”

Catton then describes how the Confederates known as throughout the river, “Play some of ours,” and the Northern bands obliged by giving their adversaries “Dixie,” “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” and different Southern favorites.

But right here’s the a part of this live performance that at all times breaks my coronary heart.

At the tip of the night, Catton tells us, all these bands broke into “Home, Sweet Home.”

“Federals and Confederates tried to sing the song, which spoke of everything that they had left behind—of everything that so many of them would never see again—while the smoke of the campfires scented the winter dark and all the guns were cold. They tried to sing but they could not do it, because they all choked up and sat there with tears running down their tanned cheeks while the trumpets reminded them of what lay on the other side of war.”


Like their Victorian counterparts in England, Americans within the mid-Nineteenth century had been unabashedly sentimental. Home, motherhood, and kids had been celebrated of their poetry, tales, and songs. Because dying was extra acquainted in that period when younger and previous usually took their final breath at house, poems and songs about that topic, notably in regards to the passing away of a kid, had been additionally favorites.

The troopers of the North and South had been no completely different from their contemporaries. These roughened troopers had been touched not solely by “Home, Sweet Home” but additionally by many different songs that bore them of their imaginations away from the battlefield and carried them house to family members. 

Here, for instance, is the start of a tune notably in style with Northern troops, George Root’s “Just Before the Battle, Mother”:

Just earlier than the battle, mom,
I’m considering most of you,
While upon the sector we’re watching
With the enemy in view.

And right here’s the refrain:

Farewell, mom, you might by no means
Press me to your coronary heart once more,
But, oh, you’ll not neglect me, mom,
If I’m numbered with the slain.

Popular with Northern troops was “Just Before the Battle, Mother.” (Public Domain)

A Southern favourite was “Somebody’s Darling”:

Somebody’s darling, so younger and so courageous,
Wearing nonetheless on his candy, but pale face—
Soon to be laid within the mud of the grave,
The lingering mild of his boyhood’s grace.
Somebody’s darling, someone’s satisfaction.
Who’ll inform his mom the place her boy died?

Mother's Song
One of the themes utilized by each the North and South was that of a mom’s love. The cowl of the sheet music to “The Conscript Mother’s Song,” 1861. (MPI/Getty Images)


American blacks added to this wealthy trade of music. Many former slaves fled in the course of the struggle to what had been known as contraband camps in Washington, D.C. We have accounts of Abraham Lincoln visiting these camps, becoming a member of of their prayer companies, and singing such spirituals with them as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Free at Last,” and “Go Down Moses.” Lincoln “wiped tears from his eyes at the singing of ‘Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen.’”

Hymn of the Freedman
Lithograph cowl of sheet music to “Hymn of the Freedman” depicting African American troopers of the Union eighth U.S. Colored Troops and their commanding officer, Colonel Charles W. Fribley, killed within the Battle of Olustee, Florida, on Feb. 20, 1864, in the course of the American Civil War. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

In addition, by the tip of the Civil War, practically 200,000 African Americans had served within the Northern military and navy.  They too sang these songs of freedom, introducing them to the white troopers in different regiments. 

One of the extra in style songs amongst black and white troops of the Union armies was “Kingdom Coming,” or “The Year of Jubilo” because it was additionally known as. Though hardly ever sung at this time as a result of it was written in dialect, the tune mocked Southern slave homeowners and celebrated freedom for slaves.

From the struggle there was born, I imagine, the merging of black and white musical tradition. 

Learning From Our Musical Heritage

When I used to show American historical past to seminars of homeschooling college students, I had the scholars study a few of these songs in addition to others from completely different durations of our previous. I even thought of instructing a course that may method American historical past by means of tune by listening, for instance, to “Sweet Betsy From Pike” to check the motion of settlers westward or “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” as a kickoff to studying in regards to the Depression. Kids love music, and it appeared an effective way to method the story of our nation, however I by no means adopted by means of on this ambition. 

Some extra modern writers and performers have additionally given us marvelous songs about our previous. Of these, Johnny Horton first involves thoughts. His songs about our historical past—“The Battle of New Orleans,” “Johnny Reb,” “North to Alaska,” “Comanche,” and others—could possibly be introduced into the classroom and would assist college students perceive and keep in mind folks, locations, and occasions. 

And the marvelous factor is that we dwell in an period after we can discover all this music on-line. A number of faucets on the keyboard, and we will journey again in time to the War Between the States and take heed to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” or “I’m a Good Ol’ Rebel.”

Whether you wish to assist your younger folks deepen their information of our American previous or whether or not you your self simply wish to go exploring our historical past, I can consider few higher methods to perform these targets than by utilizing music. Listen to the songs, examine them, their composers, and the occasions through which they had been written and carried out, and also you’ll be off on a particular American journey.

Jeff Minick has 4 youngsters and a rising platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught historical past, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling college students in Asheville, N.C. He is the writer of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to observe his weblog.

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