Music of the American Civil War
Without a doubt, the Civil War was the greatest single upheaval this country has ever known. It is not surprising, then, that the music produced during this War is diverse in what it celebrates, in what it commemorates and in what it mourns. It celebrates great political ideals - the solidarity of the Union and the individual rights of states. It commemorates heroes on the field, martyrs to the cause, generals and enlistedmen. The mother weeps for her lost son; the wife prays for her husband's safe return; the soldier clings to memories of home.
The music of the period was written as stirring marches meant to be played in rousing band renditions; it was written as ballads based on traditional tunes for home parlor performance. Military brass bands were extremely popular during the period. Of course in actual military service, they played marches and quick steps for troop drill and provided motivational music before and during battle. They were also frequently called on to perform in concerts and at balls for the local citizens. Music in the home was becoming more commonplace in the 1850s and pianos were no longer the instrument of the wealthy. In fact, a piano could be found in most parlors of the middle-class, and it was generally accepted that musical accomplishment was expected of the well-bred young lady. Ads for the Steinway pianoforte are regularly found in papers dating to the 1850s and 1860s. The heritage of music from this era still produces feelings of joy and sadness, humor and patriotism. Jack Tilbury notes that "although much can be learned by studying this great conflict, it is through the music of this period that one may feel the emotions of the 1860s" (Honor CD 3). Furthermore, despite the fact that the first shots fired in April 1861 tore the nation in two, the music which ensued "gave the North and South a spiritual oneness" (Singer xi).
One of the most remarkable bands to emerge before the Civil War and to long survive it was the Shenandoah Valley based "Mountain Sax Horn Band" which would later become the Stonewall Brigade Band. It was initially formed in early 1855 with fourteen original members. In 1862 the officially authorized Fifth Regiment Band enlisted to serve under Jackson. Eight of the fourteen men to enlist were among the first members of the Sax Horn Band. Members of the band acquired their first military duties during the Winchester campaign. They served as combat riflemen, couriers and later as hospital corpsmen. At the beginning of the Antietam campaign in September 1862, while the troops were fording the Potomac into Maryland, the Fifth Regiment Band played "Maryland, My Maryland." Shortly after Christmas in 1862, they were detailed for picket duty along the Rappahannock River, below Fredericksburg. By day they proudly carried their Austrian rifles and each night could be heard exchanging serenades with the Federal band across the river. (Bice 34). They were received as heroes the few times they returned to Staunton during lulls in the campaigns and performed to record numbers who turned out to hear them. At the end of the war, by decree of the terms of surrender, the musical instruments of the Stonewall Brigade Band were allowed to return home and today are enshrined in the Stonewall Brigade Band Hall in Staunton, VA.(This band is still active playing weekly concerts in Staunton's Gypsy Hill Park through the summer months).
Some of the most popular songs among the Federal troops were; George Root's The Battle Cry of Freedom; Julia Ward Howe Battle Hymn of the Republic; Thomas Bishop John Brown's Body; Hard Crackers, Come Again No More; Bishop When Johnny Comes Marching Home and the traditional Star Spangled Banner, Yankee Doodle, The Girl I Left Behind Me, Home Sweet Home and Annie Laurie.
Some of the most popular Confederate songs included, of course, Daniel Decatur Emmett's Dixie, James Ryder Randall's Maryland, My Maryland; A Pender's Eating Goober Peas; Oh, I'm a Good Old Rebel. They were especially fond of old sentimental songs they had grown to love before going off to war, among them: Annie Laurie, Listen to the Mockingbird, Lorena, Faded Flowers and Who Will Care for Mother Now. It is interesting to note that Randall's Maryland, My Maryland was written in 1861 by the native Marylander, at the time residing in Louisiana, to inspire Maryland to join the Confederacy.
Jane Ellen notes that one of the most interesting bits of Civil War musical trivia can be found in the fact that the "national anthem" of both the North and the South were actually written by members of the other side. Dixie's Land was written by a Northerner, Daniel Decatur Emmett and The Battle Hymn of the Republic dates back to 1856 when it was known as "Glory Hallelujah" and was very popular in the South with Negro congregations, firemen and soldiers. It was, of course, Julia Ward Howe who composed the lyrics we are familiar with today. Shortly before her death in 1910, she said, "My poem did some service in the Civil War. I wish very much that it may do good service in the peach, which, I pray God, may never more be broken" (Spaeth 149).
Almost every part of the soldier's life revolved around music. Bruce Catton described reveille as "just sound from forty drums and fifes and from twenty bugles" (94). During the day, soldiers were called to eat with music, drilled to music and entertained each other with music. Late in the evening, the regimental band would play "tattoo" at nine o'clock followed in a half hour by a lone drummer who beat out the rhythm to "taps" while the soldiers sang "Go to bed, Tom! Go to bed Tom! Go to bed, go to bed, go to bed Tom!" (Catton 30). And, of course they were led into battle with music intended to motivate and inspire them to give the fight their all. General Lee once remarked, "I don't see how we could have an Army without music" (Davis 45).
Burk Davis tells a story which illustrates that sometimes music was even a "peacemaker of sorts. In the fighting before the fall of Atlanta, Major Arthur Shoaff's brass band gave to the cause their expert cornettist. Each evening after supper, the musician came to the front lines and played for the Confederates along the entrenchments. When firing was heavy, he failed to appear" (49). It appears that the rebels would call out for the musician to play, promising to hold their fire. The cornettist would play, both sides would listen, and when the concert was over firing would be resumed.
In summary, 19th century America witnessed a unique situation in which warring peoples shared a common language and musical for, allowing a nation divided to express its emotions to one another freely.
Brice, Marshall M. The Stonewall Brigade Band. Verona: McClure Printing Company, In., 1967.
Catton, Bruce. This Hallowed Ground. New York: Doubleday, 1956.
Crawford, Richard. The Civil War Song Book. New York: Dover Publications, 1977.
Davis, Burk. The Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts. New York: Fairfax Press, 1982.
Jane Ellen, ASCAP. The Last Hurrah: A Look at the Musical Impact Generated by the Civil War.
Special thanks to Jane Ellen for sharing her lectures on Civil War Music. Visit her most impressive site at: http://janeellen.com/civilwar/civilwar.html.
For more impressive art, poetry and music of the period, visit the wonderful site of artist Amelia Clark, poet Randy Davis and song writer Paul Ott at http://www.ameliaclark.com.