Music, Civil War

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Music played a major role in the Civil War, making it perhaps the most musical of all U.S. military conflicts. More songs were written, adapted, sung, and remembered from the Civil War than from any other U.S. war: Estimates suggest that around 9,000 new songs were printed in the North and as many as 750 in the South. The young but vigorous sheet music industry of the mid-nineteenth century capitalized on the event, and the popularity of both religious tunes and minstrel melodies provided affecting music for many purposes, including inspiring crowds at political rallies, recruiting soldiers, accompanying marching and fighting, and comforting soldiers' families at home. Music helped shape attitudes and mark regional identities, and the potentially subversive qualities of some songs were recognized by military leaders, including the Union commander General Benjamin Butler, who tried to destroy all copies of the Southern song "The Bonnie Blue Flag" upon the North's capture of New Orleans in April 1862 (he also fined the publisher and threatened a $24 fine for anyone caught singing or whistling the melody). Like the war itself, which was a war of brother against brother, some of the songs claimed by one side had pedigrees rooted in the other.

slave and abolitionist music

Slaves on Southern plantations produced many types of music, although most modern knowledge of it comes not from musical notation but in the less reliable form of accounts written by white listeners who were unfamiliar with African musical traditions. Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography that slaves were "generally expected to sing as well as to work," and that some masters used singing as a way of monitoring their slaves' locations and moods. He also explained how slaves cloaked the real meaning of some songs—meanings such as frustration at the injustices of slavery or a desire to be free—by adopting biblical topics. When a group of slaves fled to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, after the start of the Civil War, their song "Let My People Go" was heard and described by Reverend Lewis Lockwood, and it was quickly published and circulated in a Northern abolitionist newspaper, marking the beginning of the printed spiritual and demonstrating one type of African-American music and sentiment to a white, Northern audience. In many slave states, drumming by slaves was banned, and in 1845 Georgia passed a law prohibiting slaves from performing loud instruments out of fear that it might provide a source of communication for uprisings and resistance. Yet slaves danced and sang to the accompaniment of percussive objects like sticks and hands, and aspects of their speech (a mocking dialect) and preferred instruments, such as the tambourine, bones, and banjo, were absorbed into the minstrel show traditions that arose in the 1840s. The first printed collection of slave songs, Slave Songs of the United States, appeared shortly after the war, in 1867.

Abolitionist sentiments were expressed in song by the Hutchinson Family Singers of New Hampshire, who used their popularity in the 1840s to advance a number of causes, including women's rights, utopian communities, and temperance, as well as fierce opposition to slavery. They appeared with Frederick Douglass at a Boston antislavery rally in 1843, and a year later their song "Get Off the Track!" was used at events like the New England Anti-Slavery Convention held in Salem, Massachusetts. In their song "Get off the Track!" a train engine called Liberty was headed down the track, building a full head of steam, and proslavery forces needed to get out of the way or risk disaster. Ironically, the original melody, Daniel Emmett's "Old Dan Tucker," had been a popular song on the minstrel stage; blackface minstrelsy, a form of entertainment based on degrading stereotypes of African Americans, originated in the North, where it enjoyed great popularity, a reminder that abolitionist goals were not necessarily synonymous with the desire for racial equality.

civil war music

The speed with which sheet music could be produced and distributed allowed it to take on a journalistic function during the Civil War. On April 15, 1861, three days after the bombardment of Fort Sumter and the military start of the conflict, George Root, a Union sympathizer whose works rivaled those of Stephen Foster in contemporary popularity, responded with the song, "The First Gun Is Fired! May God Protect the Right." The Baltimore riots of April, 1861, where a prosecessionist mob attacked Union troops, inspired James Ryder Randall to write a poem, "Maryland! My Maryland," urging fellow Marylanders (Randall was born in Baltimore but had moved to Louisiana) to resist what he labeled the "tyrant's chain" held by the federal government. Quickly printed in newspapers, Randall's poem—which included phrases like "Northern scum"—was fitted to the German song "O Tannenbaum" and published as sheet music in October. Northern parodies countered with descriptions of Southerners as "rebel thieves" and "traitors."

The histories of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Dixie" reflect how closely the combatants were related. Daniel Emmett, an Ohio-born Union sympathizer, premiered "Dixie" in New York City, and the melody for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," called "Glory, Glory Hallelujah," was a Georgia camp revival song credited to the Virginia native William Steffe. In November 1861, abolitionist Julia Ward Howe was reviewing federal troops and witnessed a surprise Confederate attack; during the retreat, she heard some soldiers singing Steffe's revival tune. Later that night, she wrote a poem that fit the tune and that became "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The words were printed on the front page of the February 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly and Howe was paid $4 for it. The song reveals a strong religious character, especially in its fifth stanza, where she parallels the goals of Christianity and the federal government:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on!

The First Arkansas, an African-American unit, had new words in the old minstrel dialect written by a white captain:

Oh! we're de bully soldiers of de "First of Arkansas";
We are fightin' for de Union, we are fightin' for de law;
We can hit a rebel furder dan a white man eber saw;
As we go marching on.

Emmett's "Dixie" was originally written as a walka-round, or finale for a minstrel show in New York City. When it was first heard in New Orleans, its attractiveness to Southern audiences led to unauthorized publications that appeared in print before Emmett's authorized version. It became the unofficial anthem of the Confederate States of America—neither side had an official national anthem during the Civil War, (the "Star-Spangled Banner" was not adopted until 1931)—and it was played at Jefferson Davis's inauguration in Montgomery, Alabama. Perhaps no other song was rewritten as often during the Civil War; among the resettings were Southern versions expressing confidence in the Confederacy's military prowess, a Michigan call to arms bemoaning how the South had torn "our good old flag asunder," and a Republican salute to Lincoln's candidacy in the 1860 election. When he was serenaded by bands right after the South's surrender, President Lincoln requested that they play "Dixie," calling it "one of the best tunes I have ever heard," but by 1865 the song was too strongly attached to Confederate ideals to be comfortably reintegrated by the entire nation.


Cockrell, Dale. Excelsior: Journals of the Hutchinson Family Singers, 1842–1846. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon, 1989.

Crawford, Richard. The Civil War Songbook: Complete Original Sheet Music for Thirty-Seven Songs. New York: Dover, 1977.

Crawford, Richard. An Introduction to American Music. New York: Norton, 2001.

Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

Harwell, Richard B. Confederate Music. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1950.

Heaps, Willard A., and Heaps, Porter W. The Singing Sixties: The Spirit of Civil War Days Drawn from the Music of the Times. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.

Lawrence, Vera Brodsky. Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents: Harmonies and Discords of the First Hundred Years. New York: Macmillan, 1975.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952.

Internet Resources

Newsom, Jon. "The American Brass Band Movement: A Historical Overview." Available from <>.

"'We'll Sing to Abe Our Song!': Sheet Music about Lincoln, Emancipation, and the Civil War." Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana, Library of Congress. Available from <>.

Neil W. Lerner