Just as in our modern culture, music shaped the daily lives of those who endured the hardships of the Civil War. And I’m not talking about the classical bits that would carry over from the previous century. I mean songs written just before and during the war. There are hundreds of songs, maybe even thousands, to have been penned by all different hands.
Soldier Songs (the obvious)
Life in the camps can be tedious and sometimes downright boring. Music, among other things, was a way to pass the time and (sometimes) boost morale amongst the troops. Soldiers might have come into the army with their own instruments, or they might have been directly employed by their government to act as the regimental band. The classic image of the fife-player and drummer leading their companies and brigades into battle was common.
Those songs that were sung on the marches would often have a distinct and exact rhythm that could help the soldiers keep in time with their steps. It also gave them something to think about besides the coming battle or missing their loved ones at home.
One such song that comes to mind is “Dixie” and “Bonnie Blue Flag”. The history and reputation of both songs have been so cemented in the iconic image of the Confederacy that it seems all other songs fall in their shadow. “Dixie” has its origins dated prior to the Civil War in the 1850s, but ironically the lyrics were written by an Ohio-born man by the name of Daniel Decatur Emmett. Others have claimed the rights to the lyrics, but this is the most popularly accepted author. However, variations have been written by both southern and northern citizens, either promoting their respective regions, or ridiculing the other. For example, Unionist lyrics paint the south as the losers of the war and the worst of places in the following variation: “Away down South in the land of traitors, Rattlesnakes and alligators, Right away, come away, right away, come away. Where cotton’s king and men are chattels, Union boys will win the battles, Right away, come away, right away, come away.”
“Bonnie Blue Flag” references to the first unofficial flag of the Confederacy, which lasted all of a few months in the early part of 1861. It was first flown by Mississippi after the state declared its secession, but became renowned by Harry Macarthy’s added lyrics to the contemporary melody of “The Irish Jaunting Car”. It premiered in Mississippi in the spring of 1861, but lyrics would evolve and change throughout the war. Even today, I find different versions – long and short – of this patriotic song.
You might hear songs that have the exact same tune as these and many more, while the words are altered to fit whatever the soldier or civilian wanted to talk about.
“Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” is a song that often passes through my mind when I’m trekking across battlefields today. Though it talks about being trapped in a prison after a battle, it has that constant marching cadence. Unlike the previous two, the music and lyrics were both created in 1864 by George F. Root.
Other camp songs sometimes had nothing to do with war or made light of their situation. “Goober Peas” is a favorite of mine, and I love stumping anyone who is willing to talk to me about the song, because few people think of boiled peanuts when they hear the term “goober peas”. Though it wasn’t officially published until 1866, it was most often song by southern soldiers in the last few days of the war when rations were low.
Speaking of rations, you can’t talk about the Civil War without mentioning hardtack, or sometimes called “hard crackers”. I’ll talk about “Hard Times” later in this post, but when you read about it, remember that even though that song is terribly depressing, soldiers took it and turned around the lyrics to be comical. “Hard Crackers” follows the same score, but changed the words just a smidge. “’Tis the song, the sigh of the hungry: ‘Hard tack, hard tack, come again no more.’ Many days you have lingered upon our stomachs sore. O, hard tack, come again no more!”
One song I like to sing to is “Mister, Here’s Your Mule!”. A little good-natured game between soldiers and farmers or sutlers (merchants) inspired this jaunt. As I said before, soldiers would do just about anything to help amuse themselves. I’ll let the song speak for itself. “A Farmer came to camp one day, With milk and eggs to sell, Upon a mule who oft would stray, To where no one could tell. The Farmer, tired of his tramp, For hours was made the fool, By everyone he met in camp, With “Mister, here’s your mule.”
Some songs, however, were barred from being sung around the campfires due to their tragic nature that could damage morale. Songs like “Just Before The Battle, Mother” which talks about the thoughts and intense emotions of the soldier who doesn’t want to die. “Farewell, mother, you may never press me to your heart again, but, oh, you’ll not forget me, mother, If I’m numbered with the slain.”
“Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground” which inspires homesickness – even in me! “Many are the hearts that are weary tonight, wishing for the war to cease. Many are the hearts that are looking for the right to see the dawn of peace.”
In opposite, some songs were written and publicized to endorse enlistment. “We Are coming, Father Abra’am” is a prime example. It was marketed in July of 1862 after a call from Abraham Lincoln for more troops (thanks to McClellan’s insistence during the 7 Days Battle). Though, it has its roots as a poem written by James S. Gibbons with eight different composers including Stephen Foster and William Cullen Bryant. By this time, many civilians and soldiers were already over the disillusion of war. It wasn’t glorious, and it certainly wasn’t short as many had predicted. By now, casualty figures were coming in from places like Shiloh and major naval battles were filling the headlines of newspapers on both sides.
One song that I particularly like for its story-quality is “Richmond is a Hard Road To Travel”. It goes from First Manassas all the way past Fredericksburg, and talks about the Yankee’s difficulty in piercing through Confederate defenses through various battles. It mentions military generals like McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Jackson, Johnston, and Beauregard. With its catchy tune, it can be a basic history lesson in itself.
Regiment/Nationality Specific Songs
Some songs were written specifically by or for a certain regiment or brigade in the armies. “Marching Song of the First Arkansas” steals the melody from “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, but the lyrics have been turned around to fit the regiment of the First Arkansas, which was a colored troop unit in the Union Army. Lines like “We have done with hoeing cotton, we have done with hoeing corn, We are colored Yankee soldiers, now, as sure as you are born; When the masters hear us yelling, they’ll think it’s Gabriel’s horn, As we go marching on” make it a dead giveaway. Again, this was to bolster morale and pride in their unit.
America at that time was a massive melting pot of nationalities. On both sides, Germans and Irish were common to see. Often times, they were all put together in their own regiments, or were enlisted from the same town that might have been populated by that nationality. “Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade” talks about the fictitious Patrick Murphy and how he died in battle. Which Irish Brigade he was part of, however, isn’t specified. There were quite a few regiments and brigades noted as being “Irish”, including one from Louisiana.
Other songs tell of the bravery exhibited during a battle or engagement, like in “The Cumberland and the Merrimac”. Among many military advancements, the invention of the “Iron Sides” became something like an arms race between the Yankees and Rebels. Both navies could boast about their ironclad vessels that deflected cannonballs left and right. And though the Cumberland (Union) was sunk by the Merrimac (Confederate ironclad), the song lyrics tell of the noble and gallant behavior of the Cumberland crew and captain in the face of uneven odds.
“Marching Through Georgia” might have been made well-known by the actor singing its ballad in the movie “Gone With The Wind”. It was sung mostly by veteran Union soldiers. Sometimes by those who weren’t even with Sherman during that most infamous raid across Georgia. Henry Clay Work is its author and composer, and the sheet music was first published in 1865. Though it glorifies what General William T. Sherman did in his march from Atlanta to Savannah, the renown war hero came to resent the song, since it was played at almost all of his public speaking engagements. The song reminds us that the march was a bit of a double-edged sword. While Sherman did raid and pillage through much of Georgia, bringing the war far too close to home for many of its civilians, it talks about how the Union army freed slaves and rescued fellow Union prisoners from military prisons across the region. “Yes and there were Union men who wept with joyful tears, When they saw the honored flag they had not seen for years; Hardly could they be restrained from breaking forth in cheers, While we were marching through Georgia.”
Just like the songs sung within the army, those at home struck up tunes of their own to help them cope with the war. And also like the army songs, the collection is packed with both sad and joyful ditties.
I think one song overlooked, but perfectly poignant to the attitude of the typical Southern civilian, is “The Southern Soldier Boy”. Written in 1863 by a Captain G.W. Alexander to the tune of “The Boy With the Auburn Hair”, it talks about the longing for the son/father/sweetheart who is away, but ends on a triumphant note that “Southerners never yield”. It doesn’t leave out the loss and sadness of those who mourn for the fallen, but it can be a perfect example of the pride still held by the south, even in 1863 when things were coming to their worst.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Just as famous as “Dixie”, it’s become the song of the Union and indeed, the song of the United States to this day next to the “Star Spangled Banner”. It’s birth, as well as its many variations, gathered throughout the century leading up to the Civil War. The chorus of “Glory, Hallelujah” came about during the early part of the 1800s at Protestant camp meetings. In 1856 after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, the tune was taken and modified into the morbid rendition of “John Brown’s Body”. Regimental leaders tried to stop their men from singing this irreverent tune, but to no avail and it grew in popularity across the Union. We have a woman to thank for putting that rendition to rest by early 1862.
A lady by the name of Julia Ward Howe was accompanied by her friend, The Reverend James Freeman Clarke, during a review of the 2nd Infantry Battalion of the Massachusetts militia, known as the “Tiger” Battalion in Murray, Kentucky. The men began to sing about John Brown’s body rotting in the grave, and Julia made a comment about its crudeness. Her friend suggested that she create new lyrics for the men. And she did. In November of 1861, she woke up one morning and began thinking of the song we know today as “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Written by a civilian, but adored by the army, I wonder if she knew that her song would withstand the test of time and become so famous. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on.”
“When Johnny Comes Marching Home” was another 1863 song to cheer the spirits of those wives, daughters, and sisters waiting at home. We know the melody today as “The Ants Go Marching”, but in the 1860s, it helped to keep the minds of the civilians in the positive, saying what they would do when their brave soldiers came home alive and not in a coffin.
Other songs were not so bolstering or cheerful. As morbid as I can be, some of these songs bring a tear to my eye. “Somebody’s Darling” especially gets me moving, thinking about the casualties and that with each number, there’s a family member who would never see that soldier again. It makes real the idea that these statistics are not just numbers. They’re hearts and souls that die upon the battlefield. Though it was written by Marie Ravenal de la Coste in 1864, it resonates today and becomes something of an Anti-War Song that transcends time. “Somebody’s watching and waiting for him, Yearning to hold him again to her breast; Yet there he lies with his blue eyes so dim, And purple, child-like lips half apart. Tenderly bury the fair, unknown dead, Pausing to drop on his grave a tear; Carve on the wooden slab over his head, ‘Somebody’s darling is slumbering here.’”
Another song that surpassed its own time was “Hard Times Come Again No More”, written by Stephen Foster in 1854. Secession, by that year, might not have even been a solid thought in the minds of the south, but the struggles of hardship and poverty were not far. I can imagine this song was sung almost as a prayer in the south as it was being steadily cut off from supplies by the Union blockade and encroaching armies. “While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay, There are frail forms fainting at the door; Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say Oh! Hard times come again no more.”
One thing that persisted through the first half of the 19th century were the multitude of songs and hymns sung by the negro slaves in the south (and north). This didn’t change once the war started, but the attitudes did. Songs were sometimes melancholy in nature, singing of their woeful and unjust situations. Others were written and sung to relay codes and messages to those who were looking to escape from slavery. “Follow The Drinking Gourd” is in direct reference to the North Star and the Big Dipper, whose constellation it belongs to. Songs like these gave directions to fellow slaves right under the noses of their masters and overseers.
Some songs were also gospel or religious in nature, and “Kingdom Coming”, also known as “Year of Jubilo” might lend to some of that religious sentiment. According to the Old Testament, the “Year of Jubilee” was when all bondservants and slaves were released from their masters. In late 1862, Lincoln gave his announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that all slaves within the regions in rebellion against the Union would be forever made free. The condition of this was that the area had to be captured by the Union, but by the time it was in effect in the beginning of 1863, this encompassed much of the south, especially along the Mississippi River. The song itself is sung from the perspective of the slave who was left upon the plantation after their master had run at the sight of “Lincoln’s gunboats”. It takes a comical approach to the effects of the proclamation.
One song “Give Us A Flag” voices the frustrations of those free colored men who wanted to serve in the Union Army. Contrary to popular belief, the idea of allowing colored troops into the army on either side was controversial. McClellan and Grant himself were not fans of the idea, and even Sherman was nowhere near sympathetic to the abolitionist movements. On the Confederate side, Jefferson Davis made another call that would intimidate colored men from joining the Union cause by saying that any black man captured during a battle would not be taken prisoner, but killed on the spot. Despite this, the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment was enlisted and this song is said to have been sung by them. “Oh, give us a flag, All free without a slave; We’ll fight to defend it as our fathers did so brave; The gallant Comp’ny “A”, Will make the rebels dance, And we’ll stand by the Union if we only have a chance.”
It’s not often that a song from this era is remade by a contemporary artist, but “No More Auction Block” has struck in the hearts of many artists in the 20th century, including Bob Dylan. Its lyrics are short, simple, but stirring in its sentiment. Slaves during the Civil War, or even prior, could identify with the end-goal of escaping bondage, to never be put up for auction again, to never have to feel the lash of the whip, or toil without proper compensation. By the end of the war, all colored peoples could sing this song with pride and joyful tears in their eyes. For them, their dream of freedom had finally come true.
I’d like to end this blog with one of my ultimate favorite 19th century song that, like others, was written prior to the start of the war. It doesn’t talk about war, slavery, hardships, or death. Written in 1856 by Reverend Henry D. L. Webster, it talks about a love gone sour. Not because one of them died in a brutal and bloody conflict, but because their hearts fell away from one another. The singer of the song looks back upon the love they shared. It’s just a heartfelt tune that almost everyone, soldier and civilian, would have known. To me, it’s the songs that give a glimpse into the culture of a time that gives the era the most meaning and significance. It’s like today, how almost everyone knows the Queen song “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”. “Lorena” helps to give context to the attitudes of the people.