Music of the Civil War

The ethos and emotions of a society are often best expressed through their music. In that spirit, I invite you to travel (enter the time machine, step this way) to the 1860’s when our nation was divided. Stepping off the train, we see horse-drawn carts and buggies, women in bonnets and full skirts. Men wearing uniforms of blue, gray, or butternut fill the streets. Some hobble on crutches.  Others have an empty sleeve pinned to their jackets. The tunes that fill the air seem almost identical, whether we disembark at Richmond or Washington D.C.

The prevailing mood is one of sentimentality and patriotism. Opposing views of the war seem epitomized by the north’s Battle Hymn of the Republic, and the south’s Bonnie Blue Flag. Their messages may be different, but the melodies are rooted in 19th Century culture. Dixie, identified with the Confederacy, was as popular in the north as in the south. Federal troops, sent to reinforce Grant’s army at Shiloh, marched off their transports at Pittsburgh Landing to the music of none other than Dixie.

Other selections may not be as recognizable to the modern ear as Dixie, but there are a few.  For instance, Home Sweet Home was sung the night before the Battle of Stone’s River. Opposing regimental bands serenaded each other across the water, and soldiers of both armies wept.

If you listen carefully, you might catch part of a familiar melody. But the words are different. “Aura Lee, Aura Lee, maid of golden hair, sunshine came along with you and swallows in the air.” Oh yes! You’re remembering Elvis Presley singing Love Me Tender. The same tune. Different words.

Most popular songs of the Civil War betray the heartache of soldiers and those left behind. You don’t have to sing the lyrics to feel their sentiments. The titles are enough.  The Vacant Chair. Just Before the Battle, Mother. Praying When This Cruel War is Over. The Dying Volunteer. The Faded Coat of Blue. Brother, Tell Me of the Battle. 

As we bring our trip to a close, let us re-board the train and listen to a song written in 1868 after the war’s end. The lyrics embody the memory and heartbreak of those terrible years. “I cannot sing the old songs, or dream those dreams again, for heart and voice would fail me, and foolish tears would flow—”

Even as I settle into the present, I hear the echoes of another song, one that has played Civil War veterans as well as those of subsequent conflicts into a real or fancied glory.  “When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah, hurrah.”


Published in: on April 25, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (11)  

Countdown to the Civil War: April 15, 1861

President Lincoln declares a state of insurrection and calls for 75,000 volunteers. Patriotic speeches and music are heard in public gatherings, and newspaper editors dip their pens in flaming prose.

Rachel Norcross’s Diary, April 15, 1861:

I do not know what to do with myself now that war has been declared.  Stuart is sure to leave in the very near future, and the matter of spring plowing now seems of little moment. Every thought is subject to comparison against the fact of his leaving. I am ashamed to only consider my own situation when so many others will suffer the same fate, with possibly much worse to come.

Published in: on April 15, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (4)  
Tags: , ,

Countdown to the Civil War: April 14, 1861

Fort Sumter officially surrenders in a ceremony accompanied by Confederate flags and drums. Unfortunately one Union soldier is killed due to an accidental explosion and five others are wounded, one fatally. As the news of the evacuation spreads, a kind of relief floods the country. The south is jubilant, and the north, with war now a certainty, prepares for action.

Rachel Norcross’s Diary,  April 14, 1861:

When Stuart came home yesterday, he was full of elation while I was equally downcast.  It appears Fort Sumter has all but surrendered, and if so, war is upon us.  Adding to my fears, the hot heads in town have prevailed upon Stuart to become the captain of a cavalry troop, and he is full of pride and excitement.

Today we will likely hear the very latest news.  Stuart says the church will be used as a public forum to galvanize the war effort. Afterward he plans to attend an impromptu drill at Jansen’s.

Published in: on April 14, 2011 at 11:15 am  Comments (4)  
Tags: , ,

Countdown to the Civil War: April 13, 1861

After 34 hours of Confederate bombardment, Fort Sumter surrenders. The faint hope exists that federal ships will complete their rescue mission is dashed when the heat of the continuing battle prevents them from entering the harbor. Washington receives no conformation of shots fired, leaving Lincoln uninformed of the true situation.

Rachel Norcross’s Diary,  April 13, 1861:

Stuart has abandoned his attempt at plowing.  Horse and plow are in the barn, and he is on his way to town.  And yet, I can’t blame him too much, for the ground is heavy and wet.  I must occupy myself with mending until he returns.

Published in: on April 13, 2011 at 12:00 pm  Comments (4)  
Tags: , ,

Countdown to the Civil War: April 12, 1861

Again the Confederates demand surrender of the Fort and again Anderson refuses.  However, should supplies or further orders not be received, Anderson said he would stand down on the 15th.. Opposing forces, however, are cognizant that waiting only increases the probability that reinforcing federal ships will intervene.  At 4:30 a.m. the first Confederate battery at Fort Johnson opens fire, bringing Charleston residents from their beds as noise of the assault rings through the city.

Rachel Norcross’s Diary, April 12, 1861 :

I am still not through with the wretched business of cleaning the chicken coop.  Who would have thought a dozen hens and one, no two, roosters, could make such a mess!  Of course, it is months’ worth.  My back aches from lifting that bucket and staggering to the garden spot.  My little mounds of fertilizer look very poor indeed.  Stuart tries to placate me now, saying he will begin plowing tomorrow.  This despite the fact that close examination shows the ground really is too wet to turn easily.

Published in: on April 12, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

Countdown to the Civil War: April 11, 1861

General Beauregard arrives at Fort Sumter under a white flag where he demands full surrender and evacuation. Robert Anderson refuses, though he mentions that barring fresh supplies, they will soon be starved out. Privy to this information, the Confederate Secretary of War, advises Beauregard not to begin bombardment of the fort, but to wait for its inevitable surrender.

Rachel Norcross’s Diary, April 11, 1861:

Stuart is off to town, saying that until the soil has dried out, there is nothing more he can do.  I find this very irritating because even if he can’t begin plowing, he could spend a little time making sure the harnesses are oiled and the plow sharpened.  And he should see to cleaning the chicken coop.  I guess I can begin that chore and carry the droppings to what will be my kitchen garden.  I had hoped he might express concern about such unaccustomed work in my condition, but he only smiled and told me to let it wait. That, when he knows me well enough to be certain I am past waiting! I worry that I have become a nag, but cannot seem to control my tongue.

Published in: on April 11, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

Countdown to the Civil War: April 10, 1861

Confederate Secretary of War, Leroy Walker, telegraphs General Beauregard in Charleston to immediately demand that Union forces evacuate Fort Sumter.

The U.S.S. Pawnee proceeds toward Sumter with supplies.

Rachel Norcross’s Diary,  April 10, 1861:

I am feeling a bit more cheerful today and all because Stuart stayed home and began sketching plans for our first crops.  We had already discussed what to plant and where with the Westbrooks, but seeing Stuart actually engaged in drawing squares of land and penciling in proposed crops made my heart lighter.  Is it possible I have been unduly fearful?  Later he wooed me with tender kisses, but of that I will write no more.

Published in: on April 10, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (6)  
Tags: ,

Countdown to the Civil War: April 9, 1861

Wall Street appears to be in crisis.  Traders view an almost deserted market.  Confidence seems at an all time low as investors focus their attention on the future of the nation.

In Washington, President Lincoln is besieged with telegrams, begging him to not surrender Fort Sumter.

Rachel’s Diary:  April 9, 1861:

Though I am but five months gone with child, I wonder if he (I am certain it is a boy) will ever know his father. I will not, for one moment, let Stuart believe I will release him from his promise, but I must face the likelihood he will be not be present for the birth. When Elsa is fully recovered, I will ask her advice on what I must do to prepare myself. She has spoken of a midwife, but I believe I would prefer to have Dr. Bennett attend me.

Published in: on April 9, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (5)  
Tags: , ,

Countdown to the Civil War: April 8, 1861

News on this date is that the state of Georgia has seized the United States Mint located in Dahionega. President Lincoln’s message to the governor of South Carolina stating his intention to peacefully supply provisions to Fort Sumter was delivered. Having received an erroneous report that the war had started, Confederate troops were ordered to their stations in Charleston.

Rachel Norcross’s diary, April 8, 1861:

Another day of watching the weather and dreading a return of showers, for that will delay putting in a crop.  And if Stuart leaves before that is done, it will be the worse for me.  I have counted my small cache of money to assure myself that the baby and I will survive, even if this wretched war takes my husband away.

Published in: on April 8, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

Countdown to the Civil War: April 7, 1861

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding southern troops in South Carolina, issued an order prohibiting federal access to Fort Sumter.  By doing so, he placed the Fort under siege for the occupants were desperate for fresh supplies.  Additionally, he informed Captain Anderson who was in charge at the Fort, communications between the Fort and the city of Charleston would not longer be permitted.

Rachel’s Norcross’s Diary, April 7, 1861

Stuart tells me that he saw Jared Westbrook pacing off a field near the road.  The farm is still in quarantine although no one else has taken ill.  Jared, Stuart tells me, sends me his regards and wishes to report that Elsa is holding her own, having successfully survived the fever crisis.

Published in: on April 7, 2011 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,