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)  

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I have heard the song WHEN JOHNNIE COMES MARCHING HOME sung like a dirge.
    When I have a working computer I will have to rewrite the article I was working on with photos from the civil war reenactment…

  2. I guess that song can be sung mournfully, but I remember it best as my mother played it on the piano. Like a joyful march with a martial beat. I’m going to love reading your article when it’s ready.

  3. I can’t wait to see your wonderful book Alice!!! It remains a mystery until I see it in print. Love the theme of it and want to READ it myself!

    • I can’t wait either. The hard copy should be available soon. Thank you for your enthusiastic response.

  4. I’m reading the book now, and I love how you have used lyrics for the chapter epigraphs. So many are familiar. I have family from both sides. Beth

    • So glad to hear you like the lyrics that form the epigraphs for each chapter. Music can often say what the heart knows but the mouth cannot speak.

  5. I love how you pull us into the past. That’s an interesting tidbit about Love Me Tender.

    • Thanks, Lisa. The really good themes in many musical genres are recycled for a new I guess it’s a kind of “history repeating itself.”

  6. This was a wonderful and thoughtful post. I write to Civil War music. It instantly transports me back in time. I will definitely have to buy your book!

    • A soul mate! I played Civil War music all the time as I was writing Volunteer for Glory! Now how do I get copies of your books?

  7. Hey, you know that Karen is on her way to Gettysburg now, right? We should have given her some of your bookmarks to drop in strategic touristy places!

    Great post!

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