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)