How we boys used to yell at the band for music to cheer us up…. That good old tune we called “Hell on the Rappahannock” had enough music in it to make a man who was just about dead brace up, throw his chest out, and take the step as if he had received a new lease on life.

–from Music on the March, Frank Rauscher


Civil War music faithfully records the vivid emotional history of a nation divided. The military, sentimental, spiritual, and comic songs written or refitted for use from 1860 to 1865 bear a common feature: whether derivative or original, these songs sound the notes of patriotism, hope, suffering, loss and affection, with genuine feeling. More even than battle chronicles and personal memoirs, they convey a sense of the war’s effect on soldiers and civilians alike. These songs have still enough music in them to bring alive again the battlefields and campgrounds, the conscription rallies, the churches, and the front parlors back home, to recreate in unerring and almost magical ways the places where the war was fought and the lives of the thirty-one million Americans who fought it.

Of the great round of military and patriotic songs sung during the war, most set new lyrics to already popular tunes. “Yankee Doodle,” “John Brown’s Body,” “The Irish Jaunting Car,” “Dixie” and even the French “La Marseilles” were fitted with appropriate lyrics and pressed into service, often on both sides. As their popularity grew, these songs frequently created influences of their own. The tune of “John Brown’s Body,” for example, has folk origins as an English drinking song and arrived in America in the form of a Methodist hymn composed by Charles Wesley. From a focus on the famous abolitionist of Harper’s Ferry, the song’s subject shifted derisively to one Sergeant John Brown of the Twelfth Massachusetts Infantry. It was this version that was overheard by Julia Ward Howe in Washington on November 17, 1861; that evening, inspired, she wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” so perfect a blend of poetry and martial rhythms that it almost immediately became the national war song of the North. “Maryland, My Maryland,” “We Are Coming, Father Abraham,” “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and “The Southern Marsellaise” are among the many standards composed in this way.

Sentimental songs, the second largest category of derivative music, played upon the softer sensibilities associated with war. Union and Confederate soldiers sang “Home Sweet Home,” “Annie Laurie,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” and “Bonnie Eloise,” the lyrics provided by cheap, pocket-sized songbooks. Undeniably maudlin to some degree, these songs nonetheless capture the homesickness, the pain of leave-taking, and the pathos of separation, perhaps final, from loved ones. Original songs about the details of military life also plucked heartstrings: soldiers “Tenting On The Old Camp Ground” sang “Just Before The Battle, Mother” and wondered, “Do They Miss Me At Home?” And their families wondered, “Brother, When Will You Come Back?” or sat gravely at table, their numbers reduced by one, “The Vacant Chair” his only legacy. So mournful were these melodies that singing them at the front was frequently forbidden by commanders who quickly noted how dispiriting they could be.

At the same time, an unquenchable spirit of fun often turned maudlin or patriotic sentiments into parodies and comic variations. “When This Cruel Draft Is Over” playfully usurped one of the war’s most popular and poignant tunes, “When This Cruel War is Over” (“Weeping Sad and Lonely”), and “Do They Miss Me At Home?” became “Do They Miss Me In The Trench?”, a song about the high rate of desertion in both armies. Earthier by far were songs like “The Graybacks So Tenderly Clinging,” which lamented the ever-present lice or cooties, and “The Leg I Left Behind Me,” a legacy of the Spanish-American War. No person–president or private–or subject–motherhood or the moment of death on the battlefield–was too sacred. Nonsense songs were equally popular. “Root Hog Or Die,” “That Bugler; or, The Upidee Song,” and “Co-Ca-Che-Lunk; or, The Camp War Song” helped pass lonely evenings and lighten long marches. And dialect songs–”I Goes to Fit Mit Sigel,” “Who Will Care For Mickey Now?”, “Kingdom Coming” and the like–form a gleeful chorus of various ethnic groups with a special investment in the freedom from oppression promised by both sides.

Songs addressing the issues of slavery and the conscription and fate of black soldiers swelled an already large group of abolitionist songs as the war progressed. Their preeminent theme–deliverance–sometimes takes on religious overtones, as in “Go Down, Moses” and “Steal Away,” and sometimes martial, as in “The Marching Song of The First Arkansas Regiment” and “Give Us The Flag.” This last concludes with a tribute to the men of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, which proved famously at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, the black soldier’s courage in battle. Dissatisfaction, determination, and the desire for equal rights are the keynotes of these songs.

Clearly, Northern songwriters and publishers surpassed their Confederate rivals in the South for musical supremacy. By the 1860’s Stephen Foster’s idyllic South had disappeared and his creative powers had diminished, but the well-known northern composer nonetheless contributed nineteen songs ranging from the patriotic to the sentimental. “Better Times Are Coming,” “Captain Foote,” “I’m Nothing But A Plain Old Soldier,” and “That’s What’s The Matter” air his decidedly democratic and Unionist views; “Give This To Mother,” about a token sent home from a dying soldier, is conspicuously in a softer mode and is the composer’s final word: he died three days after its publication.

More notable is the work of George F. Root and Henry Clay Work, whose creative powers peaked during the war. A zealous abolitionist and dedicated compiler of church hymns, Root contributed forty songs to the war effort, including the Union’s first hit, “The First Gun Is Fired,” on April 18, 1861. His “The Battle Cry of Freedom” was so well received that many argued for its adoption as the national anthem. “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” concerns the plight of prisoners of war, and “Just Before The Battle, Mother” is one of the war’s finest sentimental songs. The pervasive influence of Root’s music is neatly summarized in Lincoln’s tribute to him: “You have done more than a hundred generals and a thousand orators.”

Also writing for the Chicago publishers Root and Cady, Henry Clay Work specialized in dialect songs which gave vent to his deeply felt abolitionism. Foremost among them was “Kingdom Coming,” a rollicking and infectious tune which rejoices in Massa’s skedaddling in the face of “Linkum’s gumboats” and offers a humorous salute to “de year ob Jubilo!” Black troops marched to it; politicians sang it at Lincoln’s re-election rallies; Confederates withdrawing from Petersburg sang a version of it. But Work’s most enduring song is unquestionably “Marching Through Georgia,” a rousing battle song and regimental march much loathed by Georgians to this day. Along with Foster and Root, Work created a new style of American freedom song, the influence of which rings clearly in the later compositions of John Philip Sousa, George M. Cohen, and Irving Berlin.

Music, it has been said, is the soul of Mars, a sentiment certainly shared by Robert E. Lee, who remarked, “I do not believe we could have an army without music.” The extent to which songs were integral to the spirit of the American Civil War–to its passion and romantic idealism–is captured in James Reuben Thompson’s poem, “Music in Camp,” written after the bloody Confederate victory at Fredericksburg in 1862. On the banks of the Rappahannock at sunset one evening, a Yankee band strikes up “Dixie” and “Yankee Doodle” to the boisterous delight of the gathered armies. But when “Home, Sweet Home” is played, visions of “the cottage ‘neath the live-oak trees,” and of loved ones dimly seen through tear-mists “subdued the sternest Yankee’s heart,/ Made light the Rebel’s slumbers.” The poem concludes with this tribute:

And fair the form of Music shines
That bright, celestial creature,
Who still, ‘mid War’s embattled lines,
Gave this one touch of Nature.

Civil War songs have enough music in them to tell the passionate secrets of a nation divided by war but still somehow unified in spirit.