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“I don’t believe we can have an army without music.” —Robert E. Lee

“If we’d had your music, sir, we’d have whipped you out of your boots.” — A Confederate officer at Appomattox to his Union counterpart

civil war songs

It would be hard to overestimate the ubiquity and importance of music during the American Civil War. In the camps of both North and South, regimental bands regularly inspired, amused, and consoled soldiers, who on a daily basis faced the threat of death, both from the mysterious onslaught of disease, borne by bugs they could not see, and from the bullets and cannon-shot of the enemy, whom they saw all too clearly in the close-quarter combat of the era. Far from their homes, music provided a diversion from both loneliness and terror; on the march and in battle, it infused the men with a spirit of élan and commitment to their cause.

Music was equally important on the homefront. In an era when pianos were affordable to most middle-class homes—a new one could be purchased for as little as $125 and used ones for less—music filled the living rooms of houses on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Thousands of new songs about the conflict were written by scores of composers between 1861 and 1865, and sheet music for newly-minted pieces was made readily available at affordable prices by publishers. During the war, Northern presses published some 9,000-10,000 songs, and Southern ones between 600-700. The armies themselves served to advertise new songs to civilians, carrying this music with them as they marched across the land and holding concerts for civilians along the way. As in the cases of the men they missed, families found in music of the era a balm for their aching souls, which longed for the safe return of their fathers, sons, and brothers, and an end to the fratricidal conflict.

Below are ten of the greatest and most popular songs that were written during the Civil War. These songs were subjected to various arrangements both during and after the war, and their character and quality depend heavily on both the skill of the arranger and the performers. The performances below have been chosen carefully, offering, in this writer’s opinion, the best readily available online.

1. “John Brown’s Body” (words by various authors; music from the hymn “Say Brothers Will You Meet Us on Canaan’s Happy Shore”)

It was easily the most popular song among Yankee soldiers during the entire war, showing the power of music, when combined with words, to influence belief. One of the most difficult developments for historians of the Civil War to explain was the widespread adoption of the abolitionist agenda by Northerners mid-way through the war. At the war’s outset, Abraham Lincoln and the Republican party were careful to frame the conflict as a war to preserve the Union, as the vast majority of Yankees held what we would today call “racist” views of Africans (and other darker-skinned peoples). Abolitionists were generally seen as fanatics and kooks—after all, their idea of political action included things like holding meetings during which they burned copies of the Constitution—and before Fort Sumter, John Brown himself was viewed as a wild-eyed, murderous ruffian who well-deserved his execution by Virginia authorities in 1859. Few Union soldiers who marched south in 1861 would have done so had they had any inkling that they were fighting to free the black man.

“John Brown’s Body” changed all that. Originating in 1861 as a camp song meant to tease a soldier named John Brown, it was transformed into an anthem honoring the memory of the fiery abolitionist. Union soldiers throughout the country embraced it by the spring of 1862 and often sung it to irritate Southern soldiers and civilians, even if they themselves were lukewarm about abolition. Over time, however, the singing of the song itself led to changes in opinion, and by the time that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation transformed the war into a crusade to free the slaves, the hearts of the fighting men had been prepared.

Lyrics were added to “John Brown’s Body” during the course of the war, and in 1862 Northern poet Julia Ward Howe wrote a new title and entirely new set of words for the song, but, contrary to popular belief, her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” did not achieve widespread popularity until the war was over.

2. “The Battle Cry of Freedom” (words & music by George Frederick Root; Southern version with words by William H. Barnes) 

“The Battle Cry of Freedom” proved to be the second-most-popular song of the war in the North; indeed, among the civilian population it likely even surpassed what was probably the soldiers’ favorite, “John Brown’s Body.” Written by George Frederick Root, whose firm Root & Cady published more than 100 songs during the war, “The Battle Cry of Freedom” became an instant hit upon its creation in July of 1862.  Its stirring music combined with lyrics more high-toned than those of “John Brown’s Body” to create a powerful song that served as a rallying cry among both the troops and civilians, especially as the war seemed to drag endlessly on.

Yes we’ll rally round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom,
We will rally from the hillside, we’ll gather from the plain,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

The Union forever!  Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor, up with the star;
While we rally round the flag, boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

It was common for songs that were popular on one side of the Mason-Dixon Line to be adopted by the opposing section through the addition of new lyrics. This was done with “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” which was given Southern lyrics by William H. Barnes:

They have laid down their lives on the bloody battle field.
Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!
Their motto is resistance — “To tyrants we’ll not yield!”
Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom! —

Our Dixie forever!  She’s never at a loss!
Down with the eagle and up with the cross!
We will rally ‘round the flag, we’ll rally once again,
Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!

3. “The Bonnie Blue Flag” (words by Harry Macarthy; music from “The Irish Jaunting Car”)

In building anew its own national, cultural identity, the Confederacy felt the need to reject traditional American anthems like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Hail Columbia,” and “Yankee Doodle” and to develop songs emblematic of their cause. “Dixie,” which originated as a minstrel ditty on the eve of secession, was highly popular from the war’s outset, but many felt that its quaint lyrics lacked the requisite nobility of a proper national song. Inspired by the scene at the Mississippi secession convention in January 1861, Harry Macarthy, an English immigrant who had already made a name for himself as a comic performer in the South, wrote “The Bonnie Blue Flag” to a traditional Irish tune. The song well-articulated the not-yet-lost cause of the South in its first stanza:

We are a band of brothersBonnieBlueFlag
And native to the soil,
Fighting for the property
We gained by honest toil;
And when our rights were threatened,
The cry rose near and far–
“Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star!”

Hurrah! Hurrah!
For Southern rights hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star.

Macarthy later changed the third and fourth lines of the first stanza to “Fighting for our liberty/With treasure, blood, and toil, “an alteration that seemed to elevate the South’s cause from a mere defense of “property” to a noble defense of freedom itself. (It should be noted, however, that the term “property” would have interpreted by Americans at the time as including not only material goods such as slaves and land but also political rights.)

4. “Maryland, My Maryland” (words by James Ryder Randall; music from “Lauriger Horatius”)

Baltimore poet James Ryder Randall wrote the words to “Maryland, My Maryland” in April of 1861 in response to the bloody confrontation between Union soldiers of the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment and a pro-secessionist mob of Baltimore’s citizens, who tried to prevent the unit passing through their city on the way to defend Washington.

The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
Maryland, My Maryland!
His torch is at thy temple door,
Maryland, My Maryland!
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!

The fiery poem attempted to reassure Southerners that Maryland would indeed secede—though it never did, largely because the Lincoln Administration imprisoned many of the state’s legislators and instituted martial law. Randall’s poem was set by sisters Hetty and Jenny Cary of Baltimore to the music of the medieval Latin college song, “Lauriger Horatius” and became at least as popular in the South as “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag” in the early years of the war. Despite its politically incorrect lyrics—Abe Lincoln is referred to as a “tyrant” and “Vandal” and Northerners as “scum”—”Maryland, My Maryland”  remains the official song of the Free State.

5. “We Are Coming Father Abraham” (words by James Sloan Gibbons; music by Luther O. Emerson)

James Sloan Gibbons, a Quaker and an abolitionist, wrote this song in response to Abraham Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers in July of 1862. It was soon set to several different melodies, the most successful of which was that by Luther O. Emerson. The song strongly encouraged Northern enlistment and ranked just behind “John Brown’s Body” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom” in popularity in the North in the first half of the war.

6. “Grafted into the Army” (words & music by Henry Clay Work)

There were plenty of cynics who mocked the patriotic call to arms of “Father Abraham.” Like most wars, the American Civil War was a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight. In the North, a draftee could pay a fee of $300 to avoid conscription, his place being filled by some unknown and unlucky soul, who would be drafted instead, and who could not afford to pay for an exemption. A draftee could also hire a substitute for a lesser amount than $300, and many poor Northern men were persuaded in this way to put their lives at risk for cash. Songwriter Henry Clay Work poked fun at the system in a song that describes a poor man named Jimmy who is “grafted” (that is, bribed) into joining the army in this way.

Our Jimmy has gone for to live in a tent–grafted
They have grafted him into the army!
He finally puckered up courage and went,
When they grafted him into the army.
I told them the child was too young, alas!
At the captain’s forequarters, they said he would pass!
They’d train him up well in the infantry class–
So they grafted him into the army.

Oh, Jimmy, farewell! Your brothers fell
Way down in Alabarmy;
I thought they would spare a lone widder’s heir,
But they grafted him into the army!

7. “That’s What’s the Matter” (words & music by Stephen Foster)

The “father of American music,” Stephen Foster, wrote several songs about the war, the end of which he would not live to see (Foster died in 1864, penniless). “That’s What’s the Matter” (written in 1862) is typical of so many of Foster’s works: a lively, catchy tune combined with simple, yet memorable,  lyrics. The song, like Foster’s “Nothing But a Plain Old Soldier,” takes a lighthearted look at the conflict between North and South, in this case gently upbraiding the “rebel crew” for “storming the red, white, and blue” and reassuring nervous Northerners that “secession’s dodge is all played out.”

We live in hard and stirring times,
Too sad for mirth, too rough for rhymes;
For songs of peace have lost their chimes,
And that’s what’s the matter!
The men we held as brothers true
Have turned into a rebel crew;
So now we have to put them thro’,
And that’s what’s the matter!

That’s what’s the matter,
The rebels have to scatter;
We’ll make them flee, by land and sea,
And that’s what’s the matter!

8. “Tenting on the Old Campground” (words & music by Walter Kittredge)

Melancholy songs about the life of the soldier were popular around both campfire and fireplace. The most played was “Tenting on the Old Campground” (or “Tenting Tonight”), composed by a New Hampshire native, Walter Kittredge, who never actually served as a soldier. The song recounts the hardships of army life: separation from loved ones, the fatigue of marching and combat, the death of comrades. The climax of the song—which never fails to pierce the soul of the listener in a good performance—comes when the final two lines of the chorus are jarringly altered, from “Tenting tonight, tenting tonight/Tenting on the old camp ground” to “Dying tonight, dying tonight/Dying on the old camp ground.”

9. “Weeping Sad and Lonely” (words by Charles C. Sawyer, music by Henry Tucker)

Known also as “When This Cruel War Is Over,” this might have been the most popular song in all of America during the war, so deeply moving that several Union generals banned its performance in camp, lest it demoralize the troops and encourage desertions. The narrator of the song is a wife or girlfriend who mournfully bids farewell to her beloved: “Oft in dreams I see thee lying on the battle plain,/Lonely, wounded, even dying, calling but in vain.” More than a million copies of the sheet music for the song were sold in the North.

10. “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight” (words by Ethel Lynn Beers and music by John Hill Hewitt)

Protest songs often used humor and mockery, like “Grafted into the Army,” but they could also—perhaps more effectively—take the form of heartrending ballads, meditations on the death of soldiers that by their nature called into question the worth of war. One such well-known song was “The Vacant Chair,” but likely the most popular of these death songs was “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight,” which began as a poem by Northerner Ethel Lynn Beers, called “The Picket-Guard” and published in Harper’s Weekly in 1861. Southerner John Hill Hewitt set the poem to music of a compellingly haunting nature. it The poem tells of a lonely picket guard who is shot in the dark by a concealed rifleman. The narrator suggests with subtle yet bitter irony that the lowly private’s death will be forgotten in the story of the war:

‘Tis nothing—a private or two, now and then,
Will not count in the news of the battle;
Not an officer lost—only one of the men,
Moaning out, all alone, the death rattle.

Though in naming the river on the banks of which countless men marched and died,  “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight” tells the story of a specific time and a specific war, the song remains a timeless in its commentary on the tragedy of war, which consigns many common men not only to death, but to oblivion.

“While soft falls the dew on the face of the dead,
The picket’s off duty forever….”

For more on this topic see Christian McWhirter’s Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War and Willard Allison Heaps’ The Singing Sixties: The Spirit of Civil War Days Drawn from the Music of the Times. These books and others on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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6 replies to this post
  1. Down with the eagle and up with the cross! Those profound words bring tears to my eyes. I hope one day history will be understood through the lens of Truth!

    • Did you actually read the essay, sir? “Dixie” is discussed under #3 and was not included on this list since the criteria, clearly stated at the outset of the essay, included the requirement that songs must be ones “written during the Civil War.” As the essay mentions, “Dixie” was written pre-war. It’s always a good idea to read an entire essay before submitting a comment, lest you reveal that you are commenting out of ignorance of the essay’s actual content.

  2. I grew up in an area which hosts an annual reenactment, and from there developed a love for the music of the Civil War, the 19th century, and for folk music in general. An appreciation of folk and traditional music actually turned me into a conservative long before I read Russell Kirk. I used the music of the Civil War as the subject of my senior paper in college. Within the last few years I’ve been especially interested in the songs of the Irish, from both sides. The lyrics are *magnificent*. One on Youtube simply calls itself “The Song of the Irish Brigade”, and it is my favorite. There’s such *story* to it:

    “And frank souls there clear true and bare
    To all, as the steel beside them,
    Can love or hate withe the strength of Fate,
    Till the grave of the valiant hide them.
    Each seems to be mailed Ard Righ,
    whose sword’s avenging glory
    Must light the fight and smite for Right,
    Like Brian’s in olden story!

    With pale affright and panic flight
    Shall dastard Yankees base and hollow,
    Hear a Celtic race, from their battle place,
    Charge to the shout of “Faugh-a-ballaugh!”
    By the sould above, by the land we love
    Her tears bleeding patience
    The sledge is wrought that shall smash to naught
    The brazen liar of nations.”

    I have seen lyrics from both Union and Southern Irish troops that reference the Irish rebellion of 1798 — each side interpretation its cause as kin to their own.

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful material with TIC readers!

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