Thursday, November 12, 2015

Music of the Civil War

"I don't think we could have an army without music."
General Robert E. Lee

On Remembrance Day, when I listened to the band play music from World War I and II, I got to thinking how important music was for morale... again. It was on my mind when I wrote Maggie's Story for Hazardous Unions too. In fact, many of the popular songs of that period continued to be popular through the world wars.

When Johnny Come Marching Home is a great example. The lyrics were written by Patrick Gilmore, an Irish-American band leader, and published in 1863. The music wasn't original but based on "a musical waif which I happened to hear somebody humming in the early days of the rebellion, and taking a fancy to it, wrote it down, dressed it up, gave it a name, and rhymed it into usefulness for a special purpose suited to the times." (Patrick Gilmore, Musical Herald, 1863)

In World War I, When Johnny Comes Marching Home was to American soldiers what It's a Long Way to Tipperary was to the British. We sang a variation on it in Girl Guides as The Ants Go Marching and it's been used seriously and ironically in movies countless times.

Speaking of irony, Dixie, the unofficial anthem of the South, was composed in the North for a minstrel show. It was one of the hits of the 1850's. It was a favourite of Abraham Lincoln who had it played at his first public event after the war.

After the first Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), Henry MacCarthy adapted an old Irish song to celebrate the Confederate victory. Bonnie Blue Flag was second only to Dixie in popularity in the South. If you every want the history of secession in a nutshell, you can get it by reading MacCarthy's lyrics.

First gallant South Carolina
Nobly made the stand,
Then came Alabama,
Who took her by the hand.
Next quickly Mississippi,
Georgia and Florida
All raised on high 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.

Ye men of valor, gather round
The banner of the right;
Texas and fair Louisiana
Join us in the fight.
Davis, our loved president,
And Stephens statesmen are;
Now rally round the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star.

(From Bonnie Blue Flag, Copyright by Benjamin R. Tubb (
The Music of the American Civil War (1861-1865)

"The New Orleans music publishing house of A.E. Blackmar issued six editions of The Bonnie Blue Flag between 1861 and 1864 along with three additional arrangements. The tune was so popular that Union General Benjamin Butler was said to have arrested and fined Blackmar for daring to publish it." (Civil War Music: Bonnie Blue Flag, Civil War Trust)

The Confederates were not the only borrowers. While Julia Ward Howe and her husband were visiting the Army of the Potomic encamped outside Washington, the Confederates attacked. She found the Union troops going into battle singing John Brown's Body very stirring, but she thought the lyrics needed work.

John Brown's Body was popular with Unionists who associated it with Abolitionist Activist John Brown, who was hung at Harper's Ferry in 1859. It's tune was, in turn, adapted from a Methodist hymn. Mrs. Ward's The Battle Hymn of the Republic outstripped the older song in popularity and continues to be a favourite patriotic song.

Some anthems were equally popular with the North and South. One of those was Battle Cry of Freedom. Originally written (lyrics and music) by George Frederick Root. The lyrics are, as you can see, abolitionist as well as patriotic to the Union cause.

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 traitors, up with the stars;
While we rally round the flag, boys, we rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

Composer H. L. Schreiner and lyricist W. H. Barnes then adapted it for the Confederacy.

Our flag is proudly floating on the land and on the main,
Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!
Beneath it oft we've conquered, and we'll conquer oft again!
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'll rally 'round the bonny flag, we'll rally once again,
Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!


These were the songs that marched soldiers into battle. Music was also an important part of camp life. But that's another story.

Note: While researching this article I listened to the video below. Produced by BBC Radio for the 100th anniversary of the American Civil War, it looks at the war and its music from both sides.

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