If there are any songs the modern ear would associate with the Civil War, it would be one of three: “Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe, “Dixie,” and Ashokan Farewell. The first two were actually composed and sung during the Civil War. “Ashokan Farewell,” however, was composed in 1982 by Jay Ungar and his wife Molly Mason. Its plaintive music sounds like it should have been a Civil War song, but it was actually used as the soundtrack for the 1990 PBS television miniseries The Civil War by Ken Burns.
I spent some time looking at the music and songs of the Civil War, and quickly learned that “plaintive” music was not on the agenda of either the Union or the Confederacy. Instead, the music was military marches, rousing fight songs, and music to remind the soldiers (on both sides) what they were fighting for. “Plaintive” only arrived long afterward, as people began to understand what the war had actually cost.
Both sides maintained regimental bands.
Songs really sung or music played during the Civil War include “Southern Soldier,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (1862), “Battle Cry of Freedom” (1862) “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning,” “Goober Peas,” “Old 1812,” “Gary Owen,” “Kingdom Coming,” “Dixie,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Song of the Confederate Irish Brigade,” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag” (1861), also known as “We Are a Band of Brothers.”
“Dixie” had been written and first performed in 1859, but it was adapted into a military quickstep for the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy. It was Davis who said it should be the Confederacy’s official anthem. A number of alternative (and more militaristic) versions were written during the war.
In addition to “Dixie,” many of the popular songs were updated versions of older military and war music. And it’s not surprising to see the number of Irish tunes sung by both sides, given the presence of Irish immigrants in the armies. Many of the songs were originally sung in the 18th century; “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning” was composed in the late 1700s and its composer is believed to have been not an Irishman but a Scot.
“Battle Hymn of the Republic” has an interesting history. It began its life as a religious camp meeting hymn, “Oh, brother, will you meet us on Canaan’s happy shore.” Then it evolved into “John Brown’s Body,” the song about the famous (or infamous) abolitionist who staged the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. In 1861, Julia Ward Howe wrote a poem for The Atlantic Monthly, for which she was paid $5. The magazine gave it the title of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was set to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” and the rest is history.
Music on the Confederate side followed the progress of the war. Initially, with a string of Southern victories, songs were written to celebrate each battle. After the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, no more specific battle songs were composed. Instead, songs like “Goober Peas” (also known as peanuts) appeared, with lyrics about the dietary privations of both military and civilian life in the South. Music to support the war was reproduced and distributed widely by both Northern and Southern music publishers. But after 1863, music distribution in the South was increasingly hampered by a shortage of paper.
A number of familiar hymns were composed and sung during the war. These include “He Leadeth Me” (1862), “My Jesus, I Love Thee” (1864), “Shall We Gather at the River” (1864), “Day by Day” (865), and many more.
Top illustration: The federal 8th Regiment Band during the Civil War.