Civil War Music William Carrington 11th grade US History
Both North and South used music extensively during the Civil War. Troops in both armies used songs for entertainment, to make a march go by easier, and many other reasons. Frequently, both sides would borrow each other’s tunes or lyrics. Many were borrowed from other countries and particularly Ireland. It was not uncommon for each side to serenade the other, and there were regimental bands throughout both armies. One such band was the regimental band of the 26th NC Troops, which still exists today as the Moravian Band in Winston Salem, NC.
North Carolina’s official state song was adopted because the 11th and 26th regimental bands serenaded the NC Troops just before Picket’s Charge on the third day at Gettysburg. After the war the UDC ladies lobbied to have the song adopted by the state legislature.
Two of the most famous Civil War era songs we know today are “Dixie” and Julia Ward Howe’s "Battle Hymn of the Republic", which used the tune of the song, "John Brown’s Body". However, there were many other songs that both sides knew as well or better. Many other songs were also popular, not only among the troops but by the population back home as well. Robert E. Lee once remarked that without music, there would have been no army. An unknown Confederate soldier during the surrender at Appomattox said to a union guard that they won because the North had livelier and better songs.
It is appropriate to note here that the songs ”Dixie” and “Richmond Was A Hard Road To Travel,” were written by Dan Emmett, a minstrel show entertainer and musician in the North. Emmett also wrote the bugle, fife, and drum calls used to direct the troops on both sides. Harry McCarthy, a southern musician and comedian wrote the “Bonnie Blue Flag” to an old Irish tune, which became the most popular marching song of the Confederate forces. Julia Howe, who wrote the “Battle Hymn Of The Republic,” was a religious fanatic and fierce abolitionist who admired John Brown and believed that virtually all Southerners should be put to the sword, as Brown had done to his victims in Kansas.
For our purposes here we will examine the lyrics of just a few of the songs and compare the Northern and Southern versions to get a better idea of the different feelings, beliefs, and attitudes of the soldiers in the field.
In this web activity, students will examine lyrics of songs of both sides, and make conclusions about the lyrics and the mindset of the people who popularized them.
Resources for this Lesson
Several songs (and/or variations of these songs) will be used in this lesson. Lyrics for songs (as well as MIDI files of some of the tunes) are listed on the websites where each song is to be found.
Many lyrics can be found on a site entitled "Poetry and Music of the War Between the States"
• By studying the music we will attempt to understand the impact of the Civil War on social issues on the home front and on the battlefield; the human costs of the war and the degree to which the nation was divided.
• Perhaps in some way we can understand through the lyrics how the Civil War influenced Northern and Southern society on the home front.
Once you have completed this exercise we will discuss these songs in class and do a comparison to later songs during times of crisis and their relevance to songs of today such as the popularity of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA,” rereleased after 9-11 even though it had been written more than 20 years earlier.
Investigate the origin of the word "Dixie". Some related web sites that may be used in this investigation are:
Questions for Civil War Music
The major focus of the war efforts on the part of the Union Army was to take away the river trade routes such as the Mississippi from the Confederacy in the west and in the eastern half of the conflict to capture Richmond, VA.
Examine the lyrics of “Richmond Was A Hard Road To Travel” and answer the following question.
-What do the lyrics of the song say about the war effort during the first two years of the conflict?
Compare the lyrics for "Battle Cry of Freedom", and answer the following questions.
-In the first stanzas of the two versions of the song, what seems to be the main difference between them?
[The Southern version of the song seems to infer that the Confederates have taken the offense to advance their cause ("Beneath it oft we’ve conquered, And we’ll conquer oft again!") The Union version seems to be more peaceful… the use of the word "rally" compared to conquer, gathering, etc.]
-What does the Southern version mean by "Down with the Eagle, And Up with the Cross"?
[Some Southern flags had crosses on them, so it may mean they wanted to support the "Battle Flag" of the Confederacy over the American Eagle.]
- Summarize the meaning of the third stanza of the Northern version of the song, which begins, "We will welcome to our numbers…"
[This stanza seems to equate the fight between north and south to the issue of slavery, especially when the author notes, "not a man shall be a slave, shouting the battle cry of Freedom."]
- How do you think the Southern version of the song symbolizes the Confederate cause?
[Answers vary. At several points in the song, the lyrics promote the Southern idea, such as "Down with the eagle, up with the cross", "rally round the bonny flag", as well as "their motto is resistance—to tyrants we’ll not yield…"]
- How do you think the Northern version of the song symbolizes the Union cause?
[Answers vary. At several points in the song, the lyrics promote the Northern cause, such as "The Union Forever…" "Not a man shall be a slave…" "From the East to the West", "We’ll hurl the rebel crew from the land that we love best…"]
Compare the lyrics for "Dixie’s Land (Dixie)" and, "Union Dixie" and answer the following questions.
- While neither the United States nor the Confederate States of America had an official "national anthem" The "Star Spangled Banner" did not become the nation’s anthem until 1931, "Dixie’s Land" (or" Dixie", as it is more commonly known) was truly a "national song". What aspects of the song might make it significant in regard to the Confederate cause? Note: The more military version of Dixie was written by Albert Pike who has been in the news lately over the newest Dan Brown book about the Freemasons. Pike almost single handedly kept the Masons in existence in the late 19th century and is the only person ever buried in the Scottish Rite temple in Washington DC, and the only Confederate officer to have an outdoor statue in the nation’s capital.
- How does the song "Union Dixie" (in the first stanza) describe the South?
[The author notes the South as "the land of traitors, rattlesnakes, and alligators". He (or she) notes also (it’s the land) "where cotton’s king and men are chattels (property)"…]
- While the first verse and chorus of "Dixie" are well known, the rest of the song is not. Frequently, the tune is used without lyrics. Why do you think the rest of the song is obscure?
- How could the song, "Union Dixie" be used to rally troops as a school fight song might rally the student body or athletes? Give at least three examples.
[The song mentions specific instances where Northern soldiers would prevail, including, in the first verse, "Union boys will win the battles", in the chorus, the words, "Each Dixie boy must understand that he must mind his Uncle Sam". Also, in the second verse, the author notes, "I wish I was in Baltimore, I’d make Secessionist traitors roar…. We’ll put the traitors all to rout…". ]
-“ Dixie" is still a well-known song in the 21st Century, while the "Union Dixie" has generally been forgotten. Speculate why this is so.
[Answers vary. Some may note that "Union Dixie" is more topical to the Civil War, while" Dixie’s Land" is more simply a memory of the Old South, and not as military in nature. Others may note that the lyrics of neither are remembered well, but the tune is. ]
There actually were many songs that enjoyed popularity on both sides with corresponding opposing lyrics. One very popular song written about a decade before the war was “Wait For The Wagon.”
- Examine the three different sets of lyrics. You can see that the Northern and Southern versions differ greatly in both theme and content.
Finally there were those songs that were not particularly patriotic, political, or simply entertainment. These are sad songs depicting the reality of war and the emotional toll it took on the soldiers and civilians involved. There were many, but to conclude this exercise read the lyrics of “The Homespun Dress” (a song written to a slower version of the tune for the Bonnie Blue Flag) and “Just Before The Battle Mother” and be able to discuss your impression of this type of song and the emotions provoked by it and others like it. Although this song was written for the Northern troops and has some words directed against Southern sympathizers in the north, it shared equal popularity on both sides.