Popular song in America, part 7: Civil War Songs


Issues of slavery and states rights so divided the nation that the American Civil War broke out as soon as Abraham Lincoln was proclaimed President-elect. It lasted four years, but strangely music unified the opposing armies at times.  

Two publishers, the Chicago’s Root & Cady and Boston’s Oliver Ditson, account for the bulk of the North’s best war songs. George Frederick Root, brother of one of the Root & Cady’s founders, wrote “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Vacant Chair,” “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” and Brother, Tell Me of the Battle.” Henry Clay Work, who also published with Root & Cady, contributed “Kingdom Coming,” “Grafted Into the Army,” “Marching Through Georgia,” and “Wake Nicodemus.”

Ditson’s firm published nearly as many important songs, although no one composer contributed as many songs as either Root or Work. The most important war song to come off the press in Boston, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was apparently composed by William Steffe, of South Carolina as the camp meeting hymn “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?”  One can only imaging his consternation when his tune was used first for “John Brown’s Body” and then for Julia Ward Howe’s poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Other important war songs issued by Ditson include “Tenting Tonight” by Walter Kittridge” (made famous by the Hutchinson Family) and “We Are Coming, Father Abraham” by Luther O. Emerson.

The South countered with two patriotic rallying songs. “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land” by Dan Emmett first appeared as a minstrel song in 1859. The tune was popular in both North and South. Harry Macarthy, a singer who toured all over the South during the early years of the war, wrote “Missouri! or, A Voice from the South,” “The Volunteer; or It Is My Country’s Call,” and the song that became the semi-official Confederate national anthem, “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

As the war dragged on, less militaristic songs appeared, which commented on the human misery it caused. Charles Carroll Sawyer wrote the words for several of them. By far the most popular of them, “Weeping, Sad and Lonely; or When This Cruel War is Over” (music by Henry Tucker) was familiar on both sides. First published in Brooklyn, it came out in at least four Southern editions. Some Southern generals found it so bad for morale that they forbade their soldiers to sing it.

Still other songs, such as “Grafted into the Army” and “Corporal Schnapps” (both by Work) and “Goober Peas” (signed P. Nutt, Esq.) dealt, often humorously, with such issues as conscription, camp life, the ethnic diversity of both armies, and various  political and financial scandals.

Many soldiers, both Northern and Southern, carried songsters with them, pocket-sized books with the lyrics of favorite songs. Although Northern and Southern songsters obviously had very different selections of patriotic songs, they also included songs that had been popular all over before the war. Therefore, when not occupied with fighting or marching, they sang the same songs around their campfires.

In fact, the opposing troops often sang to each other when their camps were within earshot. On at least one occasion, northern and southern bands alternated playing patriotic tunes to each other well into the night and ended up playing “Home Sweet Home” together. The next morning, in the Battle of Murfreesboro, thousands died on each side. And so there was civil by night giving way to war by day.


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