Marches of the Civil War

It is my plan to publish something related to the Civil War every month until the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s assassination four years from now. By that time, if I am even able to come close to finishing the project, I will become very familiar with the Library of Congress’ Civil War Sheet Music Collection. I have just looked through the list of the 412 marches in the collection (out of an entire collection of 2576 pieces of published sheet music. There are pieces written both by Northern and Southern sympathizers, although I have only glanced at the contents and have no idea how many of each or how representative the collection is of everything that was actually published.

All I have done so far is sort the collection by composer. I wondered how many marches were by anyone I had ever heard of and who published the greatest number. I found one piece each by Lowell Mason and John Knowles Paine, well-known names to anyone familiar with the history of American music, and one by D. W. Reeves, who anyone who has studied American band music will know. The two most prolific composers of Civil War era songs, George Frederick Root and Henry Clay Work, are well represented. Five different editions of Work’s “Marching through Georgia” appear in the collection, and nothing else by him at all. The collection has a few more different pieces by Root (but with multiple editions especially of “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!”). There are eight publications (seven different marches) by Septimus Winner, the only other composer I expect would be familiar to very many readers.

American banner march / A Union Lady

Every single one of these marches is published for piano solo, but surely many were composed for particular bands attached to particular regiments. The publishers would not have been able to make any money from the sale of full band arrangements. By selling to the general public, people could buy the marches and play them at home to whip up their patriotic fervor for whatever side they favored. It helps to remember that before the invention of the phonograph and the radio, the piano was most families’ home entertainment center. It was quite common, both before and after the Civil War for people to invite neighbors over for an afternoon or evening of musical entertainment. Various people in the group would take turns singing, playing piano solos, or performing on whatever other instruments any of those present might have had to play. Nearly everyone could read music.



Bandmasters who wanted to expand the repertoire of their bands could and probably often did buy the sheet music and arrange the marches (or other pieces) for the instrumentation of their band. Publishers did not offer band arrangements for one very good reason: standardization of band instrumentation did not yet exist. Probably no two Civil War bands resembled each other very much.

Some were made up entirely of brass instruments. In fact, before the Civil War started, most American bands were brass bands. Some used conventional combinations of instruments, including various combinations of keyed bugles, cornets, trumpets, trombones, and horns–and perhaps the odd tuba. Others used the instrumentation advocated by New York’s influential Dodworth Band: matched sets of various sizes of saxhorns.

A few pre-War bands began to abandon the all-brass instrumentation and admit woodwinds. Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore already had a plan in place to build a large band of mixed instrumentation and take it on a national tour. He had to wait until after the war ended before he could carry it out. His band proved so successful that all-brass bands nearly ceased to exist by the time he died in 1892. So many bands modeled after his followed in his wake that standard instrumentation and a market for published band arrangements finally emerged.

The illustration comes from the only cover in color that turns up on the first page of search results of the Library of Congress Civil War music site with its default title sort. Next month, I see I’ll have to start doing justice to Confederate music.

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