Chicago was the musical capital of the North when it came to production of great Civil War songs. The firm of Root & Cady employed two composers (the founder’s younger brother George Frederick Root and Henry Clay Work). Between the two of them, they composed all of the best-selling songs in the firm’s catalog and probably more big hits than any other Northern composer.
George Frederick Root was born in 1820 in Sheffield, Massachusetts to a musical family. He studied piano with George J. Webb and, in 1845, moved to New York to establish a career as church organist and music teacher. After touring Europe in 1850, he returned to Boston and worked with Lowell Mason, the leading “reformer” of American Hymnody. After spending some time and energy teaching and composing music based on European models, he had a change of heart.
I saw that mine must be the “people’s song,” still, I am ashamed to say, I shared the feeling that was around me in regard to that grade of music. When Stephen C. Foster’s wonderful melodies (as I now see them) began to appear, and the famous Christy’s Minstrels bagman to make them know, I “took a hand in” and wrote a few, but put “G. Friedrich Wurzel” (the German for Root) to them instead of my own name.
“Hazel Dell” (published in 1853 by William Hall & Son in New York) and “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower” (1855, by Russell & Richardson in Boston) were the best known. . .
It is easy to write correctly a simple song, but so to use the material of which such a song must be made that it will be received and live in the hearts of the people is quite another matter.
“Battle Cry of Freedom” (1862), easily Root’s best known song to this day, sold 350,000 copies in sheet music. That figure doesn’t count the number of times it appeared in collections or arrangements for piano or guitar.
In an 1889 testimonial banquet in Root’s honor, former Union soldier J. W. Fifer said,
The true and correct history of the war for the maintenance of the Union will place George F. Root’s name alongside our great generals. Only those who were at the front, campoing, marching, battling for the flag, can fully realize how often we were cheered, revived, and inspired by the songs of him who sent forth the “Battle Cry of Freedom.”
If Root had written nothing else, that one song would assure him a place in America’s musical history. One site, which from the small size of the little bubble on the scroll bar promised to have extensive biographical information, instead comprises mostly a list of his complete output. The following list of his songs related to the Civil War, taken from the Library of Congress Civil War Sheet Music Collection, is quite long enough. It does not include pieces that Root merely arranged. A few of the songs will probably be familiar to many readers.
- The Battle Cry of Freedom
- Brother, Tell Me of the Battle
- Can the Soldier Forget?
- Columbia’s Call
- Comrade, All Around is Brightness
- Comrades, Hasten to the Battle
- Farewell Father, Friend, and Guardian
- Father Abraham’s Reply to the 600,000
- The Flag with Thirty Four Stars, or Hurrah for the Dear Old Flag with Every Stripe and Star
- Foes & Friends
- Forward Boys! Forward!
- Glory! Glory! or The Little Octoroon
- God Bless Our Brave Young Volunteers
- Good Bye Old Glory
- Good Bye, Jeff
- Have Ye Sharpened Your Swords?
- How It Marches! the Flag of the Union
- I Wonder Why He Comes Not
- Just After the Battle
- Just Before the Battle, Mother
- Lay Me Down and Save the Flag
- The Liberty Bird
- North & South
- Oh Come You from the Battlefield?
- O Come You from the Indies, or Robert’s Return from the War
- Oh Haste on the Battle
- Oh Will My Mother Never Come?
- On the Field of Battle, Mother
- On, On, On, the Boys Came Marching, or The Prisoner Free
- Ring the Bell, Watchman
- Sleeping for the Flag
- Stand Up for Uncle Sam, My Boys
- Starved in Prison
- They Have Broken Up Their Camps
- ‘Tis Finished
- Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! (The Prisoner’s Hope)
- The Vacant Chair, or We Shall Meet but We Shall Miss Him
- We’ll Fight It Out Here on the Old Union Line
- Within the Sound of the Enemies Guns
Root continued to work for his brother’s firm until it burned in the 1871 Chicago fire. He received an honorary doctorate in music from the University of Chicago in 1872. Eventually he returned to New York and to teaching. Most of the songs he published after the demise of Root & Cady were in collections of hymns or teaching pieces. At his death in 1895, he was very well respected.
Apparently he never tried to keep up with new trends in popular music or produce hits. In any case, a few of his war songs are all that remain well known. Probably on the strength of those songs, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.
Yesterdays: Popular Song in America / by Charles Hamm (Norton, 1979)
George F. Root
Portraits of Root and sheet music covers are public domain.