Several songs of the Civil War remain well known to this day. Perhaps the best known today is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but certainly the preeminent war song of its own day was “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” by George Frederick Root.
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with its religious allusions, quickly found a place in hymnals, which it retains to this day. “The Battle Cry of Freedom” is nothing but a war song, yet many of you reading this are probably humming it right now. What is it about this song that has given it such staying power?
A new song
The war effort was not going well for the North at the beginning of 1862, although the War Department seemed to think it was. Secretary Edwin Stanton actually ordered the closing of all federal recruitment offices. Shortly afterward, the need for many more troops became apparent.
The federal government made a formal request for fresh troops to Northern governors on July 2, 1862. President Lincoln and his cabinet wanted to avoid both a formal draft and the appearance of acknowledging how badly the war was going, but each governor received a quota to fulfill. No one was under any illusion that reaching these quotas would be easy.
Root had already composed numerous songs intended to inspire the Northern public to support the war effort. As soon as he read Lincoln’s call for troops, he sat down and wrote the words and music to “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” It was first performed at massive war rallies on July 24 and 26. He probably did not think of this song as any more special than any of his others, but the troops and public did.
Later in the year, the song was published by Root & Cady. Even with 14 printing presses operating without ceasing, the firm could not keep up with demand. The firm had sold 12,000 copies by the middle of November. By the end of the war, it had sold 350,000 copies.
That figure doesn’t count all of the different arrangements (for piano solo, song with guitar accompaniment, etc.) Nor does it count the number of times it appeared in anthologies. Total sales of all versions and editions may have approached 700,000 copies. “The Battle Cry of Freedom” became Root’s biggest hit by far. If he had composed nothing else, it would have assured him lasting fame.
Years after the war, Root recalled, “From there the song went into the army, and the testimony in regard to its use in the camp and on the march, and even on the field of battle, from soldiers and officers, up to the good President himself, made me thankful that if I could not shoulder a musket in defense of my country I could serve her in this way.”
A success of that magnitude prompted a flurry of imitations. I have not yet finished compiling a database of Northern songs, but I am aware of “Rally Round the Flag” by James T. Fields and William B. Bradbury. In compiling my database of Confederate songs, I was surprised to see editions of two of Root’s other songs (“There’s Music in the Air” and “The Vacant Chair”) published in Southern cities of Richmond, Macon, and Savannah.
There was also a Confederate edition of “The Battle Cry of Freedom”! It is ascribed to prolific Confederate composer Hermann L. Schreiner, who made some minor changes to Root’s melody in order to fit a new, Confederate text.
Schreiner’s version is nothing but a historic curiosity. Root’s original song remains well known. The words and music helped immediately to rally both troops and public to the Union cause. The very fact that it attracted a Confederate imitation testifies to the song’s power.
Freedom is a concept dear to the heart of the American character. We don’t always agree on what it means, but we rally ’round the concept like we rally ’round the flag. Root’s first verse, at least, is likely to remain a rallying cry for freedom for generations to come. Not bad for a day’s work!
The song certainly resonated with the American public during the struggle against the Nazis. This performance by The Weavers ( Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger) adds a rather ironic footnote to the story of “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” The group was an important player in the folk music revival of the 1940s and 50s.
The Weavers also championed such causes as racial equality and anti-violence, which put them at the radical end of the political spectrum at the time. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, the group’s manager advised them to avoid association with “progressive” events and not to sing overtly political songs.
Hays and Seeger were branded as Communists before the House Committee on Un-American Activities anyway. Both the Nazis and Communists represented grave threats to American freedom, but it was a renegade Senator and a soon-discredited House committee to stifle the First Amendment rights of a groups that sang “The Battle Cry of Freedom” with such gusto.
Northern Draft of 1862
Civil War Music: Battle Cry of Freedom
Illustrations are public domain.