We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast: Civil War protest music

Hutchinson Family

Hutchinson Family

On January 17, 1862 the Hutchinson family intended to perform for the First New Jersey Regiment at Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia, but members of other units crowded into the room, too. The Hutchinsons were evangelical Christians with a passion for temperance, women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery. They did not sing merely to entertain and amuse. They sought to deter their audiences from sin and also influence their politics.

A new, unpublished song

That night in Fairfax they sang a setting of “We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast,” a recent abolitionist poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that he wrote to protest General George B. McClellan’s policy of refusing to interfere with slavery in Virginia.

Not everyone in the army appreciated these abolitionist views. At the end of this song, an army surgeon began to hiss. He had expected national and patriotic airs, and did not welcome listening to divisive abolitionist sentiment. His behavior offended a major, who stood and threatened to evict anyone who interfered with the performance. The surgeon shouted back, and it was with some difficulty that a lieutenant colonel restored order.

Audience members continued to argue well into the night. A duel was narrowly averted. The surgeon took his case to General Philip Kearny, the brigade’s commanding officer. Kearny summoned John Hutchinson and scolded him for not submitting the program to him in advance. He had as much contempt for abolitionists as for rebels.

He forbade the Hutchinsons to sing for the army any more, despite the fact that Secretary of War Simon Cameron had personally approved the program. Kearney’s superior consulted with McClellan and endorsed the order.

Hutchinson went to Washington to meet with his friend Salmon Chase, the Secretary of Treasury, who had Whittier’s poem read at a cabinet meeting.  President Lincoln and the entire cabinet unanimously endorsed Cameron’s approval of the program.

The new song’s influence

Hutchinson quartet

Hutchinson quartet

As a result, the Fairfax incident became widely known. The Hutchinsons became standard bearers not only for abolitionism, but also opposition to McClellan. They continued to perform “We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast,” which continued to show political divisions within audiences.

The Fairfax incident shows the power of music. Not only did one song cause a single audience to break out into an argument that stopped just short of violence. Kearny’s (and by implication McClellan’s) attempt to suppress the song and its performers contributed to McClellan’s eventual downfall. One Union soldier claimed that the incident began the discussion within the army of whether emancipation would be one of the Union’s war aims.

Surely if someone had simply given an abolitionist speech to that same audience, he would have been angrily rejected. No one would have thought further about it, and no one outside of Fairfax would have ever heard of it. But a family of popular entertainers could sing an incendiary new song and influence the entire course of the war. Many people who wavered in their attitudes toward slavery found themselves wholly committed to abolitionism when they heard the song.

Publication history

And it wasn’t even published yet! Public demand made that situation short lived. The Boston firm Oliver Ditson soon released a setting by W.O. Perkins. The following year, the Chicago form of H.M. Higgins issued another setting by T. Martin Towne. The Hutchinsons probably sang Perkins’ setting. Higgins probably published Towne’s to take advantage of the continuing popularity of Whittier’s poem.

After McClellan’s dismissal, new issues captured the public’s imagination. Whittier’s poem no longer spoke to them. I can’t say that the poem passed out of public consciousness, but neither song setting had enough musical merit to survive such a topical poem’s inevitable eclipse.

Here is a recent video of Perkins’ song. It is certainly the more singable of the two. I have no idea what attracted the performer to the song, It certainly had an influence and historical importance that long outlasted its short popularity.

I usually like to use sheet music covers as illustrations, but neither cover is very interesting or attractive. According to the White House Historical Association, the Hutchinsons sang at the White House for seven different Presidents, beginning with John Tyler. I have not found dates associated with either the picture of them I found there or any others I have located.

Sources: Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War / Christian McWhirter (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, (2012)
Hutchinson Family Singers: America’s First Protest Singers 
Digitized sheet music at Library of Congress.
Photos are public domain.

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