During much of the nineteenth century, the piano in the parlor served as the home entertainment center. Families bonded around it by singing popular songs together. They entertained guests there, too.
Women especially were expected to be accomplished musicians and performers entertaining whatever guests showed up. Americans also frequently serenaded outside each other’s homes, either singing or playing instruments, as a tribute or compliment.
These practices became politicized during the Civil War. Publishers on both sides churned out patriotic songs. The homes that did not acquire and learn a significant quantity must have been a distinct minority.
Confederate ladies vs Union troops
It appears that much of society in Washington itself had southern sympathies. Immediately after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. Lincoln’s secretary, William O. Stoddard, described “a perpetual tinkle of the favorite secession airs pouring through the windows.”
He also noted, “the blockade of Washington is broken through”
when the Seventh New York band arrived. It and other northern bands eventually suppressed this musical revolt by derisively performing “Dixie” and other southern favorites. The young women shut their windows and mourned the theft by the Yankees of southern national music.
As it turns out, this musical war in Confederacy played out much the same way, ultimately with the same result, as it did in Washington.
One of the most popular songs of the confederacy, “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” served double duty as a musical weapon. In 1862, Carrie Bell Sinclair of Savannah wrote new words for the tune, “The Homespun Dress.” (Apparently it wasn’t published until after the war. At any rate, the only printing Library of Congress Civil War Sheet Music Collection was published by A. E. Blackmar in New Orleans in 1865.)
The Union blockaded southern ports, creating numerous hardships for southern families. Sinclair’s poem dismissed them by celebrating the ability of Confederate women to provide clothing for their families, even if they weren’t as fancy as what northern women could buy.
Confederate women made sure their troops knew the song, sending it along with swaths of homespun cloth, to the front. More to the point, however, they performed it among other popular favorites as part of their warfare against occupying Union troops.
Most of the war was fought on southern soil, and as northern armies began to get the upper hand, northern troops increasingly occupied southern towns. They encountered the hostility of southern troops on the battlefield and the hostility of southern women in town.
The Union’s musical triumph
When Union soldiers began to occupy southern communities, they visited southern homes in hope of finding female companionship. True to expected etiquette, the ladies welcomed the men into their parlors—and treated them to “The Homespun Dress” and other Confederate patriotic songs.
Publishers on both sides issued not only the songs themselves, but also dances or sets of variations based on the tunes. Therefore the ladies could regale their callers with numerous versions, depending on whether they were better singers or pianists.
Soldiers responded to the onslaught of this hostile music with varying degrees of tolerance. After all, flirtation could work in both directions. Initially, at least, everyone on both sides was suitably cordial. The musical warfare did not long remain at that level.
Southern women eventually mounted the musical offensive by opening their windows or performing in public places. Unfortunately, that practice made them targets. At best, it attracted Union soldiers who gathered outside to drown out the Confederate music with the most offensive Union songs they could think of. At worst, it attracted some kind of physical attack.
The musical war in southern communities escalated to such a level of intensity that Union officers began to take specific measures to suppress Confederate music.
One unintended consequence of the blockade was to create paper shortages, leading to a tenfold increase in the price of sheet music, as well as making shipping and distribution difficult and eventually impossible.
Source: Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War / Christian McWhirter (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, (2012)
Photos from the Library of Congress Civil War Sheet Music Collection and “Maryland, My Maryland: women, war, and song” / University of Maryland Libraries