Shared songs of the Civil War

All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight.

The Picket Guard / N. C. Wyeth, 1922, illustrating the same poem set as “All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight.”

Although at war, the Union and Confederacy shared a common history, language, and at least partly, cultural heritage. By 1863, they also shared war weariness and the grief of lost loved ones.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that they shared at least two songs that year. A Northern and a Southern composer both set the poem that starts “All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight.” Northern and Southern publishers both issued “Who Will Care for Mother Now?”

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All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight

All quiet along the Potomac tonightNew York poet Ethel Lynn Beers read newspaper reports of the aftermath of the First Battle of Bull Run in September 1861. She also saw another shorter notice that a picket guard had been killed.

Of course, he wasn’t anyone important, like an officer. So his death did not contradict the official “all quiet.” She sat down immediately and wrote a poem called “The Picket-Guard,” which Harper’s Weekly published in November.

Two composers both set the poem in 1863. Veteran songwriter John Hill Hewitt, a Confederate sympathizer, composed by far the better of the two. He was the son of a songwriter and the brother of a music publisher.

His father wanted him to pursue some other career than music. His brother deemed his first song, “The Minstrel Return’d from the War” unworthy of copyright and published it reluctantly in 1825. Sound familiar from Classical music?

Beyond all expectations, the song became an international hit and established Hewitt as America’s leading songwriter. He kept that reputation until Stephen Foster overshadowed him.

When the war broke out, Hewitt eagerly sided with the Confederacy. He quickly reissued “The Minstrel Return’d from the War” with new words: “A Nation Has Sprung into Life.”

Over the course of the war, he composed and published many other songs. The Library of Congress sheet music collection includes only four. “All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight” is by far his most important. Charles Hamm declared it, “arguably the best song to come out of the war.”

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The northern composer who set the text, J. Dayton, is beyond obscure. He appears in the Library of Congress collection only by his setting of “All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight.”

Although the cover indicates that he wrote at least two other songs, I find no other evidence that he existed at all. I don’t suppose anyone is likely to hunt for him except perhaps descendents doing genealogy.

Although Hewitt’s setting displays much greater polish and emotional depth, Dayton’s setting hasn’t been forgotten. There are multiple versions of both settings on YouTube.

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Who Will Care for Mother Now?

Who will care for mother nowAlthough many composers and poets wrote from patriotic inspiration, Charles Carroll Sawyer responded to the melancholy and sadness that accompanied the war’s carnage. He was born in Connecticut and lived in Brooklyn, but the sentiments of his poetry were universal.

One Henry Tucker set his poem, Weeping, Sad and Lonely, or, When This Cruel War is Over,” which Hamm calls “easily the most popular” of the “tear jerker” songs. Neither the melody nor the poem has much artistic merit, and it’s impossible to explain its popularity. It, too, was published in both north and south. Sawyer’s own publishing company brought it out in 1863. Maybe the two Southern editions appeared the same year, but the Library of Congress does not date them.

Nearly everything I have found about Sawyer identifies him only as a poet. The Library of Congress holds 22 items associated with him, 10 different works. He is identified as the lyricist for 4 of them and the composer for 6:

  • “Coming Home, or The Cruel War is Over”
  • “He Was Not Afraid to Die”
  • “Mother Would Comfort Me”
  • “Shake Hands with Uncle Sam”
  • “When the Boys Come Home”
  • “Who Will Care for Mother Now” 

The Library of Congress owns 7 different editions of the latter. Two of them identify Sawyer as the composer. In one case Charles F. Thompson is identified as arranger and in the other C. Everett as arranger. Five editions identify Thompson as the composer.

Except for “Shake Hands with Uncle Sam,” all of the music with Sawyer’s name on it was published in Brooklyn by Sawyer & Thompson. C. C Sawyer was the imprint for the one exception. It is the Sawyer & Thompson edition of “Who Will Care for Mother Now” that identifies Sawyer as the composer and Thompson as the arranger.

From the very beginning of the music industry in England in the late 18th century, musically illiterate composers have been commonplace. Before recording studios, they played their tunes on the piano (or in some cases hummed them) for a hack who could take dictation. The hack, whose name may or may not be known, wrote down the music and very likely supplied the accompaniment—maybe even the harmony.

Thompson is only slightly less obscure than Dayton. At least history has recorded his full name. The Library of Congress owns one other song by him, another tearjerker, I Know My Mother Weeps for Me”

The popularity of “Who Will Care for Mother Now” long outlasted the Civil War. The video below is based on a recording made in 1917.

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Sources include Yesterdays: Popular Song in America /Charles Hamm (Norton: 1979) and the Library of Congress Civil War sheet music collection.

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Photo sources.
The Picket Guard. and the cover for Hewitt’s “All Quiet. . .” from Wikimedia  Commons 
The other covers from the Library of Congress collection

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