Music in Letters Home from Civil War Soldiers

civil war soldierIn this series of posts on Civil War music I have occasionally cited Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music. Author Christian McWhirter commented twice about letters.

On the very first page he noted, ” Almost any war diary, letter collection, or memoir contains at least a passing reference to music.”

Later, in the chapter on soldiers, he wrote, “Music became intrinsically linked to the soldiers’ Civil War experiences—even combat performance—and is mentioned in almost every wartime diary, letter collection, or reminiscence.”

My sister-in-law, the family genealogist, presented us with a 100-page treatise at Christmas that fleshed out not only direct ancestors on my father’s side of the family, but their siblings and in-laws. She transcribed four extant letters from a Civil War soldier. When I noticed Civil War era letters, I expected to find reference to music. Here is is:

This camp life is queer life. I am sitting here and can hear Bands playing in all directions just as far as you can here. It sounds very niece early in the morning and in the evening. To hear so much music of all description and then the way of living, get up to breakfast and have some fried bacon or pork. Coffee and one of those nice hard crackers . . . (Letter from Samuel Gilbert Hale, 26th Illinois Volunteers, April 24, 1862 from Hampton, Tennessee)

And so I decided to hunt for other Civil War letters. My first thought was to look at a single archive on the Web that included letters from both Union and Confederate soldiers. As it turned out, the names of all Confederate soldiers were links to another archive, so I explored that one thoroughly.

I confess I did not find as many references to music as I expected. Some of the most prolific writers sent dozens of letters home without mentioning music at all.  But if there weren’t numerous references, my search of two letter collections chosen more or less at random did turn up some interesting musical references.

One Union soldier mentioned his unit’s band in so many letters that I will reserve his observations for a later post.

That leaves me with three letters from one Union soldier and one letter each from three Confederates. They provide a varied look at how music participated in the war effort.

Letters of Private Dirk Keppel, 8th Michigan Infantry

Civil War soldiers writing letters

Civil War soldiers writing letters

September 22, 1861 from Fort Wayne, Indiana

Eating is here as follows: in the morning bread an coffee and pork; and in the afternoon bread, bean soup and sometimes rice soup and meat; and in the evening the same. So we are having it good as far as eating goes. Last night the brass band arrived here, which will stay with us here in the eighth regiment.

September 29, 1861 from Fort Wayne, Indiana

We have here 22 musicians who are just across from us in their tent, which we can hear clearly when they play, because they do that often for reason that they still have to learn.

March 21, 1862 from Beaufort, South Carolina

Today another man again was buried. He was a drummer. There are already several dead in our regiment, but from our company there is only one dead. That could be worse, but in some companies there are eight men, more or less, who are dead, but it does not surprise me if I consider everything.

Letter from Sgt. R. Henry Campbell, 27th Virginia Infantry

civil war drummer training

An older Soldier of the 31st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry instructs younger drummers during the Civil War.

March 21, 1861 from Martinsburg, Virginia (now in West Virginia)

We arrived at place on Tuesday night at eight o’clock. We did not certainly know where we were going to when we left the Ferry as we were marching under sealed orders. Our Captain did not know where we were going when we left the Ferry, as he was prohibited from opening his orders until after he left the Ferry. We came to our journey’s end much sooner than we expected, for it was generally believed before we left (as I wrote to Father) that we were going to Wheeling. 

I like the looks of Martinsburg very much. It is a very nice place. It contains some beautiful residences. Its population is 4000. Almost all of the inhabitants are still for the Union. The Ladies all play (on the piano) Hail Columbia & Star Spangled Banner.

I would like to call your attention to the reference to marching in the first paragraph. Troops always marched from one place to another. Field musicians, if not the regimental band, always set the tempo.

Sgt. Campbell did not mention music on the march. Every reference to marching in any letter, and probably every reference to drills, implicitly refer to music, but I did not copy any but explicit references.

The second paragraph describes the local ladies’ war against occupying Confederate troops. The ladies of Martinsburg were Union sympathizers. Confederate ladies did much the same.  

Letter from Mortimer Johnson (rank not given), Rockbridge (Virginia) Senior Reserves

Civil War soldiers at rest

Civil War soldiers at rest

Rockbridge, like Martinsburg, is now in West Virginia

December 25, 1862, from Camp Fredericksburg

We have a very fine band in the same field we are in. Last night among others they played “Old Dog Tray.” It made me think of Carlo and your description of his faithfulness. There seems to be no gloom or dreariness of thought among our soldiers so far as my observation extends. All seem cheerful and gay. The dead are buried – the wounded and sick sent off – so that the well alone are left. Victory inspires confidence and certainly a great victory has attended our armies and what is more the North feels and [ —- ] it.

Letter from J. Kent Langhorne, cadet at Virginia Military Academy

January 2, 1863, from VMI

Lexington has done more for the soldiers than any place I know for the size of it. They gave nearly 5 hundred carpet blankets to them besides giving 3 theatrical performances & the cadets gave a kind of Negro show for their benefit. The show given by the cadets cleared 3 hundred dollars. The ladies made about 600 hundred dollars in all of their performances.

Langhorne describes two ways civilians supported troops in the field by contributing supplies and raising money. “Negro show” refers to the kind of minstrel shows that were popular in both the North and South before the war. This one, of course, was an amateur production.

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Christian McWhirter, Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music  (University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Kindle Edition.)
Letters Home from the Civil War / Civil War Archive
Using Civil War Letters, Diaries, Manuscripts: A Guide to Our Collection / Virginia Military Academy

Photographs are public domain

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