Music in the Civil War Letters of Seneca B. Thrall

Civil War era mailMusic played a key role in the American Civil War on the home front and on the battlefield. Letters home from Civil War soldiers record much of what we know of music in camps and on battlefields.

An officer of the 13th Iowa Infantry, Seneca B. Thrall, wrote 44 letters, mostly to his wife, that provide an officer’s-eye view of part of the Union army’s successful campaign in Mississippi.   It seems to be a fairly well-known collection. A Google search of Thrall’s name turns up several hits. Several of the letters describe music within the regiment.

In the early years of the Civil War, the Union built its strategy on capturing Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederacy, and Corinth, Mississippi, where two major railroads crossed each other. The Army of the Potomac notably failed to capture Richmond, but under the leadership of General Ulysses S. Grant, the Army of Tennessee captured Corinth in May of 1862 and successfully repelled the Confederate attempt to regain it on October 3-4.

Levee at St. Louis

“The Levee at St. Louis, Missouri.–Photographed by R. Benecke, St. Louis.” Harper’s Weekly, October 14, 1871

The 32-year-old Thrall enlisted on August 19, 1862 and was commissioned on September 17 as an Assistant Surgeon. Like many western military personnel, he traveled through St. Louis.

Apparently the rest of the regiment had gone on before him. By September 19, it had encamped near Corinth. In his first letter to his wife, he noted that his first task was to find it. It is clear that he had little use for anything Southern:

There is nothing here but soldiers and Negroes. It is amusing to see the latter, large crowds of them are at all depots at Cairo, Columbus and all along the road. Cotton bales are scattered all along the line of roads to this place. I have seen enough of the source of all evil, Cotton and Niggers.

Thrall also sent his next extant letter, dated October 12, 1862, from Corinth, but the regiment had been busy since then, including taking part in the Battle of Corinth. Despite the hardships, the men took time to sing.

I have been fairly initiated in the art of war; here three weeks, on the march all the time and in a battle of two days. Marched night and day, heat, suffocating clouds of dust, rain and mud, bright moonlight, beautiful nights, and dark, rain miserable. Friday noon it commenced raining, rained hard all the afternoon and drizzled all night and we marched on till 9:00 o’clock pm. I could not see the horse ahead of me or the man trudging along at my side in rain and mud. We camped on the banks of the Hatchee river, no tents, low bottom land, we soldiers wet and miserable, our trains behind, nothing to eat, and did not expect them to come in, but they did. The soldiers built large fires, dried themselves, got their supper and went singing, “Ho boys, ho; aint you glad you joined the army, ho boys ho, etc.” Slept on the ground on their oil cloth blankets, called up at 3 1/2 o’clock am, and onward march. I put two sick men in the ambulance and fastened the seat up above them and I sat up in the ambulance out of the rain, gum coat on and dry. I have been fairly initiated. The men say they have had a harder time during the past month than ever before.

A week later, he described hearing two kinds of music going on at once.

Last Thursday night upon one side of my tent about 30 feet from it were 20 or 30 men, holding a prayer meeting (we have a Captain and Sgt. who are Methodist preachers) they could be heard singing and praying all over camp. In front of my tent and not more than 60 feet from the Prayer meeting was a hilarious and noisy set of men surrounding some “Niggers” who were singing Negroe melodies, beating Juba, playing on the banjo, etc. A little to one side another noisy, swearing crowd telling stories, etc., twas a singular melody. I remained in my tent, moralising and thinking what odd creatures men are and upon the varieties of human nature surrounding me.

Marching through Holly Springs

Holly Springs Depot

Holly Springs Depot

On November 6, 1862, Thrall wrote from Grand Junction, Tennessee that he thought the regiment was on its way to Vicksburg and that a battle at Holly Springs had been expected until the Rebels evacuated.

Confederate General Sterling Price had established headquarters in Holly Springs in October, and the townspeople had responded with what one author called “patriotic dissipation.” Their joy was short-lived. When Grant advanced upon Holly Springs, Price retreated. Union troops marched in on November 29 with their bands playing “Yankee Doodle.”

The 13th Iowa Infantry’s band chose different music on its march through Holly Springs. On December 1, Thrall wrote,

We marched till about 8 o’clock p.m. then had to stop for 3 hours only, eat supper (I had crackers and boiled ham in my haversack). We started again and went four miles further. I laid down to sleep at 3 o’clock a.m. Saturday morn was up and routed out our cook and had warm coffee, while it was yet so dark we could not see to cook or eat without a candle. Started Saturday morn as soon as it was light enough to see. Our Division, Gen. McArthur’s, leading the advance of the whole army, our Brigade leading the Division, and our Regt. leading the Brigade. None were ahead of us except cavalry and some light artillery as advance guard. We passed through Holly Springs at 10 a.m., our band playing “Dixie”. Holly Springs is the best and largest Southern town I have yet seen.

The regiment did not remain in Holly Springs for long. Thrall wrote from Abbyville, Mississippi on December 3. The march through Holly Springs was still on his mind, though, and he described it again after other regiments had followed through town.

The streets were quite full of citizens with scowling faces, and females stood at front doors and windows, watching us pass through. Niggers with a broad grin on their faces were the only smiling ones seen out of our ranks. Our band at the head of the regiment fairly threw themselves away on “Dixie”. It was one of the most beautiful days I ever saw, the troops keeping step to the music, marching lively forward. Occasionally some of the females would speak, “You Yankees will come running back this way in a day or so”, or “you won’t look so fine and gay when you come back this way”, or “Genl. Price will be happy to see you gentlemen”. We were in the advance. They had no idea then that it would take 3 days for that sound of Yankees playing Dixie to pass through their little town. They must have thought that the whole Yankee nation was coming to take tea with Price. Oh, how they must have felt while that apparently interminable procession was passing through. As our regiment passed, their countenances seemed to express satisfaction that Price would soon send us running back; but, as hour after hour and day after day that army “went marching on”, hope seemed to die away in their breasts, their doors and windows were closed to shut out the sight of the “ruthless invaders”.

Grant made Oxford, Mississippi his headquarters. Holly Springs became his supply center. The Confederate army was not ready to yield without a fight. Under General Earl Van Dorn, the Confederate cavalry raided the garrison early in the morning of December 20 while the Union soldiers slept and overran it without a fight. After destroying Union equipment and supplies, they left town without attempting to reestablish control.

Two days later, Grant left Oxford and established his headquarters in Holly Springs. Meanwhile, Thrall wrote several letters home from Abbyville. None of these letters mentions music. But on December 24, back in Holly Springs, he wrote

Sunday and Monday’s march was the hardest on our Regiment that we have had. We were the rear guard, the baggage train was nearly three miles long, and we were behind to protect that and bring up the stragglers. We were up Sunday morning at 4 o’clock and did not get to camp until 12 o’clock at night, then had to get supper, go to bed on the ground and were called up at 5 o’clock in the morning, started at daylight and marched until 8 o’clock in the evening, making some 40 hours march with only 4 hours sleep. It was not so with any but our Regiment, the rear guard.

As we passed through going south all our bands were playing, our flags flying, everything gay, when we came in Monday eve, the bands in advance of us were silent, till our Regiment came in, when, though we had had the hardest part of the march, had been on the road 35 hours, the flags were unfurled and the band struck up “De Lincum gun boats come dis way”, the streets were full of soldiers who cheered with a will, and hundreds called out, “What Regiment is that? Bully for you”, etc.

Union hospital camp

Union hospital camp

Thrall continued to send long letters home, the last in the collection dated July 9, 1863. During that time, the 13th Iowa Infantry stayed out of combat. They dug a canal. They guarded a road, and marched from one place to another several times. None of Thrall’s letters  during that time mention music except that of February 25, 1863.

Whew, how it does rain – the water is running in a stream onto my bed and we have the best tent in the Regiment. Nearly all of the soldiers and officers are drowned out, like ground squirrels out of their holes. I never saw it rain any harder. A number of the men are standing outside singing, “Soldier’s life is always gay”, “We won’t go home till morning”, etc. We are comparatively comfortable as we can keep things dry and have a large tent 14 by 15 feet and only two of us occupy it, gum blankets on our beds. We set them in the worst places and keep the dry ones to sit in. The land is level, the water stands all over it, the tents look as though they were in a lake. I do not suppose you have ever seen such a long continued rain storm.

Thrall described soldiers singing in camp and in church. He described the regiment’s band playing on the march. Other sources describe this kind of music making so routinely that we can be sure that Thrall continued to hear a lot of music during the months he didn’t write home about it. The regiment seems not to have experienced anything out of the ordinary. Most of the musical experiences Thrall described are representative of other regiments on both sides of the war.


Seneca B. Thrall: Union Letters (link no longer work as of March 4,2016)
Seneca B. Thrall, Assistant Surgeon 13th Iowa Infantry
Corinth in the Civil War: At the Crossroads of History / Timothy B. Smith, Mississippi History Now
Civil War / Rust-at-Airliewood (describes events in Holly Springs)

Photo credit:
Holly Springs Depot. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Jack Boucher

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