Songs of the Civil War


The War Between the States cost more than 700,000 lives, far more than any other conflict in our nation's history. Yet, it also produced more songs (from both sides) than any other war – 2,000 of them in the first year alone! In this intriguing Active Minds program, we'll listen to patriotic marches, songs of utter contempt for the other side and simple laments from the weary soldiers and the grieving ones they left behind. There's much to be learned from the Civil War song-bag. Even good ol' “Dixie” has an interesting story to tell.


So much has been written about the Civil War, and yet so much has yet to be fully understood. It all began in the South as a rip-roaring adventure into independence, as happy young men rushed off to be part of a quick march to freedom from the shackles of Washington D.C. and those darn Yankees. Similarly, most Northerners assumed that this ill-considered rebellion would be quickly smashed (early army volunteers signed up for only a three-month period). No surprise, then, that the songs that inspired all these naive fighters consisted of rousing cries of patriotic zeal. And those tunes came from everywhere – printed in newspapers and song-sheets, to be sung by the soldiers and the crowds who gathered to wish them well. Both sides were convinced of the God-granted wisdom of their cause, a theme that appears repeatedly in anthems such as The Battle Hymn of the Republic for the Union and God Save the South for the newborn Confederacy. Robert E. Lee once remarked, “I don't believe we can have an army without music.” And so it was: Songs were sung and played everywhere, in both camps. Lincoln loved music and invited singers such as the famous and influential Hutchinson Family to perform at the White House. They had been very helpful in getting Lincoln elected with their spirited campaign songs and anti-slavery marches to win the war and free the oppressed. Meanwhile, Southerners sang only for states’ rights and separation from the tyrannical Union (pro-slavery songs were almost non-existent). Fighting men and boys brought their fiddles and guitars and would sing around campfires at night, after days spent in wholesale slaughter. Sometimes those song-fests would go on within ear-shot of the opposing army. But there was more: Each Northern regiment was instructed to employ 24-member bands. In 1861, the first full year of the war, the Union army included some 28,000 musicians in 618 bands. Similar numbers were found among Southern regiments. Union general Phillip Sheridan claimed that “Music has done its share, and more than its share, in winning the war.” During the Revolutionary War, each side created parodies of the other's tunes such as Yankee Doodle. Same thing in the Civil War: The Confederates came up with their own version of The Battle Cry of Freedom, while Northerners delighted in a re-written version of Dixie (“Away down south in the land of traitors, rattlesnakes and alligators...”). That beloved tune, a favorite of Lincoln's incidentally, began life in a minstrel show, sung by a character in black face portraying a former slave longing for his beloved home. What was once thought to be a quick, clean rebellion, of course, turned into a four-year war that ended up claiming more than 700,000 lives. Yet the songs never stopped – though they would soon visit the tragic consequences of all that bloodshed, as poets and songwriters described the anguish of those at home, as well as those wearily preparing for the next day's battle. The sadness can be heard in such heart-breaking songs as Tenting on the Old Campground, written by a frightened young man who'd been drafted, but who would never serve, and The Vacant Chair, penned in memory of a young soldier whose death was made real by his absence at his family's Thanksgiving dinner. Songs of loved ones left behind – particularly wives, mothers and girlfriends – began to take their toll. One tune in particular, Lorena, proved such a tear-jerker for Confederate soldiers that many deserted, rather than continue the fight. A Southern general blamed that song of longing for the Confederacy's defeat. Today, 150 years later, the War Between the States still resonates – particularly in parts of the South. And it still inspires new songs, as witnessed by the Band's 1969 classic, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Today, there is little joy on either side – the Civil War proved a monumental disaster for this country. The assassination of Lincoln mere days after it ended reminded everyone that the struggle to rebuild the nation would not be an easy battle to win. As we can see in news reports describing the resistance by some Southerners to calls for banishing the Confederate flag, some battles never really end.

Exploration Questions

  • Who were Henry Work and George Root, and why should they be remembered?
  • What role did Irish singers and ballads play in songs sung by the Confederacy?
  • What is the origin of Maryland's state song, Maryland, My Maryland?

Reflective Questions

  • Why do some of us gloss over the brutality of the Civil War, and misunderstand the motivations of the Confederacy? Can we blame our teachers for misinforming us?
  • In the heart-breaking song Dear Old Flag, a little drummer boy's dying words swear devotion to his flag. How would such a sentiment fly in these complicated times?
  • Why are there no songs accompanying America's recent wars?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Bernard, Kenneth A. Lincoln and the Music of the Civil War. Caxton Printers. 333 pages. 1966. As definitive as it gets, this engrossing book explores Lincoln's love for music, and the songs that lifted his spirit (and others, as well) during the war. Wonderfully detailed and highly recommended.
  • McWhirter, Christian. Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. University of North Carolina Press. 336 pages. 2014. McWhirter offers vivid descriptions of the songs, those who performed them and those who listened and learned them. A thorough, but hardly dry examination of this fascinating subject.
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