Although music became ubiquitous in American life even before the Civil War, the conflict between North and South took it to new heights of importance.
For the more than 3 million soldiers who joined the Union and Confederate armies from 1861 to 1865, music served as a backdrop to their daily activities, lifted their spirits before difficult battles, and kept morale high. if necessary as the war dragged on. For those at home, the music that emerged from the conflict served as a bond with loved ones and eventually made its way into the fabric of American life.
The role of music in the military
Soldiers played an important role in popularizing songs during the Civil War. Union and Confederation regiments performed and sang as they marched and in their camps, broadcasting their chosen songs to communities they encountered across the country. In addition to the large military bands assigned to army units, smaller groups of musicians in the field played instruments such as fifes, drums and bugles to accompany the troops in their daily activities – from waking up and the call for exercises and extinction marches during battle. By some estimates, the total number of military musicians who served in the war reached nearly 54,000.
Now familiar as the tune played at military funerals, and to end the day at US Army bases, “Taps” first appeared in 1862, when a Union General worked with the bugle of his brigade to develop a new bugle call to extinguish fires. The “taps” quickly spread to other units of the Union Army and were first used in a military funeral during the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia later that year.
READ MORE: Culture of Civil War
Popular songs from both sides
The Civil War led to a boom in American writing: historian Christian McWhirter estimates that between 9,000 and 10,000 songs were published as sheet music during the war, including some 2,000 in the first year alone conflict.
Among the many patriotic hymns, sentimental love songs, and energetic marching tunes that the war produced, each side had certain songs particularly popular among the soldiers. Union favorites such as “John Brown’s Body”, “The Battle Cry of Freedom” and “We Are Coming, Father Abraham” have exalted President Abraham Lincoln, the Union of States and the anti-slavery cause. For soldiers and Confederate citizens, songs such as “Dixie,” “Maryland, My Maryland” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag” glorified the Southern cause.
Some songs were popular on both sides, including the lively melody “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which US troops would later sing during World War I and II. While camping on either side of the Rappahannock River in December 1862, a few weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Union and Confederation troops reportedly gathered to sing the poignant ballad “Home Sweet Home” .
With black soldiers making up nearly 10% of the Union army at the end of the Civil War, the conflict also introduced many Union soldiers and other northerners to African-American music. In particular, spiritual elders like “Go Down, Moses” (also known as “Let My People Go”) and “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” have found a larger audience, although the lack of music. written and recorded at the time meant that many black musical traditions were lost in history.
READ MORE: 6 black heroes of the Civil War
The legacy of ‘Dixie’
Ironically, the most enduring song linked to the old Confederacy was written by a composer from the North. Daniel Emmett originally wrote “Dixie” in Ohio in 1859 as the final number for a minstrel show. These performances, which were humiliating to African Americans, were a popular form of entertainment at the time and featured white, blackface-clad performers playing scenes from Southern life. The song became a popular hit before it was appropriated by the Confederacy as a patriotic anthem during the Civil War, even President Lincoln later lauded it as “one of the best songs I have ever heard.”
Years after the end of the war, “Dixie” was adopted by whites in the South who sought to revive the idyllic image of Confederation, as well as white supremacy in the South. “’Dixie’ was part of the score for Birth of a nation, the movie that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, “writer Tony Horwitz told NPR in 2018.” It was adopted by the segregationist Dixiecrats in the 1940s. And in the 1950s it was sung by white women protesting against the integration of schools in Arkansas and elsewhere.
‘The Battle Anthem of the Republic’
The story of one of the country’s most enduring anthems began during the Civil War, when poet and activist Julia Ward Howe traveled to Washington, DC in late 1861. On a tour of the Union camps in northern Virginia, Howe heard them sing “John Brown’s Body,” which honored the radical abolitionist who was executed for raiding Harper’s Ferry. That night, Howe was inspired to write new, more poetic lyrics to the song, publishing the result in February 1862 in the Atlantic monthly.
Howe’s version, titled “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” has become the version of the song we know best today, with its eloquent message against slavery, including the exhortation, “Let us die to make the free men ”. As Andrew Limbong writes for NPR, later generations of very different Americans would use the Civil War-era anthem for their own purposes: Conservative activist Anita Bryant played it at anti-gay rallies, while Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Howe’s words (“My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”) in his famous speech “I have been on top of the mountain”, delivered the day before his died in 1968.