Civil War songs

Our budding Civil War fifer (see previous post) asked me to highlight some of his favorite Civil War songs. Here they are:

Battle Cry of Freedom was probably the most popular Union song. A 1916 recording is available courtesy of UC Santa Barbara’s Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project. Wikipedia notes that there was Confederate version as well: While northern troops sang “The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah! / Down with the traitors, up with the stars,” the Confederates substituted “Our Dixie forever! She’s never at a loss! / Down with the eagle and up with the cross.”

Print showing images for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Dixie" and other Civil War songs

“The Songs of the War,” 1861

John Brown’s Body commemorates militant abolitionist John Brown and his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, with a tune that was later recycled for Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Ralph Chaplin’s labor movement anthem “Solidarity Forever,” as well as various parodies.

Dixie was originally a pre-Civil War song of blackface minstrels that became the unofficial Confederate anthem, with its call “In Dixie land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.” Leo is partial to the Union version, which features lines such as: “Away down South in the land of traitors, rattlesnakes and alligators… Where cotton’s king and men are chattels, Union boys will win the battles…” etc.

Marching Through Georgia commemorates General Sherman’s 1864 march from Atlanta to Savannah, which helped to break the back of the Confederate economy. When Leo and I were learning this song, we replaced “darkeys” with “people” in the lyrics, and it was an opportunity to talk about how soldiers fighting to end slavery didn’t necessarily treat Black people with respect.

Goober Peas refers to the boiled peanuts that many Southern troops subsisted on later in the war, when supplies grew short.

Image of soldiers marching and singing "Glory Hallelujah" ("The Battle Hymn of the Republic")

Detail from “The Songs of the War,” 1861

When Johnny Comes Marching Home was popular on both sides of the Civil War. As Claire noted in last post, Leo has been learning this on the fife. The same tune has been used for the Irish antiwar song “Johnny I hardly knew ye.” (Check out both the traditional Irish Rovers version and the Pogues-style Dropkick Murphys version.) Wikipedia used to say that “Johnny I hardly knew ye” was written in the early 18th century in response to the Kandyan Wars in Sri Lanka, and that “Johnny Comes Marching Home” was derived from it. But new research shows that “Johnny I hardly knew ye” was actually first published in 1867. It’s a good lesson in the imperfections of Wikipedia and of reference sources more broadly.

More Resources
American Civil War Music (1861-1865) is a compendium of hundreds of songs organized by year, from 1861 to 1865, with recordings and lyrics. It’s compiled by Benjamin Robert Tubb, whose main page, Public Domain Music, includes many other compendia, grouped by song era, style, or composer.

Civil War bugle calls features reenactor Jan Berger demonstrating a couple dozen bugle commands, such as “Forward,” “Halt,” “Attention,” “Commence Firing,” etc.

20th Maine Civil War Fife & Drum Corps gives a spirited rendition of “The girl I left behind me,” which was used as a Civil War marching tune. Leo’s fife teacher says that most fifes were played at an extra high pitch so they wouldn’t be drowned out by the drummers.

“The Songs of the War,” engraving by Winslow Homer, published in Harper’s Weekly, 23 November 1861. Image captions: The bold soldier boy, Hail to the Chief, We’ll be free and easy still, Rogues march, Glory Hallelujah, The Girl I Left Behind Me, Dixie. Winslow Homer Collection, Print Department, Boston Public Library.

3 thoughts on “Civil War songs

  1. Pingback: S. Thomas Summers | Childhood Soon Dies

  2. Pingback: Glory Soundtrack | GARGUNZA.ORG

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