Exploring Music's Complexities

Civil War Music Reflects the Time

American Civil War Music


As each of the major conflicts is discussed in this series it will become apparent that music takes many forms and reflects the times.  Regardless of whether it is classical music, folk music, or today’s pop music, it brings people together.  During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 music served as a critical communications tool for our military leaders.  On the home front, it provided a relief from the cares and woes brought about by these confrontations. The same applied during the American Civil War.  Music was a critical element in the lives of those at home and in the camps.  It not only served to entertain but also to provide a vehicle for the expression of feelings.

Data show that the music produced during the Civil War was of greater quantity and variety than that from any other American conflict (1).  For the first time,  large numbers of Americans were exposed to the strains of Southern slave music.  Through the socialization of white and black soldiers, new songs were written blending Native black folk music with European music to create a new kind of “American” music.  This music is based upon ballads, show tunes, and Negro spirituals.  It is estimated that as many as 10,000 songs have been taken from folksong collections and regimental histories  (2).

As the war progressed the focus of the music changed.  Early in the war families were torn apart.   Family songs such as “The Dying Mother’s Advice to Her Volunteer Son” by a. J. Higgins, and Dear Mother I’ve Come Home to Die” by Henry Tucker, expressed the suffering brought about by families being torn apart.  As the war was winding down songs coming from the Union side focused on battles won and the prospects of going home (2).

There were also many songs written in protest of the war.  One of these protest songs is titled All Quiet along the Potomac To-night.  They were popular as they provided a contrast to those supporting the war (2).   Regardless of the purpose, singing of songs provided inspiration as well as sentiment during this difficult time.

Music and the Military

As during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, music served a critical role in the Union and Confederate militaries. At the beginning of the Civil War, the Union army was given at least two musicians for every infantry, artillery, or Cavalry Company. Music told the solders when to get up, eat, and go to bed.  Each regiment would have at least 24 musicians (2).  If there were a need for cadences and signals for more formal occasions drummers and fifers of a regiment would be called together (3).  It has been estimated that around 28,000 soldiers in both the Union Army and the Confederate Army were musicians.  As the war progressed many of these musicians re-enlisted to perform in concerts as well as drill and battles (2).

Drums provided significant symbols for a military unit.  Many were decorated with the unit’s insignia or national symbols.  Since the eagle served as a symbol of the nation it became a popular decoration.  In fact, drums became known as eagle drums (4).  As the war progressed Cavalry units replaced drummers and fifers with buglers (3).

The Civil War Music Site at http://www.civilwarmusic.net (5) gives examples of the many songs from both sites. Those labeled: “Songs the Soldiers Sang”, were sung by soldiers in both armies. The National Park Service’s presentation on YouTube also provides an engaging overview of the music of this period (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gUcx5FacUs  (6).  You can hear a midi version of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” here.  (7).

As would be expected, each side had its favorite songs.  These songs served to keep up spirit, show patriotism, and/or affection.  The Battle Cry of Freedom , John Brown’s Body, and Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! were Union favorites.  Among the favorite Confederate songs were The Bonnie Blue Flag, Maryland, My Maryland, and Lorena (8).

This interesting anecdote was found in Civil War Music History (9).  “ During the winter of 1862-1863, Union and Confederate armies were camped near each other at Fredericksburg, Virginia, separated only by the expanse of the Rappahannock River. One cold afternoon, a band in the Union camp struck up some patriotic tunes to cheer the men. They were answered from across the river by a Confederate band. The Union band played another tune followed by the Confederates who also did their best to play the same song. Back and forth the musical duel went well into the evening hours. Soldiers in both armies listened to the musical battle and would cheer for their own bands. The dual finally ended when both bands struck up the tune of “Home, Sweet Home“. It was then that the men of both sides who were so far from their homes, cheered as one.”

As the war was winding down lyrics of songs from the Union became more positive, reflecting thoughts of going home and of battles won.  The most popular was “Marching Through Georgia (2)

The 19th Century Parlor Songs and Minstrel Shows

The families of this period in our history placed a great deal of importance on music.  By 1850, most middle-class homes had at least one person who could read music and play the piano in the parlor.  Sheet music was readily available.  This music features melodies that are harmonically independent of the harmony.  The use of parlor chords, chords containing variants of the major mode made use of thirds, sixths, and sevenths, incorporated modal frames (10).

Among the most popular of these songs were “Home, Sweet Home,” composed by Henry R. Bishop with lyrics by John Howard Payne, “The Old Arm Chair” by Henry Russell, “When the Swallows Homeward Fly” by Franz Abt, “Kathleen Mavourneen” composed by Frederick Nicholls Crouch with lyrics by Marion Crawford, “The Lost Chord” composed by Arthur Sullivan with lyrics by Adelaide A. Proctor, “Take Back the Heart” by Claribel (Mrs. Charlotte Barnard), “Oh Promise Me” by Reginald de Koven, “I Love You Truly” and “A Perfect Day” by Carrie Jacobs-Bond, and “The Rosary” by Ethelbert Nevin, “Just Awearyin’ for You” (11).  This music often included sentimental songs such as those composed by Stephen Foster (12) and his peers (13).  Musical skills were highly prized, and most felt that an education was incomplete without the study of music (12).

As the 1800’s progressed, America saw the development of a new genre of music referred to as Parlor music.  Unlike popular songs emanating from a particular region or ethnicity this music was written for music making in the home. Other songs were written for use in minstrel shows and theatrical productions.  Minstrel shows generally used African instruments and featured dancing singing and comedy.  Touring companies took the music across the United States and the UK, Western Europe, as well as Asia and Africa.  Blackface shows performed by whites were the most successful (13). In the beginning of the 20th Century “extravaganzas” replaced the minstrel shows.  These shows along with burlesque performances were deemed sexually titillating but remained popular to the end of the 19th Century (13).


  1. Silber, Irwin (1995). Songs of the Civil War. Page 4.  Courier Dover Publications. ISBN  0-486-28438-7.
  2. Paul Lin. American Civil War: Importance of Music in the Bloodshed Era , retrieved from http://civilwarmusic.blogspot.com/ April 4, 2013.
  3. Dobney, Jayson Kerr. “Military Music in American and European Traditions”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, retrieved from 2000–http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ammu/hd_ammu.htm.
  4. Http://contemplator.com/america/whenjohn.html
  5. The Civil War Site.  Retrieved from Http://www.civilwarmusic.net
  6. You can hear a midi version of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” here.
  7.  The Civil War Site.  Retrieved from   Http://www.civilwarmusic.net/songs.php
  8. http://americancivilwar.com/Civil_War_Music/song_lyrics/battle_cry_of_freedom.html
  9.  Civil War Music History and Songs .  Retrieved from   http://americancivilwar.com/Civil_War_Music/civil_war_music.html April 4, 2013.
  10. van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-316121-4.
  11. Http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parlour_music
  12. http://www.pdmusic.org/foster.html
  13.  Home Sweet Home
Life in Nineteenth-Century Ohio. Retrieved from Http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/html/ohio/ohio-piano.html   April 4, 2013.

Look for our Civil War release the title of which  American Classics –Parlor Music Revisited. It is by Daniel Kobialka on violin and his son Semyon on cello.
Listen to the lush melodies featuring music to commemorate the 150 anniversary of the Civil War.

Minstrel Boy
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