Music of the Civil War

While we all think of the music that accompanies Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, did you know that that song was written in 1982!?! Because the Folk Festival is just one week away, we decided to look at what historical Civil War music was like, and how it might be recognized at the upcoming Folk Festival.

There’s just one week to go until the Richmond Folk Festival! In addition to coverage of all the different acts and events going on, I thought it could be fun to ruminate on the music of the Civil War. For those unfamiliar, you may think the only famous song from that period was “Ashokan Farewell”, made famous by the Ken Burns “Civil War” documentary. Well, sadly, since it was written in 1982, it didn’t get a whole lot of attention back in the 1860’s.

But there were plenty of other songs that did.

As a Civil War history buff who also moonlights as a DJ, I often find myself on the receiving end of random gifts of Civil War music. A friend will be out scouring a local record shop and come across an anthology of Civil War songs and they’ll usually pick it up for me. I can assure you…there’s a lot of it out there (I think I’m just a few albums shy of being able to actually DJ a Civil War reenactment).

Music was central to the lives of both soldiers and those on the homefront. Robert E. Lee said it best: “I don’t believe we can have an army without music.”

On the battlefield itself, music played a vital role. Both armies employed musicians in battle, mostly buglers, drummers, and fifers. They helped to communicate everything from battle commands to calls for mealtime. The drummers specifically helped to keep soldiers marching in time. Occasionally, a general would order the musicians to play a song during a battle, but more often they were used to help communicate or assist others (e.g. medical staff) during the actual fighting.

In between battles, the life of a common Civil War soldier in camp could be pretty monotonous. Music helped to boost morale and provided the soldiers with a recreational activity and a diversion from the war. The types of songs varied as much as the emotions of the soldiers – there were songs to give courage, to entertain, and to help deal with homesickness. Interestingly enough, the Union and Confederate soldiers often shared the same songs. “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Home Sweet Home” were loved by both sides. Often, songs written for one side would end up with lyrics changed and adopted by the other. Songs like “Dixie” had completely different lyrics depending on which side was doing the singing. Check out the Union version of “Dixie”:

Even though the country was divided, it was often through music that the two sides found common ground:

The night before the Battle of Stones River, after the bands had finished their usual evening serenade, Federal bands struck up slowly and softly “Home Sweet Home.” As the notes came through the stillness of the night, soldiers of both sides were wondering what tomorrow would bring: each soldier wondering if he would be wounded, or die, or if he would ever see home again. Then a Confederate band joined, and then another, until all the bands of each army were playing “Home Sweet Home.” This continued for some time until the bands one by one ceased playing and the sweet music faded away into the night.

National Park Service: Stones River National Battlefield (PDF)

Moments like the one above can be found throughout the history of the war, where soldiers were able, if only for a brief while, to put aside their respective cause and find common ground in something as simple as a song.

If you’re making your way to the Folk Festival, be sure to take the opportunity to brush up on some Civil War history while you’re there. The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar is located on the grounds of the festival and will be free to the public. In addition, All The Past We Left Behind, a short film about Richmond’s Civil War sites and battlefields, will be playing as part of the Richmond Folk Festival Film Series.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, blogger, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry. He can also be found DJing around RVA as his alter-ego Robot E. Lee.

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