Music Composed the Souls of Fighting Men

By Anderson, Richard V. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 31, 1996 | Go to article overview

Music Composed the Souls of Fighting Men


Anderson, Richard V., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


In the early spring of 1863, the 14th Tennessee Infantry was traveling north to join Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, and in order to make time, they were traveling at night. A pale moon shone on the column as it moved along the dusty roads. Around 1 a.m., a surgeon riding at the head of the regiment reached into his saddlebag, took out his flute and quietly began playing.

As the music drifted down the column, the soldiers recognized "Home, Sweet Home." Some months before, the regiment had organized an informal glee club, and now the members moved toward the front of the column and the flute-playing surgeon.

One infantryman later wrote in his diary: "Instantly the other members of the Glee Club gathered around him and in subdued tones joined in the chorus. The effect was indescribable. The sweetness and beauty of it all may never be duplicated in song or scene.

"Then followed `Annie Laurie,' Swanee River,' `Massa in the Cold, Cold Ground,' `The Old Kentucky Home,' `Bonny Blue Flag,' and the climax `Dixie Land.' "

Refreshed and encouraged, the soldiers marched on through the night, not knowing that their final destination would be a town in Pennsylvania that few of them had even heard of - Gettysburg.

Such stories are not uncommon in the annals of the Civil War. Diaries, letters and memoirs testify again and again to the role music played in the war. It was not just a matter of soldiers hearing patriotic songs sung by professional entertainers. It was music performed on the battlefield by nervous and homesick soldiers with rifles primed for the fight.

In the spring of 1864, as the Army of Northern Virginia was counterattacking and driving the Union Army through the Wilderness of Virginia, the Confederates were startled to hear two Yankee regiments, standing amid the flames of a burning forest, singing, "We'll rally round the flag, boys, rally once again."

During the second winter of the war, when the two armies faced each other across the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, a lieutenant from a Virginia regiment wrote to his father, "Our boys will sing a southern song, the Yankees will reply by singing the same tune to Yankee words."

Perhaps the most poignant incident occurred on a December night in 1862 along Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tenn., before the great and bloody battle there. Through the evening, the Union band would play a Northern tune and the Confederate band across the river would answer with a Southern tune. The serenading ended with both bands joining to play "Home, Sweet Home" just before the killing began.

The music of the war was one of its richest legacies. Songwriters and composers from both sides were inspired to produce a wide variety of new works: patriotic songs and sentimental songs, comic songs and fierce satires, protest songs and marching songs, genteel parlor songs and rowdy drinking songs.

The tunes appeared in elaborate sheet music, tattered pocket "songsters," cheap broadsides and dusty band books. At least 700 songs were published by Southern presses alone, and probably three or four times that number by the bigger Northern companies.

Compared to the songs of other wars, those of the Civil War had a lasting influence on American music. Many of them became standards or favorites that are still in use. Others, such as the Negro spirituals and minstrel songs, changed the course of popular musical styles as freed slaves started their journey toward integration into American society.

And the widespread movement of troops in wartime meant that young men who had seldom been more than 20 miles from home were exposed to new types of music, which they carried back home with them after the war.

The attitudes toward music in the 1860s were different from those today. Without the mass-media technologies of tapes, compact discs and the Armed Forces Radio and Television Network, popular music was not the spectator sport that it has become. …

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