Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War

Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War

Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War

Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War


Music was everywhere during the Civil War. Tunes could be heard ringing out from parlor pianos, thundering at political rallies, and setting the rhythms of military and domestic life. With literacy still limited, music was an important vehicle for communicating ideas about the war, and it had a lasting impact in the decades that followed. Drawing on an array of published and archival sources, Christian McWhirter analyzes the myriad ways music influenced popular culture in the years surrounding the war and discusses its deep resonance for both whites and blacks, South and North.
Though published songs of the time have long been catalogued and appreciated, McWhirter is the first to explore what Americans actually said and did with these pieces. By gauging the popularity of the most prominent songs and examining how Americans used them, McWhirter returns music to its central place in American life during the nation's greatest crisis. The result is a portrait of a war fought to music.


The Civil War was the first American war fought to music, or so I assumed when I began researching this book. Popular depictions of the war are loaded with references to popular songs: Scarlett O’Hara frequently encounters and sometimes performs sentimental and patriotic numbers in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind; Michael Shaara uses the popular antebellum ballad “Kathleen Mavourneen” as a symbol of fratricidal strife in The Killer Angels; black soldiers in the Fifty- Fourth Massachusetts gather for a “shout” the night before they attack Fort Wagner in Glory; and Ken Burns’s monumental documentary, The Civil War, effectively uses many songs from the 1860s. Historians, too, often sprinkle references to Civil War music in their studies of the conflict. Put together, these depictions cannot help but give the impression of a war with a musical soundtrack.

The sources I examined repeatedly confirmed this assumption. According to nineteenth- century Americans, music was everywhere. It rang out from parlor pianos in homes across the country; it thundered from crowds of civilians at political rallies; it beat the steady rhythms of soldier life; and it declared the newfound freedom of African Americans. Although it was certainly a prominent part of northern and southern culture before 1861, the war catapulted music to a new level of cultural significance. More than mere entertainment, it provided a valuable way for Americans to express their thoughts and feelings about the conflict. Conversely, songs influenced the thoughts and feeling of civilians, soldiers, and slaves—shaping how they viewed the war.

Yet, few historians have considered how music functioned during the 1860s. Often, one or two pieces are plucked from the mass of available examples to support a historical interpretation, but music rarely occupies a central role in Civil War studies. Musicologists, on the other hand, have not neglected the war’s music. Though their approach does not address the same questions that historians ask, musicologists have made significant contributions to understanding the content and performance of Civil War songs.

My goal is to push beyond lyrical and musical analysis and move music out from the periphery of Civil War history. Musicologists have done an admirable job collecting and analyzing Civil War songs, but it is equally important to explore their role in daily life. Almost any war diary, letter collection, or memoir . . .

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