THE CIVIL WAR resembled the Revolution and the War of 1812 in that it produced many topical songs designed to meet the urgent needs of the moment: to celebrate victory, fortify convictions, taunt the enemy, steel the soul for battle, and provide solace. It was a time when literary and musical activity flowered with a great intensity.
Thousands of ordinary, anonymous Americans—soldiers, civilians, nurses, housewives, and ministers—wrote these songs and verses, which were often sung to traditional ballad tunes. Numbers of these songs were printed as broadsides and circulated in factory, field, and camp by the tens of thousands of copies. Here, the Civil War continued and enriched the broadside ballad tradition of colonial and early national times. Professional songwriters also turned to writing war songs and found a wide and ready market for their compositions. Much money was made by publishers, especially in New York and Philadelphia, from the distribution and sale of low-priced popular songbooks and sheet music.
Notwithstanding its grandeur, much of this Civil War material has vanished from popular tradition. It is obscurely preserved in the music files, broadside, songster, and manuscript