How the US Civil War Influenced Music

How the US Civil War Influenced Music

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Though music had become ubiquitous in American life even before the Civil War, the conflict between North and South launched it to new heights of importance.

For the more than 3 million soldiers who joined the Union and Confederate armies from 1861-65, music provided a backdrop for their daily activities, lifted their spirits ahead of challenging battles and kept up much-needed morale as the war dragged on. For those on the home front, the music that emerged from the conflict served as a link to their loved ones, and eventually worked its way into the fabric of American life.

The Role of Music in the Military

Soldiers played a huge role in popularizing songs during the Civil War. Both Union and Confederate regiments would play and sing as they marched and in their camps, spreading their chosen songs to the communities they encountered around the country. In addition to the large military bands assigned to army units, smaller groups of field musicians played instruments such as fifes, drums and bugles to accompany the troops in their daily activities—from wakeup and roll call to drills and marches to light’s out—and even during battle. According to some estimates, the total number of military musicians who served during the war reached nearly 54,000.

Now familiar as the tune played at military funerals, and to end the day at U.S. Army bases, “Taps” first emerged in 1862, when a Union general worked with his brigade’s bugler to work out a new bugle call for lights-out. “Taps” spread quickly to other units in the Union Army, and was used for the first time at a military funeral during the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia later that year.

READ MORE: Culture of the Civil War

Popular Songs on Both Sides

The Civil War drove a boom in American songwriting: Historian Christian McWhirter estimates that between 9,000 and 10,000 songs were published as sheet music during the war, including some 2,000 in the first year of the conflict alone.

Out of the many patriotic anthems, sentimental love songs and energetic marching tunes that the war produced, each side had certain songs that were particularly popular among soldiers. Union favorites such as “John Brown’s Body,” “The Battle Cry of Freedom” and “We Are Coming, Father Abraham” exalted President Abraham Lincoln, the union of the states and the antislavery cause. For Confederate soldiers and citizens, songs such as “Dixie,” “Maryland, My Maryland” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag” glorified the Southern cause.

Some songs were popular on both sides, including the spirited tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which U.S. troops would later sing in World War I and World War II. While camped on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River in December 1862, a few weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Union and Confederate troops reportedly joined together in singing the poignant ballad “Home Sweet Home.”

With Black soldiers making up nearly 10 percent of the Union Army by the end of the Civil War, the conflict also introduced many Union soldiers and other Northerners to African American music. In particular, former spirituals like “Go Down, Moses” (also known as “Let My People Go”) and “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” found a wider audience, though the lack of written music and recordings at the time meant that many Black musical traditions were lost to history.

READ MORE: 6 Black Heroes of the Civil War

The Legacy of 'Dixie'

Ironically, the most enduring song linked to the former Confederacy was written by a Northern composer. Daniel Emmett originally penned "Dixie" in Ohio in 1859 as the concluding number for a minstrel show. These performances, which were demeaning to African Americans, were a popular form of entertainment at the time and featured white performers, donned in blackface, acting out scenes of Southern life. The song became a popular hit before it was appropriated by the Confederacy as a patriotic anthem during the Civil War, with even President Lincoln later praising it as “one of the best tunes I have ever heard.”

Years after the war concluded, “Dixie” was embraced by white southerners seeking to revive the idyllic image of the Confederacy, along with white supremacy in the South. “‘Dixie’ was part of the score of Birth of a Nation, the movie that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan,” writer Tony Horwitz told NPR in 2018. “It was embraced by the segregationist Dixiecrats in the 1940s. And in the 1950s, it was sung by white women protesting the integration of schools in Arkansas and elsewhere.”

'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'

The story of one of the nation’s most enduring anthems began during the Civil War, when the poet and activist Julia Ward Howe visited Washington, D.C. in late 1861. While touring Union camps in northern Virginia, Howe heard them singing “John Brown’s Body,” which honored the radical abolitionist who was executed for leading a raid on Harper’s Ferry. That night, Howe was inspired to write new, more poetic lyrics to the song, publishing the result in February 1862 in the Atlantic Monthly.

Howe’s version, called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” became the version of the song we know best today, with its eloquent anti-slavery message, including the exhortation “Let us die to make men free.” As Andrew Limbong writes for NPR, later generations of very different Americans would use the Civil War-era anthem for their own purposes: The conservative activist Anita Bryant played it at anti-gay rallies, while Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Howe’s words ("Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord") in his famous “I”ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the day before he was killed in 1968.

The Music of War

Music has been an integral part of warfare and the soldier’s life since the dawn of history. Even the instruments on which it is played have themselves acquired great symbolic power — a regiment’s drums are second only to its colors as an emblem of honor and tradition. In the 18th century, the act of enlisting was described as ‘following the drum. Even today, those ancient symbols continue to be evoked by titles such as Dave R. Palmer’s Summons of the Trumpet, a study of strategy in the Vietnam War.

The function of music in war has always been twofold: as a means of communication and as a psychological weapon. Among the oldest references to the latter role appears in Chapter 6 of the Old Testament’s book of Joshua, with an exceptionally detailed description of the deployment of ram’s horns against Jericho, the oldest fortified human settlement known to archaeology. Although ram’s horns do indeed make a powerful blast of sound (to use the phrase favored by King James I’s translators), they can hardly be assumed to have been sufficient in and of themselves to level Jericho’s 7-meter-high walls of thick, undressed stone. Still, the biblical account of his campaign makes it clear that Joshua was a most subtle general who compensated for the numerical and technological inferiority of his men (at least some of Jericho’s Canaanite garrison had iron weapons, whereas the Israelites’ were entirely of bronze) by means of intelligence gathering, hit-and-run tactics and psychological warfare. Barring a highly coincidental earthquake, the story’s description of Jericho’s walls collapsing was most likely allegorical. Even if the exact nature of Joshua’s strategy remains conjectural, however, it seems clear that his elaborate scenarios, staged in view of the defenders and climaxing with his priests blowing their horns in unison, fired up his warriors and weakened the Canaanites’ will to resist.

Both the Greek and Roman armies used brass and percussion instruments — including the ancestors of the modern cornet and tuba — to convey information on the march, in the field and in camp. Greek armies on campaign employed musicians to accompany poetic recitations of odes and paeans designed to remind soldier and citizen alike of the valor of past heroes. After the collapse of Rome in the West, its tradition of martial music was preserved and refined by the Eastern empire in Byzantium.

There was no shortage of such practices among Rome’s Celtic enemies, who for centuries charged — and later marched — into battle accompanied by their own array of horns, drums and bagpipes. So integral were bagpipes to the Scottish martial repertoire that Britain outlawed the instruments after the defeat of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Scottish army in 1746 — only to lift the ban for the benefit of its own Scottish regiments soon thereafter.

During the first half of the Middle Ages, music was found in the courts and churches of Europe but not on the battlefield. The Crusades changed that, as they did so much else. Impressed by the Saracens’ use of military bands as both a means of instantly transmitting orders to distant formations and as a weapon of fear and affray, as Bartholomaeus Anglicus expressed it in the 13th century, the Christian knights soon emulated them. Among the Saracen instruments adapted were the anafil, a straight, valveless trumpet the tabor, a small drum, sometimes snared and the naker, a small, round kettledrum, usually deployed in pairs. The earliest mention of their use in combat appeared in Itinerarum Regis Anglorum Richardi I, a history of the Third Crusade published in 1648. In one battle fought in Syria in 1191, it describes trumpet calls being used to signal the start and recall of a Christian cavalry charge.

When veteran Crusaders returned to Europe, they brought instruments and ideas with them. As they were absorbed into various feudal or mercenary armies, the use of martial music spread rapidly. Such music also acquired new modifications, as different soldiers adapted it to their local tastes and practical needs. To the trumpets and drums were added shawms (early double-reed wind instruments) and bagpipes. Bands accompanied armies on campaign, played aboard ships or added their pomp to tournaments, festivals and other court functions.

In his 1521 treatise Libro della arte della guerra (The Art of War), Niccoló Machiavelli wrote that the commanding officer should issue orders by means of the trumpet because its piercing tone and great volume enabled it to be heard above the pandemonium of combat. Cavalry trumpets, Machiavelli suggested, ought to have a distinctly different timbre, so that their calls would not be mistaken for those pertaining to the infantry. Drums and flutes, he averred, were most useful as an adjunct to discipline on the march and during infantry maneuvers on the battlefield itself. One of his contemporaries commented at that time, Such a custom is still observed in our time, so that one of two fighting forces does not assault the enemy unless urged by the sound of trumpets and kettledrums.

By the end of the 17th century, warfare had become a stylized and highly formal business, as fierce charges gave way to the application of pressure by movement and massed firepower. Soldiers of the 1700s were required to function almost as automatons, to obey, smoothly and in formation, whatever commands were given by their superiors. With clouds of gunsmoke added to the din of combat, oral commands or personal example were not always reliable means of giving direction to an army. An order that was not heard — or worse, not understood — could be as dangerous as the enemy. Musically transmitted signals, however, could be heard above the crash of gunfire. The voice of the trumpet and the cadence of the drums were clear and unambiguous, making them vital to command and control.

Over time, the various national armies of Europe standardized their musically conveyed orders into a set of calls. Manuals from as early as the mid-16th century list such calls as Marche, Allarum, Approache, Assaulte, Retreate and Skirmish. Being able to identify those signals and translate them into specific actions was as basic a training skill as loading a musket.

Every nation eventually adopted its own signature march — the precursor of the modern national anthem — and its troops were required to memorize it as well. Amid the smoke of battle, a column of troops on the move half a mile away might be friendly or hostile, but even if their battle standard was obscured, they might be identified by their march music. Resourceful commanders had a way of sneakily turning those conventions to their advantage. In one incident during the Thirty Years’ War, a German force deceived its opponents by maneuvering to The Scots Marche. During the Battle of Oudenarde in 1708, a key fight in the War of the Spanish Succession, Allied (Anglo-Dutch-Austrian) drummers played The French Retreate so convincingly that part of the French army did, in fact, withdraw from the field.

When the first American soldiers manual — compiled by Maj. Gen. Wilhelm von Steuben — was issued to the Continental Army in 1778, it contained a list of beats and signals modeled on those used in European armies. More quickly than in Europe, however, the bugle replaced the fife and drum ensemble in the American ranks. In 1867 bugle calls for the U.S. armed forces, mostly patterned after French models, were codified and standardized into a form that largely survives today.

Although the electronic age has largely relegated bugle calls to ceremonial functions, they can still be resurrected if power or circuits fail. Communist Vietnamese forces used bugle calls in two 20th-century Indochina wars. The Chinese, who lacked modern radio communications, also used bugles during the 1950-53 Korean War. American soldiers and Marines were quite unnerved by the haunting sound of the Chinese bugle calls, stylistically alien to their ears, echoing among the dark hills around them. Their function was, in fact, the same as it had been in the 16th century, but the psychological effect revived that of the ram’s horn millennia earlier.

While burgeoning technology eclipsed the need for music to accompany movement on the battlefield by the mid-20th century, it remained an effective means by which states could manipulate the morale, energies and attitudes of armies and indeed entire populations. Perhaps it is difficult for 21st-century media cynics to look back on the quaint ditties that were popular in World War I and comprehend just how powerful a song such as Over There could be as a motivator of patriotism. Nevertheless, the classic songs of that period crystallized and gave form to an enormous amount of inchoate popular emotion.

It was during World War II, however, when both radio and cinema had become mature, ubiquitous technologies, that it became possible for governments to impress the art of music wholly into their service. Marches were still effective in all their customary roles, and the popular song again became the vehicle for knee-jerk sentiments. Most historians of popular culture agree that World War II’s pop songs were curiously inferior to those of World War I — few outlived their brief moment, and most have become dated to the point of embarrassment — but World War II was also the first time that classical music was mobilized as a weapon of war.

The Allies co-opted a prize from the Axis by adopting as their trademark the opening notes of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 — three Gs and an E-flat, corresponding to three dots and one dash in Morse code — to signify V for Victory. That musical signature served as a recurring leitmotif in Allied films, concerts and countless other forms of propaganda. How it must have galled Josef Goebbels not to have thought of it first!

Every combatant nation had musicians willing to contribute what they could to the war effort. In the United States, everyone from Frank Sinatra to Leopold Stokowski gave War Bonds concerts and made recordings exclusively for the armed forces. Jazz leader Glenn Miller lost his life en route to play for troops overseas, and cornetist Jimmy McPartland landed on D-Day with the U.S. infantry.

Nothing generated greater support for the Soviet Union than the dramatic story surrounding the creation and export-under-fire of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, subtitled Leningrad. A frail man with a weak heart, the composer was told that his greatest service to the Motherland would be to continue practicing his art, rather than serving in the Red Army. In July 1941, however, with the Wehrmacht advancing on Leningrad, he began composing his seventh symphony between shifts as an air raid fireman and while under heavy aerial bombardment. In October the Kremlin ordered him flown out of the city to the wartime capital of Kuybyshev on the Volga River. There, he completed his symphony and dedicated it to Leningrad, which by then was undergoing the most frightful and protracted siege of modern times.

Worldwide interest in the new work ran high. The orchestral score was microfilmed and flown to the West in a dramatic odyssey that included top-secret stops at Tehran and Cairo. Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski nearly came to blows as they vied for the right to conduct its North American premiere. Toscanini ultimately outmaneuvered his rival, although he later dismissed the work as trash. American audiences received it ecstatically, however. Its opening movement, featuring a hypnotic 13-minute crescendo depicting the relentless Nazi advance, is a gripping musical impression of mechanized warfare, and its concluding movement is a thrilling paean to victory. In terms of generating political, emotional and financial support for the Soviet cause, that one piece of music was worth three or four Murmansk convoys.

Even though the German propaganda ministry was scooped on Beethoven’s Fifth, there was plenty of music left to work with. The Third Reich had inherited a treasure trove of musical culture, produced by an unbroken line of musical geniuses ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner to Anton Bruckner.

Wagner’s operas in particular were for Goebbels and his vast bureaucracy metaphors and symbols that could be used to lend prestige to the Nazi regime, and resonance to the blathering of its ideologues. Adolf Hitler was equated with the Wagnerian hero Siegfried. It was even rumored in the 1930s that Winifried Wagner, the composer’s daughter-in-law, was destined to become Hitler’s wife.

There were, of course, some untidy details in the picture of German music under the Nazis. Felix Mendelssohn’s music vanished overnight — in spite of his Catholic conversion, he remained a Jew in Nazi eyes — as did the music of Paul Hindemith (officially and inaccurately labeled a decadent modernist), who became a U.S. citizen. Germany’s other greatest living composer, Richard Strauss — by 1940 a crotchety, cynical old man — accommodated himself easily to the new regime. Pianist Walter Gieseking promoted German Kultur by means of tours in neutral countries. Other ambitious young men, such as conductor Herbert von Karajan, took advantage of the Reich’s cultural peculiarities to advance their careers in a manner they have since defended as apolitical, but which many historians have regarded as simply coldblooded.

The musical world has always had its own politics and frequently Byzantine backstage intrigues, but the greatest artists — whatever their medium — prefer to inhabit an inner, spiritual world that does not mix comfortably with ideological and political priorities. Thrown suddenly into a totalitarian society, such artists can be corrupted by their own naiveté — as was the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, whose political instincts were those of an adolescent child, but who was exiled from his country in 1945 for collaboration. Or, left defenseless by their idealism, they can be crushed by the apparatus of the state.

In the case of German conductor Wilhelm Fürtwangler, probably the most profound interpreter of the Austro-German repertoire the world has ever known, that struggle reached tragic dimensions. Fürtwangler’s career was almost ruined, and his death in 1954 undoubtedly hastened, by worldwide accusations that he was a Nazi or at least a servant of the Reich. Overwhelming evidence has surfaced since the war, however, to cause him to be viewed more sympathetically. The product of a sheltered, highly cultured upbringing, for years he was simply unable to take the Nazis seriously. When he finally realized the extent of their evil, he fought them from within, taking upon himself the burden of trying to be the conscience of German civilization. As early as 1933, Fürtwangler lodged a public protest to Goebbels about the mistreatment of Jewish artists. Unwilling, due to Fürtwangler’s international fame, to move against him openly, Goebbels responded that those of us who are creating modern German politics consider ourselves artists…art can be not only good or bad, but racially conditioned….

As Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry assumed control over the press, theaters, cinemas and concert halls, the works of more than 100 impure composers vanished. The ranks of most orchestras were purged of their Jewish musicians, and such great musical artists as Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Artur Schnabel and Lotte Lehmann went into exile. Fürtwangler agonized over whether to follow his colleagues — had he done so, he could have had his pick of orchestras in the United States or unoccupied Europe. But he was unable to believe that his beloved homeland was unshakably in the grip of what he viewed as street-brawlers and psychopaths. Surely, he rationalized, if he could keep before the German people the ideal example of Beethoven’s music, then sanity would return to the nation. He therefore chose to stay and mount a one-man spiritual resistance. I felt that a really great work of music was a stronger and more essential contradiction to the spirit of Auschwitz than words could ever be, he wrote after the war. It proved to be a noble but naive attitude, and it was totally misunderstood by many outsiders. Just before war broke out, Fürtwangler visited composer Arnold Schönberg, whose music had been banned. Torn between fleeing or remaining in Germany, the tormented conductor cried, What must I do? Calmly, sadly, Schönberg replied, You must stay and conduct great music.

Fürtwangler did more than that. He publicly fought the Nazis on such issues as banning Hindemith’s music and the 1939 order to dissolve the Vienna Philharmonic, which was rescinded due to his passionate intervention. He used his influence and international contacts to save the lives of many Jewish musicians, and obstinately refused to honor Nazi protocol demanding that every conductor begin his concerts with the raised-arm salute — an insult that raised audience applause and made Hitler seethe with rage. In regard to conducting in occupied countries, Fürtwangler wrote Goebbels, I do not wish to follow tanks into countries in which I have formerly been an invited guest.

Although Fürtwangler’s prestige protected him to some degree, the Gestapo was prepared to arrest his entire family if he showed any sign of fleeing the country. The defiant conductor must have known that, even as he knew that his telephones were tapped and his mail tampered with. In the final weeks of the war, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, who hated him far more than Goebbels did, determined to take the conductor down with the regime. Fürtwangler escaped to Switzerland just hours ahead of the Gestapo order for his arrest.

By 1945, the use of music to fuel German morale reached a saturation level. For some reason, Les Préludes by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt — whose romantic works had, after all, influenced his son-in-law, Richard Wagner — was always used to accompany film footage of dive bombers. Les Préludes was also used as a signature theme for the Sondermeldung, or special announcements, that periodically interrupted normal radio programming to announce victories, after the reading of which a snappy contemporary march would be played. We’re Marching Against England was played ad nauseam in 1940-41, then quietly replaced by anti-Bolshevik themes when the Wehrmacht moved east instead of across the Channel. There was a carefully nurtured atmosphere of ceremony surrounding those broadcasts Goebbels considered it vitally important that this image be preserved, even after the tide of war had obviously turned against the Reich. When a weekly magazine had the audacity to print a photograph of the recording used to herald the Sondermeldung announcements, Goebbels threatened the editors with a long vacation in a concentration camp.

In spite of Goebbels’ calculated efforts, the Brownshirt marches that set feet a-tapping in 1934 had started to grate on people’s nerves by 1944. Germans made bitter jokes about them. The light music programs that were piped throughout the Reich as a kind of Muzak had to drop Dancing Together Into Heaven from their play lists when Allied bombing raids lent them a measure of ghoulish irony. Mozart’s Requiem was banned as too depressing. Operas such as Beethoven’s Fidelio and Giacchino Rossini’s William Tell, with their themes of liberty triumphing over tyranny, were eventually suppressed. Jazz and swing music, naturally, were verboten.

Wounded heroes back from the Russian Front were not only rewarded with Iron Crosses but with passes to the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth — possibly not the ideal way to spend one’s furlough, especially if the featured opera chanced to be the 17-hour-long Der Ring des Nibelungen. Orchestras gave concerts in the Krupp munitions plants, although how much spiritual sustenance the undernourished, exhausted tank assemblers might have derived from those events is open to question. Round-the-clock radio broadcasts constantly featured the works of great Aryan composers. In order to broadcast the lengthy symphonies of Anton Bruckner without interruption, German technicians made the first significant use of magnetic tape as a recording medium. Allied intelligence personnel, monitoring those broadcasts in the wee hours of the morning and unaware of the new tape technology, assumed that Goebbels kept ordering the entire Berlin Philharmonic out of bed at 3 a.m. to play live concerts.

In his novel War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy observed that the effectiveness of an army is the product of the mass multiplied by something else by an unknown ‘X’….the spirit of the army. Throughout history, music has had the effect of raising that unknown ‘X’ by a considerable power. What was true of the Saracens during the Crusades remained true during later conflicts. In 1861, at the outset of the American Civil War, a young South Carolina private wrote after an especially rousing concert: I have never heard or seen such a time before. The noise of the men was deafening. I felt at the time that I could whip a whole brigade of the enemy myself!

What works for a regiment can be made to work on a national level, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the skill and persuasiveness of the manipulation. Even the horrors of modern warfare have proved easier to bear when their struggles are identified with and ennobled by great music. In 1942, on a nameless killing ground on the Russian Front, a diary was found in the pocket of a dead German soldier who had just returned from leave in Berlin. One of the last entries concerned a concert he had attended. Last night I heard a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth, the young man had written, and now I know what we are fighting for!

This article was written by William R. Trotter and originally published in the June 2005 issue of Military History magazine.

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The American Brass Band Movement

The early 1850s saw the brief flowering of a brilliant style of brass band music that constitutes an important but insufficiently explored part of our musical past.

Band of the 10th Veteran Reserve Corps [Detail]. Washington, D.C., April, 1865.
At center, fully visible, is a B-flat baritone. Partially visible: B-flat cornet (left), and E-flat tenor (right). Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8184-7865. Call Number: LOT 4190G.

The early 1850s saw the brief flowering of a brilliant style of brass band music that constitutes an important but insufficiently explored part of our musical past.1 The cornets and saxhorns that made up the all-brass bands of the 1850s and remained a popular, though decreasingly prominent, feature of American wind bands through the nineteenth century were capable of producing, in the hands of good players, music of great charm and style. The leading E-flat soprano part, taken by Adel Sanchez in this online recording, demanded extraordinary virtuosity, and the prominent role played by the E-flat cornet or soprano saxhorn-Flügelhorn type instruments is characteristic of early American brass band music. 2 At the same time, the uniquely homogeneous and mellow sound created by the whole family of horns ranging from soprano to bass is the outstanding quality of these instruments.

The obsolescence of the instruments used in this online recording is due to changing taste rather than to inherent defects in their design. They presented some irksome--though manageable--intonation problems, to be sure, just as various instruments do today. Bassoonists, for example, must cope with a notoriously imperfect instrument, but they have no special license to play out of tune. Certainly such problems would have been overcome by competent players of the old horns who used them constantly, for they were readily mastered by the musicians heard in this recording, who had just four days of rehearsals with the unfamiliar instruments before the concert and recording session. Moreover, music of the difficulty found in many band compositions of the era would never have been composed, much less expensively engraved or meticulously hand-copied into part-books, if there had been no musicians to do it justice.

In addition to his studies on the history of band music, Jon Newsom, chief of the Library of Congress's Music Division, has published articles on improvisational jazz, the songs of Stephen Foster and Henry Clay Work, the German Romantic composer Hans Pfitzner and Thomas Mann, and the film music of David Raksin. This essay is adapted from the following publications by Mr. Newsom: "The American Brass Band Movement," The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 36 (1979): 115-30, 138-39 and "Our Musical Past: A History of the Instruments and the Musical Selections," liner notes to Our Musical Past: A Concert for Brass Band, Voice, and Piano, Library of Congress OMP 101-102 (1976).

The Civil War and American Art

Thomas Moran, Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia, 1862, oil on canvas, Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Gift of Laura A. Clubb, Image © 2012 Philbrook Museum of Art, Inc., Tulsa, Oklahoma Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Civil War Trust had the opportunity to meet with Eleanor J. Harvey, Senior Curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The museum's new exhibit, The Civil War and American Art, explores the impact of the war on American art. Four videos accompany this article.

Civil War Trust: This new exhibit of Civil War art has received wide-spread acclaim. What was your inspiration for creating this exhibit?

Eleanor J. Harvey: What inspired me to develop this exhibition was what I came to see as the erasure of the Civil War from the analysis of American art. What I found was, unless you were working on an artist directly involved in the War, or who addressed it directly in his artworks, the war simply started, ended, and seemed to leave no footprint. After 9/11 I realized there was no way a four-year long Civil War could leave no trace on an artist’s life my goal was to research what each artist was doing during the war, and unearth the Civil War-related layer of meaning that resides in some of the finest works of art made during those turbulent years.

Part of the reason for this erasure I think stems from the Bicentennial in 1976. We began to focus intently on American art as a valuable expression of our cultural heritage. Landscape painting in particular came to be seen as a symbol of America’s ambitions and aspirations. Because most landscape painters did not enlist in the army or paint obvious war-related paintings, they were overlooked in a discussion of the effects of the Civil War. We simply didn’t know how to account for the war in their works. That bothered me—I felt this war left its imprint everywhere: on literature, poetry, sermons, speeches, and all over diaries and letters. It made no sense to me that artists would be immune to the war.

My research uncovered extensive use of landscape—terrain, weather, and meteorology—to describe the destabilizing effects of the war. Storms rose as tensions rose with war looming erupting volcanoes were a symbol of social unrest over abolition and slavery meteors linked to John Brown crisscrossed the skies Auroras signaled an apocalyptic judgment on both sides. In short, our ancestors described the turbulence of the time using language suffused with the landscape—and America’s landscape painters used that same visual vocabulary to create paintings that function on one level as the emotional barometer of the nation’s psyche.

At the war’s outbreak were American artists well prepared to cover the Civil War as an artistic subject?

EJH: Although war loomed—and seemed imminent to many—during the 1850s, when it started it was nonetheless a shock. Artists thought they were prepared for a short and glorious war, and there are newspaper accounts of an artist who painted the backdrop landscape in anticipation of painting in the heroic details of the Union victory at Manassas in July 1861. Needless to say he did not chronicle the federal retreat, and that episode stands as a kind of metaphor for visualizing this war—it defied expectations and frustrated attempts to chronicle it in the moment. It takes time, and hindsight, to figure out who the heroes are in any war, which are the pivotal battles. I wanted to know what artists painted in the middle of the war—when there was no way of knowing how long it would last, who would win, or what might happen next. That approach—the war without hindsight—meant most of the paintings I brought together dealt with the war in a more elliptical way, responding to current events, political cartoons, and songs and poetry—often using the same visual vocabulary to describe what America was enduring.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that landscapes are heavily represented in the exhibit. Tell us more about how landscapes were important to the artists of this time.

EJH: Landscape painting before the war was the single most prominent genre in American art. We looked to landscape paintings—and the actual features they presented—as emblems of our country’s power, prowess, and prospects for the future. Niagara Falls, natural Bridge—these icons were an important part of our core visual vocabulary. We took pride in these scenes, and found spiritual significance in the landscape—even calling American the “New Eden.” When the Civil War began, Cain killed Abel—brother against brother—and that is grounds for expulsion from that Garden of Eden. This war would make it impossible to see our landscape, and ourselves, apart from its destruction. But no one had ever researched the way in which landscape painters responded to the war—because most of them never painted a battlefield or enlisted in the army. They were viewed as sideline players, watching, but disengaged. My research—which was all grounded in primary documents: letters, diaries, exhibition reviews, speeches, sermons, poems, essays, and the like—pointed to a vast literary vocabulary in which landscape metaphors played a central role in describing a world coming apart at the seams. The paintings themselves developed from this rich matrix of documents—and the art reviews made it clear the man on the street easily transferred metaphors about the coming storm when God would run out of patience on the issue of slavery (Abraham Lincoln, 1858) to paintings of brooding storms waiting to break forth (Heade, 1858 and 1860). Those corollaries were important anchors for this exhibition.

This exhibit features a number of iconic photographs from the Civil War. Were battlefield photographers artists or were they just seeking to document the war?

Did Civil War paintings and photographs have much impact on the home fronts of the Civil War?

EJH: These paintings and photographs did make an impact at the time they were made. It varied from painting to painting, and my research focused on how each artist grappled with the war, and how the paintings he made were conceived, displayed, and reviewed at that time—to measure the impact each work had. New York was the center of the American art world, with numerous newspapers and weeklies covering exhibitions and visits to artists’ studios. Diarists like George Templeton Strong wrote about these events as well. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. made the case for the impact of the photographs—he felt many would be locked away in drawers, as they brought back the trauma of each battle. He wasn’t sure viewers could handle them—acknowledging their visceral power, and dreading their impact at the same time. That spoke very eloquently to me about how these images played out for those who came home, or stayed home.

Even when an artist didn’t intend a painting to focus on the war, circumstances would literally conscript it—Sanford Gifford’s “The Coming Storm” happened to be on view when Lincoln was assassinated. At the time, the painting was owned by Edwin Booth—a famous Shakespearean actor and brother of the president’s assassin. Herman Melville wrote a poem about this painting, comparing the turbulent storm to the state of Edwin’s mind and the grief of the nation. Overnight, this painting was recast as a visual eulogy to our fallen President. No one emerged from the war years unscathed these paintings and photographs bear witness to that.

Sanford Robinson Gifford, A Coming Storm, 1863, retouched and redated in 1880, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of the McNeil Americana Collection. Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Civil War

Lt. Col. Alex B. Elder, left, and unknown Civil War soldier.

Political and social impact

1. 13th Amendment: slavery banned

2. 14th: citizenship for all born in the U.S.

3. 15th: voting rights for all male citizens regardless of race

4. Women's rights gain momentum

5. 1862 Homestead Act passed

6. Censorship of battlefield photos

7. Reconstruction laws passed

10. Federal law trumps states' rights

In many ways the Civil War set the stage for modern medicine, providing thousands of poorly schooled physicians with a vast training ground:

11. Modern hospital organization

13. Safer surgical techniques

15. Organized ambulance and nurses' corps

The war influenced our holidays and play:

16. Juneteenth holiday, also known as Emancipation Day

18. Thomas Nast popularizes image of Santa Claus

19. Some 65,000 books on the conflict

20. Films such as Gone With the Wind, Glory and Cold Mountain

21. More than 70 National Park Service Civil War sites

22. Centennial toys: Civil War trading cards and blue & gray toy soldiers

The war years brought technological advances:

23. 15,000 miles of new telegraph lines, which reached the West Coast

24. Mass production of canned food

25. Battlefield photography

26. Transcontinental Railroad

Wartime helped devise or popularize parts of our daily lives:

29. Left and right shoes shaped differently

30. Standard premade clothing in sizes small, medium and large

31. National paper currency

In what's considered the first modern war, both sides developed equipment and tactics that would be refined in later conflicts:

32. Minié ball bullets, cartridge ammunition

In its wake, the war left a system to care for and honor those who fought:


American blacks added to this rich exchange of music. Many former slaves fled during the war to what were called contraband camps in Washington, D.C. We have accounts of Abraham Lincoln visiting those camps, joining in their prayer services, and singing such spirituals with them as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Free at Last,” and “Go Down Moses.” Lincoln “wiped tears from his eyes at the singing of ‘Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen.’”

Lithograph cover of sheet music to “Hymn of the Freedman” depicting African American soldiers of the Union 8th U.S. Colored Troops and their commanding officer, Colonel Charles W. Fribley, killed in the Battle of Olustee, Florida, on Feb. 20, 1864, during the American Civil War. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

In addition, by the end of the Civil War, nearly 200,000 African Americans had served in the Northern army and navy. They too sang these songs of freedom, introducing them to the white soldiers in other regiments.

One of the more popular songs among black and white troops of the Union armies was “Kingdom Coming,” or “The Year of Jubilo” as it was also called. Though rarely sung today because it was written in dialect, the song mocked Southern slave owners and celebrated freedom for slaves.

From the war there was born, I believe, the merging of black and white musical culture.

English Influence

Detail from reception of Brigadier General Corcoran by Mayor Opdyke and the citizens of New York at Castle Garden, August 22--Mayor Opdyke escorting the general to his carriage. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 6, 1862.).

In England employers enthusiastically encouraged their factory workers to participate in music-making, which became highly competitive, probably with the thought that they would then be less likely to become involved in potentially disruptive activities. And so, factories had their bands, as modern schools and colleges have their football teams, which were good for morale and business and served a definite purpose in the minds of the practical businessmen who supported them. These bands even practiced regularly during working hours, and well-planned competitions among rival bands drew tremendous crowds. Music-making probably has never so closely resembled a commercially sponsored contact sport. And we may be reasonably sure that occasionally the contact between and among spectators and bandsmen induced even more pain physically than the most rustic music participants induced acoustically. Nevertheless, there is also evidence that the best amateur bands equaled or even surpassed the outstanding British professional military bands of the time. It should be emphasized, however, that these professional bands were not all brass, a predominant role being played by woodwinds--just the kind of instrumentation so ardently called for by Dwight.

In Britain, the brass band movement was, and still is, strictly an amateur one. But in America, it was a relatively short-lived phenomenon involving professional and amateur musicians alike. This British import was subjected to many Yankee innovations, for America in the 1850s, even in the more industrial centers of the Northern states, had not achieved the intense social climate of the densely populated towns and cities in which the brass band movement thrived in England.

The spirit in which American brass bands were formed is captured in John C. Linehan's recollections of the Fisherville Cornet Band, established shortly before the Civil War:

The band in its infancy occupied the room over the present Methodist Church, and it was interesting for those outside to note the evolution from [the tune] "Few Days" to the rendition of a first class quick step. . . .

The best tribute paid the band [in 1860] . . . was its selection to perform service for the Governor's Horse Guards, one of the most stylish military organizations ever recruited in New Hampshire. . . .

Their engagement by the Horse Guards, although a matter of pride, was nevertheless an occasion of dismay, for the boys for the first time in their lives had to play on horseback. As nearly all of them were novices in this direction the outlook was serious, for it is a question if there were half a dozen of the number that had ever straddled a horse. When the proposition was first broached in the band room, one of the saddest looking men was the leader, Loren Currier. He said he would vote to accept on one condition, and that was if a horse could be secured large enough to have them all ride together and give him a place in the middle. The proposition was, however, accepted. . . . It was a moving sight (the moving was all towards the ground, however), and the bucking broncos of the Wild West Show furnished no more sport, while it lasted, than did the gallant equestrians of the Fisherville Band while trying to train their horses to march and wheel by fours. 15

A Short Blues History

Charley Patton was quite possibily the blues' most talented all-around artist. A magnificent guitar player, songwriter and singer, he exterted influence that extended from Son House to Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson

The Blues Queens

The Bluesmen

The origins of blues is not unlike the origins of life. For many years it was recorded only by memory, and relayed only live, and in person. The Blues were born in the North Mississippi Delta following the Civil War. Influenced by African roots, field hollers, ballads, church music and rhythmic dance tunes called jump-ups evolved into a music for a singer who would engage in call-and-response with his guitar. He would sing a line, and the guitar would answer.

The Crossroads

From the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, and the platform of the Clarksdale Railway Station, the blues headed north to Beale Street in Memphis. The blues have strongly influenced almost all popular music including jazz, country, and rock and roll and continues to help shape music worldwide

The Blues. it's 12-bar, bent-note melody is the anthem of a race, bonding itself together with cries of shared self victimization. Bad luck and trouble are always present in the Blues, and always the result of others, pressing upon unfortunate and down trodden poor souls, yearning to be free from life's' troubles. Relentless rhythms repeat the chants of sorrow, and the pity of a lost soul many times over. This is the Blues.

The blues form was first popularized about 1911-14 by the black composer W.C. Handy (1873-1958). However, the poetic and musical form of the blues first crystallized around 1910 and gained popularity through the publication of Handy's "Memphis Blues" (1912) and "St. Louis Blues" (1914). Instrumental blues had been recorded as early as 1913. During the twenties, the blues became a national craze. Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, 'Crazy Blues' in 1920. The Blues influence on jazz brought it into the mainstream and made possible the records of blues singers like Bessie Smith and later, in the thirties, Billie Holiday

The Blues are the essence of the African American laborer, whose spirit is wed to these songs, reflecting his inner soul to all who will listen. Rhythm and Blues, is the cornerstone of all forms of African American music.

Many of Memphis' best Blues artists left the city at the time, when Mayor "Boss" Crump shut down Beale Street to stop the prostitution, gambling, and cocaine trades, effectively eliminating the musicians, and entertainers' jobs, as these businesses closed their doors. The Blues migrated to Chicago, where it became electrified, and Detroit.

In northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, during the later forties and early fifties, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and Elmore James among others, played what was basically Mississippi Delta blues, backed by bass, drums, piano and occasionally harmonica, and began scoring national hits with blues songs. At about the same time, T-Bone Walker in Houston and B.B. King in Memphis were pioneering a style of guitar playing that combined jazz technique with the blues tonality and repertoire.

Meanwhile, back in Memphis, B.B. King invented the concept of lead guitar, now standard in today's Rock bands. Bukka White (cousin to B.B. King), Leadbelly, and Son House, left Country Blues to create the sounds most of us think of today as traditional unamplified Blues.

Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup

Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Wyonnie Harris, and Big Mama Thorton wrote and preformed the songs that would make a young Elvis Presley world renown.

Music of the 1860's

And fair the form of music shines, That bright, celestial creature, Who still, 'mid war's embattled lines, Gave this one touch of Nature.

The 93rd New York Infantry drum corps in Bealeton, Virginia, August 1863 (Library of Congress)

These lines, written by Virginia poet John Reuben Thompson (1823-1873) in "Music in Camp", echo the sentiments of no less an authority than Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who once remarked that without music, there would have been no army. The New York Herald agreed with Lee when, in 1862, a reporter wrote, "All history proves that music is as indispensable to warfare as money and money has been called the sinews of war. Music is the soul of Mars. "
In his 1966 classic Lincoln and the Music of the Civil War, Kenneth A. Bernard calls the War Between the States a musical war. In the years preceding the conflict, he points out, singing schools and musical institutes operated in many parts of the country. Band concerts were popular forms of entertainment and pianos graced the parlors of many homes. Sales of sheet music were immensely profitable for music publishing houses on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Thus, when soldiers North and South marched off to war, they took with them a love of song that transcended the political and philosophical divide between them. Music passed the time it entertained and comforted it brought back memories of home and family it strengthened the bonds between comrades and helped to forge new ones. And, in the case of the Confederacy, it helped create the sense of national identity and unity so necessary to a fledgling nation.
Bernard writes, "In camp and hospital they sang -- sentimental songs and ballads, comic songs and patriotic numbers. The songs were better than rations or medicine." By Bernard's count, ". during the first year [of the war] alone, an estimated two thousand compositions were produced, and by the end of the war more music had been created, played, and sung than during all our other wars combined. More of the music of the era has endured than from any other period in our history."

• Bernard, Kenneth A., Lincoln and the Music of the Civil War, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho, 1966.
• Currie, Stephen, Music in the Civil War, Betterway Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1992.
• Harwell, Richard B., Confederate Music, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1950.
• Heaps, Willard A. and Heaps, Porter W., The Singing Sixties: The Spirit of Civil War Days Drawn from the Music of the Times, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Okla., 1960.

Songs of the Armies

Songs and music of the Civil War covered every aspect of the conflict and every feeling about it. Music was played on the march, in camp, even in battle armies marched to the heroic rhythms of drums and often of brass bands. The fear and tedium of sieges was eased by nightly band concerts, which often featured requests shouted from both sides of the lines. Around camp there was usually a fiddler or guitarist or banjo player at work, and voices to sing the favorite songs of the era. In fact, Confederate General Robert E. Lee once remarked, “I don’t believe we can have an army without music.”

There were patriotic songs for each side: the North’s "Battle Cry of Freedom," "May God Save the Union," “John Brown’s Body” that Julia Ward Howe made into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and the South’s “Dixie” (originally a pre-war minstrel show song), "God Save the South," "God Will Defend the Right," and "The Rebel Soldier". Several of the first songs of the war, such as “Maryland! My Maryland!” celebrated secession.

“The Bonnie Blue Flag,” another pro-Southern song was so popular in the Confederacy that Union General Benjamin Butler destroyed all the printed copies he could find, jailed the publisher, and threatened to fine anyone—even a child—caught singing the song or whistling the melody. The slaves had their own tradition of songs of hope: “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” the words said guardedly—meaning follow the Big Dipper north to the Underground Railroad and freedom.

Soldiers sang sentimental tunes about distant love—the popular “Lorena” and “Aura Lee” (which in the twentieth century became “Love Me Tender”) and “The Yellow Rose of Texas”—and songs of loss such as “The Vacant Chair.” Other tunes commemorated victory—“Marching Through Georgia” was a vibrant evocation of Sherman’s March to the Sea. Some even sprouted from prison life, such as "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp."

Soldiers marched to the rollicking “Eatin’ Goober Peas” they vented their war-weariness with “Hard Times” they sang about their life in “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground” they were buried to the soulful strains of “Taps,” written for the dead of both sides in the Seven Days’ Battles. When the guns stopped, the survivors returned to the haunting notes of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”

After Robert E. Lee surrendered, Abraham Lincoln, on one of the last days of his life, asked a Northern band to play “Dixie” saying it had always been one of his favorite tunes. No one could miss the meaning of this gesture of reconciliation, expressed by music.

—Adapted from Encyclopedia of the Civil War edited by John S. Bowman (Dorset Press, 1992) and Music in the Civil War by Stephen Currie (Betterway Books, 1992.)

Watch the video: The American Civil War - OverSimplified Part 1


  1. Dakus

    The timely response

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