Thursday, May 31, 2012

Popular Civil War Songs

The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, during the prime years of the American Old West. In the early years of the war, marching songs became popular for both the North and the South. One such song is "Dixie's Land." Although some sources claim the song was written by Daniel Decatur Emmett in the early 1860s, there is evidence that the song was sung in Blackface (later, Vaudeville) minstrel shows as early as the 1850s.

Among the reasons Emmett's authorship is questioned is his delay in filing for copyright of the lyrics as well as his variations on how he came up with the lyrics. Nevertheless, sources still attribute the lyrics to Emmett. It's interesting to note that Emmett was a Northerner, though, and through the Civil War years, the song clearly represented the longings of the Southern soldiers to return to their homes.

Surprisingly, the song has six verses, but it was the chorus that seemed to elicit the strongest emotional response in the soldiers of the South: "Then I wish I was in Dixie! Hooray! Hooray! In Dixie Land I'd take my stand, to live and die in Dixie! Away! Away! Away down South in Dixie!"

In 1861, Daniel Decatur Emmett did copyright another inspirational song, this one dedicated to the soldiers of the North. "Victory's Band" was, oddly enough, sung to the same tune as "Dixie's Land." This song reflected the increasingly vindictive feelings creeping into marching songs of the times, with lyrics such as, "We're marching under the flag of the Union, keeping step in brace communion! March away! March away! Away! Victory's band! Right down upon the ranks of rebels, Tramp them underfoot like pebbles, March away! March away! Away! Victory's band!"

One of the most emotionally exciting songs written during the Civil War, and my favorite, is the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was sung at President Abraham Lincoln's funeral, US Senator Robert Kennedy's funeral, and President Ronald Reagan's funeral.

The song was written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861 and first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1862. This song was set to the tune of a popular drinking song that had rather risque lyrics. Her decision was a wise one--Howe must have known the soldiers would all know that tune well! Indeed, she came up with the tune while listening to soldiers at a Union Army camp in Virginia. Howe and her husband were volunteers for the Sanitation Commission, which oversaw conditions for prisoners of war. They didn't have much authority to enact change, but they were known for their determination to improve the living conditions of prisoners. Howe heard the soldiers singing a song about abolitionist John Brown and composed her own lyrics to accompany the tune.

It is the first verse of this song that is most well-remembered: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, he has loosed his fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on."

Eventually, some commanders refused to allow soldiers to sing these favorite songs because they thought the songs made them miss their homes, therefore lowering morale. In spite of such prohibitions, the songs were sung, and new songs, sad songs, became popular as the war continued, such as Walter Kittridge's "Tenting on the Old Campground" composed in 1861. As the song begins, "We're tenting tonight on the old campground. Give us a song to cheer. Our weary hearts, a song of home, and friends we love so dear."

The chorus of this particular song is haunting. When you read the words, you can almost see the pale, gaunt faces of the starving soldiers, their emaciated bodies shivering in the dark and shadowy corners of the prison yards as they quietly sing the chorus, "Many are the hearts that are weary tonight, wishing for the war to cease; many are the hearts looking for the right to see the dawn of peace."

7 comments:

Nigel Naughton said...

Great article but I think there was a type in, " Although some sources claim the song was written by Daniel Decatur Emmett in the early 1960s, " should be "1860's" right?

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Haha! Yes! Either that, or he's a time traveler! Thank you, Nigel.

Rob Lopez said...

When I used to do American Civil War re-enactments (many years ago now) 'Dixie's Land' was one of my favourite tunes to sing along to, even though our 'unit' was a Union one (2nd Wisconsin, D Company "The Badger Boys", Iron Brigade). I only knew the lyrics to the chorus though. Battle Hymn of the Republic was one I did learn though - we sang it during shows, around the campfire and in the car on the way to shows. Bit mad, but there you go. I found the singing of such songs strangely uplifting, even though for us it was only make-believe. There's a lot of power in those songs.

Another great article.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I also find them uplifting and often sing them in the car or while I'm working on the house or in the yard. They were meant to inspire and they do the job! Re-enactments--how fun! Great history exercise--good for you!

Paw said...

Delose Connor, director of BSA's Camp Loll on the Southwest Corner of Yellowstone, taught me to sing "Tenting tonight". The emotion of that song really is haunting, and when singing it as a group around the campfire, one can almost feel the presence of the tired soldiers who sang it over 150 years ago.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I agree--when you sing these songs as a group, the emotional response to the words becomes so much stronger.

Gretchen Bennett said...

This is so emotional.