You might not think of a battlefield as a great place to hear music—it has probably never been anyone’s first choice of a concert venue. Even so, wars have historically inspired and even required music, and the Civil War (1861–65) was no different. Exploring the conflict’s varied soundtrack, from patriotic marches to haunting ballads, offers you and your students a window to the spirit, story, and emotion of a traumatic time in American history.
Laying the groundwork for music’s integral role in the war was America’s rich and expanding musical life in the preceding years. There was a great deal of music making everywhere. That’s because well before the invention of iPods or even radio, people relied on themselves, their families, and their communities for the music of daily life. You could often hear fiddles, flutes, banjos, and other easily made instruments in households across the economic spectrum; wealthier households might have had a piano both as a musical instrument and as a status symbol. Education of the growing middle class invariably included music lessons, and the printing of easy sheet music proliferated to meet the demand of parlor musicians. Meanwhile, appreciation for performed music was also growing, and with wealthy citizens’ support, concert halls and music societies expanded.
As more than three million men and boys from the North and the South marched to war in the 1860s, so did America’s music. General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, reportedly said, “I don’t believe we can have an army without music.” From marching music to camp songs, from concerts to “Taps,” music moved the armies through daily activities, rallied morale, incited conflict, and defused tensions. Soldiers also sang their own music, often at their evening encampments, for comfort and camaraderie.
This article includes background you can pull from depending on your classroom goals, plus activities and listening suggestions so you can easily and quickly incorporate Civil War music into your lesson plans. Many activities can be adapted to different grade levels. You’ll find resources for further exploration at the end of “On the Home Front.”
On the Battlefield
Played at military funerals, scouting events, and still used to signal day’s end on U.S. Army bases throughout the world, the 24 familiar notes of “Taps” convey powerful emotion. Less known, however, is that this stirring melody is one of many musical legacies of the Civil War.
In 1862, Union General Daniel Butterfield called his brigade bugler, Oliver Norton, into his tent. Unhappy with the current bugle call for lights-out, Butterfield asked Norton to play a series of music notes scribbled on an envelope (the notes were most likely adapted from a lights-out tune in an earlier Army manual). Norton played the notes, and then he worked with Butterfield to change the rhythm and duration of certain notes until Butterfield liked the melody. That evening for lights-out, Norton played it. Buglers from other units heard it, and “Taps” spread quickly throughout the Union Army.
The first reported use of “Taps” for a military funeral soon followed. During the 1862 Peninsular Campaign in Virginia, a cannoneer was killed with enemy armies in close range. Captain John Tidball feared that sounding the traditional three rifle volleys over the grave of the deceased would be heard by the Confederate soldiers and incite further fighting. Instead, he commanded “Taps” to be played. By 1891, the U.S. Army Infantry Drill Regulations required “Taps” to be played at Army funerals.
Musicians who played official roles in the military can be divided into two categories: field musicians and members of military bands.
Playing the Field
Field musicians included the fife-and-drum corps with the marching units and the buglers that accompanied both the cavalry and the infantry. These musicians marked the activities of daily wartime life, including wake up, lights-out, roll call, and drills. The music also helped organize the movement of the troops (think marching) and even conveyed combat orders to soldiers, who were trained to recognize these commands.
Although the minimum age for enlisting soldiers was 18, boys as young as age 12 were allowed to enlist as musicians. The drum corps thus became an avenue for teenage (and even younger) boys, hungry for adventure, to join the war.
Instruments played by field musicians included:
- the fife—a high-pitched wooden flute similar to the piccolo
- drums—snare and bass drums that could be strapped to the neck or back to be carried
- the bugle—similar to the trumpet but without keys or valves—a plus for cavalry musicians riding on horseback who needed to keep one hand on the reins!
Listen to all these instruments in the following track of Civil War–era marching music recorded in 1913. You can hear fife melodies alternating with bugle calls, all accompanied by snare and bass drums.
Have your students develop musical signals for daily events in the classroom like roll call, attention, recess, lunch, and the end of the school day. They can use voices, whistling, or simple instruments. Encourage them to add words to the calls to make each melody easier to remember. Have students take turns issuing the signals. Discuss the ways musical cues could help a large army (think more than 40 classrooms full of people!) with daily activities.
Larger bands performed as commanding officers inspected and addressed the troops; they would also present regular concerts and entertain soldiers in camp. The bands helped maintain morale and reinforce spirit and resolve. Musicians also did whatever was needed—staffed ambulances, tended wounded, and even fought as the war raged on.
More formal than the fife-and-drum corps, bands were assigned to Army units. Regulations stipulated up to 24 musicians a band; in practice this number varied greatly. Occasionally existing bands enlisted as a group, but typically it became too costly to pay these professional bands as the war went on. Because brass instruments and trained musicians were scarcer in the South than in the North, the Confederate Army included fewer (and smaller) bands than did the Union Army.
Most military bands were dominated by large brass and percussion instrument sections. The bells of the brass instruments, which ordinarily pointed forward or upward, would sometimes be aimed backward so that they could be heard better by the soldiers marching behind them.
Instruments typically included:
- cornets—similar to trumpets
- saxhorns—upright, valved brass instruments of varying sizes and thus pitch ranges (such as soprano, alto, tenor, and bass)
- percussion—snare and bass drums
- woodwinds— fife, piccolo, and clarinet
- any other instruments that musicians happened to play
The brass bands usually played upbeat music, including rousing marches, lively dance tunes, and patriotic anthems. To get an idea, listen to this medley of popular military band tunes of the time.
If your students are familiar with the sounds of musical instruments, see whether they can identify some of the instruments in “Free and Easy” (they should be able to hear the snare drums, piccolo, and tuba pretty easily).
Camped for the night, soldiers enjoyed precious downtime playing cards, writing letters, and, of course, making music. They used instruments brought from home or crafted while on duty, like fiddles, guitars, fifes, drums, and bones (a rhythm instrument made from animal rib and leg bones). Soldiers who didn’t play instruments joined in singing and dancing.
Publishers supplied the troops on both sides with a variety of songsters—books that included lyrics to dozens of popular songs. Songs soldiers performed and sang ranged from lighthearted jingles to rousing patriotic anthems to tender love songs. Although some songs were specific to one side of the conflict, other songs appealed to both sides. If there were a “Top 40” of Civil War tunes, it would probably include:
In the North:
In the South:
More often than not, for every song that was wildly popular in the North or the South, there existed a version with altered lyrics to please the other side.
Creating and Adapting Songs
Sometimes a favorite tune would be repeatedly adapted. Take the religious song “Canaan’s Happy Shore,” which was popular at the time. You may not know it, but you certainly know the refrain: “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” If you are thinking “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” you’re right. But first, this tune was adapted for “John Brown’s Body.” As you might guess, the song celebrating the famed abolitionist (though some say the song was created to poke fun at a solider with the same name) was strongly associated with the North.
The words most commonly sung (by Northerners) were:
John Brown’s body lies a-mold’ring in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mold’ring in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mold’ring in the grave,
His soul is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah
With its brisk tempo and confrontational lyrics, “John Brown’s Body” was a popular tune that Union soldiers sang while marching as well as at camp. Not to let a rousing tune go unanswered, Confederate soldiers sang to the same tune, “John Brown’s a-hanging on a sour apple tree,” to which Yankees retorted “We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.”
Individual regiments also employed the tune. The 1st Arkansas Colored Regiment sang (as recorded in the inflection of the time period), “We are fightin’ for de Union, we are fightin’ for de law…As we go marchin’ on.” And these are just the documented versions—there was probably no end to the variants on this flexible (if often morbid) theme. During the war, the tune was adapted into the song we know best today, The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Have your students work individually or as a class to write new words to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” You might suggest that they turn it into a school fight song or a classroom cheer. Discuss how flexible the melody is to work with in this way.
Extend the activity! Have the class march (outside) while singing their new words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Help them feel the pulse of the two-count rhythm and step in time with the beat. Discuss how the music helps everyone stay together, and talk about how it feels to be part of a group singing and marching in unison.
Music also helped bring laughter into a humorless situation. As the war dragged on and people in the South were increasingly cut off from supplies as well as from their farmland, soldiers sometimes survived on boiled peanuts (at the time also known as “goober peas”) as an emergency ration. The following song was a tribute to this humble nourishment (and in fact was published with the composer’s name listed as “P. Nutt”):
Sittin’ by the roadside on a summer’s day
Chattin’ with my messmates, passing time away,
Lying in the shadows, underneath the trees,
Goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas!
Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eating goober peas!
Goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas!
“Goober Peas” listen:
Discuss with your students the full lyrics to “Goober Peas.” Humorous as it is, what does it relate about the difficult conditions experienced by Confederate soldiers as the ar progressed? How do you think this song helped their morale?
Holding Out Hope
Many songs had universal themes that appealed to both sides. One of these was “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (1863). The melody comes from an old Irish tune, “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,” that is also about a soldier returning from war (but with injuries so serious that he is hardly recognized). Lyrics to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” written by Patrick Gilmore, gave soldiers a heartening vision of a joyful homecoming after a victorious end to the war.
When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.
“When Johnny Comes Marching Home” listen:
Have students imagine what a soldier might feel as he thinks about returning home to his loved ones. Remind students that more than 600,000 people died during the Civil War, more casualties than any other war in American history. Many who went to war did not come home. Have students listen and read along with (or better, sing) the full lyrics to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Next, ask students to imagine they are soldiers and then write a letter to their children explaining what they like about that song and what they miss most about home.
Freedom’s Songs on the March
Following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, African Americans served proudly in the Civil War (though still in segregated regiments), making up about 10 percent of Union forces by the war’s close. Black soldiers brought with them to the war their unique musical traditions, including spirituals, shout songs, and dance music. The music included improvisation and was passed from one person to another through performance, without ever being written down. Unfortunately, without written records, much of this music has been lost.
Among the songs and fragments that have been saved is this Civil War-era song later recorded by a former slave:
Oh where shall we go when de great day comes
An’ de blowing of de trumpets and de bangins of de drums.
When General Sherman comes.
No more rice and cotton fields
We will hear no more crying
Old master will be sighing.
Notice the themes of freedom and liberation, very common in the African American spiritual repertoire. As soldiers in the Civil War, African Americans felt they were helping bring themselves and their families ever closer to these goals.
On the Home Front
Among civilians, music not only rallied public opinion about the war, but also provided a link between what was happening on the battlefield and what they were experiencing at home. On numerous occasions, songs powerfully united public sentiment behind the war effort.
Rallying the Southern Cause
Soon after South Carolina’s secession in 1860, vaudevillian Harry Macarthy penned the lyrics to “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” Set to a traditional Irish tune, the song was performed at public events throughout the South and became a favorite marching song in the Confederate Army as well. Here is an excerpt:
We are a band of brothers, and native to the soil,
Fighting for our Liberty with treasure, blood, and toil;
And when our rights were threatened, the cry rose near and far,
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag, that bears a Single Star!
Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern Rights Hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a Single Star!
Its power as a rallying cry made “The Bonnie Blue Flag” particularly repugnant to Northerners—when General Butler occupied New Orleans, he arrested the song’s publisher, destroyed all remaining copies of the song, and threatened to fine anyone caught singing, playing, or even whistling the melody.
Listen to “The Bonnie Blue Flag:"
The Northern Battle Cry
Yankees had their own flag songs. The most popular of these was “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” written by George Root in 1862 in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 300,000 additional troops. The song helped rally needed men. It also played a role on the battlefield, helping soldiers summon pride and courage in desperate battles.
Yes, we’ll rally round the flag, boys,
We’ll rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom;
We will rally from the hillside,
We’ll gather from the plain,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.
The Union forever,
Hurrah! Boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitors,
Up with the stars;
While we rally round the flag, boys,
Rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.
Listen to “The Battle Cry of Freedom:”
Not all songs of the period glorified the war or the reasons behind it. A number of songs dealt with soldiers’ suffering and that of the loved ones they left behind. Songs even painted a stark portrait of casualties on the battleground. In a war that extracted such a heavy cost—more than 600,000 soldiers lost their lives—there were voices that questioned whether it was all worth it.
The words for “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight” came from Ethel Lynn Eliot Beers’s poem “The Picket Guard” (1861). This affecting verse was set to music by several different composers, most memorably by J. H. Hewitt. The song tells the story of a night guardsman who, thinking of his wife and children at home, falls unnoticed to an enemy bullet.
Listen to “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight:”
A Lasting Musical Heritage
Against the background of the misery and the bloodshed of the American Civil War stands a rich and vibrant body of music, much of which is still familiar to us today. Music drew people into the war, it was put to functional use within the Union and Confederate forces, and it helped soldiers and civilians alike cope with the war’s brutal realities. Through the war’s music, students can explore and experience the rhythms and emotions of a nation facing one of its toughest tests.
Want to explore Civil War music further? These resources can help:
Library of Congress Civil War Music Primary Source Set
A detailed set of primary source materials from the Library of Congress with a teacher’s guide focusing on the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
Civil War Sheet Music
Historic American Sheet Music collection at the Duke University library.
Avery Brown, the Youngest Enlistee
National Music Museum page on Avery Brown, who enlisted as a drummer for the Union Army at the age of 8; includes links to other Civil War music resources within the site.
Images and Songs from 1864 Presidential Campaign
Syracuse University Library collection of images and songs from the 1864 presidential campaign.
National Public Radio piece on the history of “Taps” and one Army bugler who played it.
U.S. Army Band list of bugle calls in current military use.