The Music of the Civil War


In the shade of the black oak trees and in the blistering Virginia summer heat, along the swollen banks of the wide Mississippi River, and in the humid swamps of Georgia, thousands of Americans fought and killed each other in a war that claimed more American lives than any other. Over six-hundred thousand would die in a war fought to preserve the Union and abolish slavery on one side, and to uphold the sovereignty of the States and protect the institution of slavery on the other. When soldiers were not fighting and dying on the battlefield – or falling sick to the many illnesses plaguing them – they were either writing letters home or playing music. While the music of the American Civil War is not forgotten by any means – with some of its most famous tunes still known by many Americans – it must always be remembered, cherished, and played, lest we forget the importance it played in some of America's most trying years. The songs of the era were rooted in the folk songs popular then and too oft forgotten today; these songs are, in nearly every sense, a part of American folklore and traditional American music.  

The music of both the Union and the Confederacy, while meant to be played by large marching bands, ended up being played by fiddlers, banjo players, and double bassists. The lyrics reflected nearly all of America's strong connection to faith: Northern troops sang proudly of “living to make men free” as “He [Jesus] died to make men holy”; while men from the South sang in one chorus, “Down with the eagle and up with the cross!” Both sides called on God to guide them in their most righteous cause: of restoring the Union, of defending the rights of the South, of abolishing and maintaining slavery. Melodies and tunes, written by American men, were used to personify the war effort of both sides. Even the unofficial Confederate anthem, “Dixie”, was written by a Northern man shortly before the war. The era of Civil War songs does not end in 1865, though; many more songs were written in the immediate years following, romanticizing the cause of both the North and South and remembering the strife and suffering all soldiers went through to defend their homes and their country.

(Also, a warning: most of the comments on these videos are pretty toxic.)

Chosen Confederate songs:

Chosen Union songs:

Some post-war songs:

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