10 Songs of the Civil War Era

Updated on May 18, 2018

I Wish I Was In Dixie’s Land (Dixie)

Written by Daniel Decatur Emmett and was originally part of the “black-faced minstrelsy” and was published in 1860. The song was unofficially adopted as the anthem of the South, even though it was written by a northerner and was a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln.

There are three theories as to the meaning of the song. The first is that it references a kindly slave holder named “Dix” whose slaves wanted to return to “Dix’s Land.” The second is that it refers to Louisiana where $10 notes were referred to as “Dix notes”, or the land below the Mason-Dixon Line.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic (John Brown’s Body)

A song that has been adapted to various themes over 150 years, this song was originally a religious camp meeting song. Abolitionist John Brown was executed in 1859 which lead to new lyrics being replaced to the marching style song. When the Civil War started, this is the version that Union army clung on to.

The version that is now known as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was created by Julia Ward Howe after overhearing a Union soldier singing the song. She created new lyrics that stirred the strings of patriotism and the idea that God was on the side of the Union.

Home, Sweet Home

This famous song was written by American author John Howard Payne, who died penniless in Tunis in 1852.

By the end of 1862 there was no end in sight for the blood and carnage seen by both armies. Many soldiers had been away from their homes longer than in their entire life before the war. One of the common occurrences at night on both sides was the regimental bands would play music, sometimes in competition with other, at other times taking turns. The common theme was reflective tunes were played as soldiers wrote home and reflected on their situation.

After the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, the Union band began playing the famous strains of “Home, Sweet Home” and both sides began taking up strains of the song. For a moment, both sides had forgotten they were at war with each other.

Battle Cry of Freedom

Ask a Union soldier in the war which is the most popular song, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “Battle Cry of Freedom”, and you would most likely get the later as the answer.

The song was written in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 300, 000 volunteers in in July of 1862. The song became a massive rallying song for the Union army. The man responsible for the song, George F. Root, declared that if he “could not shoulder a musket in defense of my country” he was thankful he “could serve her in this way.”

According to author Kenneth Bernard, the reason the song was so influential was that it was an “important part in restoring and sustaining morale at home and at the front throughout the entire war.”

The Bonnie Blue Flag

Sung to an Irish tune “The Irish Jaunting Car”, the “Bonnie Blue Flag” was to the Confederate soldier, the equivalent of the Unions “Battle Cry of Freedom.” Written in 1861 by English immigrant and Arkansas resident Harry McCarthy, the song refers to the first flag used by the Confederacy, which was blue with a solitary star and goes on to tell the tale of the eleven states that seceded from the Union.

With Union forces occupying Louisiana in 1862, General Benjamin Butler issued General Order No. 40 which, among other penalties, made owning the sheet music or singing the Bonnie Blue Flag an act of treason. It is said that General Butler “made it very profitable by fining every man, woman or child who sang, whistled or played it on any instrument $25.00, besides arresting the publisher, destroying the sheet music and fining him $500.”

Maryland, My Maryland

Maryland native, James Ryder Randall wrote this song in 1861 as a response to Union troops marching through Baltimore. It is set to the tune of Lauriger Horatius (O’ Tannenbaum) and became popular not only in Maryland, but in the South as well.

What makes this song unique is that it was adopted as the State song in 1939, 74 years after the end of the Civil War, even though it calls northerners “scum.” However, that has changed recently. As of March 2018, Maryland senators has stripped the song of “official” status and relegated it to “historical” status.

Lorena

Another very popular Civil War song, Lorena was written in 1856 by the Reverend Henry D. L. Webster in response to his fiancé ending their engagement. Webster offered up his lyrics to J.P. Webster (not related) for a musical piece, changed the name from Bertha to Lorena and published the song in 1858.

The lyrics to Lorena struck a chord with soldiers, on both sides, who were homesick, missing their loved ones or the sweetheart they left behind. It was even said that a Confederate commander banned the song because it would cause soldiers to desert to go home to be with their sweethearts.

We Are Coming, Father Abraham (300,000 More)

Like the “Battle Cry of Freedom”, “We Are Coming Father Abraham” was in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. The song was written as a poem by James S. Gibbons and then had music composed by Luther O. Emerson.

Sloan was an abolitionist and Quaker and the title of the song places, again, the Union cause as a righteous one. Just like the biblical Abraham who God called and people followed, President Lincoln ‘s call was a shadow of this story and a rallying call for the North to join his personal call to enlist.

Tenting on the Old Campground

A religious song, “Tenting on the Old Campground” is different from the other Civil War songs in that it is really an anti-war song.

Written by Walter Kittredge in 1863 when soldiers on both side were sick of war and on the eve of his own draft into the Union army, the song became a favorite and as author Irving Silber relates, “Civilian and soldier alike responded to Kittredge's song” by telling us that as the war was dragging on, the death toll being at an unimaginable level on both sides, it became a popular song to a people who were “yearning for peace.”

All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight

After the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, the Union army, who believed this to be a short conflict, limped back to Washington after their defeat at the hands of the Rebels, were now fully aware of what lay ahead of them.

Ethel Lynn Beers, an accomplished poet, wrote a poem that was published in Harper's Weekly called “The Picket-Guard” that was based on reports she had heard in the newspapers that “all(s) quiet along the Potomac.” It became an instant success and was set to music by southern composer John Hill Hewitt.

Like “Tenting on the Old Campground”, Beers poem could be considered another anti-war song. The lone sentinel killed could not be justified in military terms which leads us to reason that he was simply murdered. Thomas Brown put it succinctly “Beers depicted modern war as a cruel hoax rather than a field of gallantry and meaningful sacrifice.”

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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I think my favorite among these songs is probably "Lorena." I can see why it made soldiers homesick to the point of desertion - the melody remains haunting to this day.

      On the other hand, I have absolutely no love for "The Bonnie Blue Flag." Although it has a likable, jaunty tune, it celebrates the claim that Confederates were "fighting for the property we gained by honest toil." Given that the "property" they fought to keep was, in fact, human beings they were holding in lifelong bondage, whom they certainly did not acquire by "honest toil," that song will never make my Hit Parade.

    • Readmikenow profile image

      Readmikenow 

      2 months ago

      Very interesting article. I'm sure many people may not know the history of these songs or not even know about the songs. I enjoyed reading it.

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