Groovin’ to the Oldies of the Sixties
Legend has that it in July 1862 Union General Daniel Butterfield had enough. The military bugle call at the time, a calling derived from a French bugle melody, found its way into the mouthpiece of every bugler. Used in reveille, lights out, and the honoring of the fallen, the French tune irritated Butterfield to no end. Thus, he conceived to compose his own bugle call. At Harper’s Landing, Virginia, Retired Lieutenant Colonel Michael Lee Laming writes, “There he made what may be his most lasting contribution to the military.” Laming is astute in this observation as Taps, the bugle call credited to Butterfield, has survived the Civil War. Historical memory has remembered Butterfield and the story of the creation of Taps well. However, Taps isn’t the only military song of the Civil War to have a colorful history.
One of the most famous military songs to come out of the Civil War is not “Taps”, and maybe even more shocking, not even Northern. The Confederate ‘national anthem’, Dixie, is well known today and has entered the American psyche as a powerful statement of rebellion. In fact, the song is so famous, it is played by the modern United States Military Academy Marching Band. The song was composed in 1859 by Dan Emmett who composed a lot of music for minstrel shows and appeared many times in blackface. Emmett, a native of Ohio, said in composing the piece, “Like most everything else I ever did, it was written because it had to be done.”
The tune, in historical memory has taken on epic proportions. In Gone with the Wind, the song is heard as a rallying cry after the fall of Fort Sumter, and again after the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. In the latter, the camera focuses on a band corps playing the tune to strike up pride in the Confederate cause. The scene becomes disagreeable as a young band member sheds a tear as he plays. In reality, the song found its origins exclusively on the minstrel stage, and not in the hearts and minds of Southerners. The Lost Cause pride in the anthem is laughable when considering the true first lyrics of the song and not the longing to be back in the South:
Dis worl’ was made in jiss six days,
an’ finished in various ways,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie land.
When singing the song today it is only fitting when beginning the Confederate anthem to sing in the original minstrel fashion, and remember the stereotypical black dialect written by Emmett:
I wish I was in de land ob cotton,
Old times dar am not forgotten,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie land.
The racial undertones of Dixie come through when examining the lyrics of the piece, which seems to be seldom done. Historical memory concerning the song has forgotten these undertones and instead focuses on the upbeat nature of the piece, made even more impactful by nature in which the song has been played in recent years by bands belong to the United States military. However, as memorable as Dixie is, it would be inappropriate to leave out the fact that the Union had a similar prideful tune, minus the racial undertones of course.
Battle Hymn of the Republic was composed by an individual that can be considered the exact opposite of Emmett. Composed in in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe, Howe may actually be considered less of a composer and more of a lyricist. Around this time she heard a group singing John Brown’s Body, a popular marching song of the day. This tune proved to be so popular that numerous lyricists wrote variations on the lyrics. Howe’s lyrics, as the legend told by her goes, were composed while her infant slept. Published in 1862 in The Atlantic Monthly, the Battle Hymn of the Republic evoked pride and nationalism. Interesting to note, Howe herself was an abolitionist and devout evangelical. Her lyrics and the song, like Dixie, have survived the years and entered into American memory, serving as a song of rally during the World Wars.
While Battle Hymn of the Republic remains in the repertoire of military bands this day, few recall the biblical passages associated with the song. The lyric, “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;” most assuredly comes from Revelations 14:19 which reads, “And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.” The translation, this blogger asserts, is that Howe contends that the institution of slavery has laid over the land for too long and the wrath of God has festered and has now been unleashed upon the South. Not all marching tunes of the Union, it should be noted, were steeped in abolitionism.
Another famous rallying tune for the Union was a very old song to the soldiers of the Civil War. When Johnny Comes Marching Home was an Irish folk song of the seventeenth century and, interestingly enough, was at first an anti-war song. In 1863, Patrick Gilmore wrote the lyrics to the Irish folk song and became the song we know it as today. Being a folk song, the tune is less of a military march and more of popular tune. Much like Johnny Comes Marching Home, Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel, composed in 1863 by John Thompson was less of a marching song. Thompson’s composition, as Historian Chandra Manning notes that the song, “Mocked the Union Army’s failure to capture Richmond in 1861 and 1862.” Unfortunately, this wonderful backstory has faded from memory and now resides only with historians.
Songs of the Civil War are numerous and varied and all of them have interesting stories. Whether Union or Confederate, abolitionist or pro-slavery, the music of the Civil War is intriguing. As it is played today, Civil War tunes are much different in terms of connotation, but knowing these stories will elucidate the impact of the Civil War on music of the day. Concerning music, perhaps Ulysses S. Grant said it best when he claimed, “I only know two tunes: one of them is ‘Yankee Doodle’, and the other isn’t.”
 Lanning Lt. Col., The Civil War 100 (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2008), 345.
 Steven H. Cornelius, Music of the Civil War Era (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2004), 30.
 Dan Emmett, quoted in Steven H. Cornelius, Music of the Civil War Era (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2004), 30.
 Diane Ravitch, The American Reader: Words That Moved a Nation, Rev. 2nd ed. (New York, NY: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2000), 257.
 Mark Aldrich, A Catalog of Folk Song Settings For Wind Band (Milwaukee: Meredith Music, 2004), 36.
 Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, 1st Vintage Civil War Library ed. (New York: Vintage, 2008), 53.