Poetry and Music of the Civil War


The Civil War was one of the most devastating times in the United States. The lines drawn between the North and the South separated families and friends, and destroyed homes and land throughout the numerous battle regions. Criminal background checks would not have revealed half the information discovered in the poetry and music of the Civil War. Reading and studying these poems and songs give insight into the emotions and perspectives of the men and women on both sides of the war.

Confederate Poetry began to be written, and some printed, at the formal secession of the South from the Union. One famous piece, Farewell to Brother Jonathan, was a response to, Brother Jonathans’ Lament, written by Oliver Wendell Holmes (of the North). Holmes’ piece was directed at South Carolina, the first state to secede, as evidenced by his sister’s name, Caroline, in the poem. It took the tone of a patient, loving, older brother who saw his sister running off on her own, to what would be her demise. The brother confidently stated he would wait with open arms to receive her back, in due time, never doubting her return home.

The response to this by one Southerner, though his identity is unknown, was to set the record straight in reminding the North how the Sons of the South had once served as a shield to them during the Revolutionary War, and to firmly attest they would rather die in battle than return to the land of the Pharisee.

Other Confederate poems dealt with the individual battles, tributes to and stories on the lives of Confederate officers and soldiers. On the home front, mothers, wives, lovers, and caregivers penned their thoughts upon sending off their men to battle and watching young soldiers die. Both unknown and famous writers authored poems about Robert E. Lee, some after the war was over and at dedication ceremonies in his honor. Julia Ward Howe’s, Robert E. Lee, and many others give insight to the man and those who served with him.

Poems of the Union can be categorized in much the same as the Confederacy. The other side’s viewpoint is reflected in titles such as, A Word for the Hour, by John Greenleaf Whittier, where the author believed the North should not fight to get the slave states back into the Union, that it would be better to be separated from the evils of slavery. Bayard Taylor’s, Through Baltimore, tells of the first blood of war shed as those for secession ambushed the infantry marching to Washington D.C.

The many poems of Herman Melville, famed author of Moby Dick, show the perspective of the North and South in the Civil War. The lives of Union officers and soldiers were paid tribute and given insight into through poetry written by civilians, politicians, journalists, and those who served alongside them. The famous poet, Walt Whitman, did more than imagine, but travelled to the South to see firsthand the devastation and toll the war had upon the country. Most of his writings from thereon would reflect the horrors he witnessed there.

General Robert E. Lee once stated that without music, there would be no army. The realm of music and its importance throughout the Civil War goes beyond that of poetry. Music was not just a way for soldiers to pass the endless days and nights of waiting to move onto battlefield, nor just sentiment expressed about the war itself. Although it did provide these things and gave comfort in remembrance of family and home, gave them a sense of unity in their defense of the country, and especially to the Confederacy, who was struggling to hold onto its newfound freedom. Civil War music was played at rallies to attract enlistment. Each regiment contained its own band to play at these rallies and to provide music for the soldiers in the camps.

Music was used through the drummer boys and fifes of the individual regiments as commands and codes on plans of attack, as well as alerts to the soldiers. If an officer needed to (find people) there was no better way to secretly call their name aloud than with a bugle cry. There was even a manual, A Drummer and Fife’s Guide, which was used by both sides, to teach the young men of those positions every technique and sound to aide their comrades.

Little did Julia Ward Howe know that her poem, Battle Hymn of the Republic, would one day become one of America’s most beloved patriotic songs. When John Brown’s Body was written, the song had nothing to do with the man it would come to represent: the famous abolitionist hung at Harper’s Ferry in 1959. But the Union loved it and only after a suggestion by Reverend Clarke to Mrs. Howe, while touring a Union camp with her husband, she used the tune to write the new lyrics.

For the slaves, music played an integral part of the Underground Railroad, and music of the Civil War must include the part these songs played, used as code to help them escape, and often to hide along the way from bounty hunters and Confederate soldiers.

Recently, such films as Glory and The Civil War have successfully captured glimpses into our country and people of the time, using actual people, speeches, and music from the Civil War. Work continues today in putting together the historical data available through the numerous letters, journals, and printed media left from the Civil War, and the music itself lives on long after the victories and defeats of this epic period in our history.

Additional Resources

· Civil War Music – offers a thorough examination of all the music of the Civil War, with lyrics, audio files, historical information on the author and period, photographs, and video recordings.

· Music of the War Between the States – an excellent resource for popular music of the period, Union and Confederacy songs, as well as audio recordings of some.

· Civil War South Lesson Plans – is a vast resource of the Civil War in the south, and includes songs of the slaves, and other period music.

· The Civil War Movie Lesson Plan – based on the film by Ken Burns, secondary students learn about the history and the music of the war.

· Civil War Lesson Plans – though a great resource for teachers on the subject, anyone wanting to learn about every facet of the War Between the States can succeed with the numerous links.

· Ancestry of the Civil War – a searchable database of military records can help find people who served in the Civil War.