Music Essays on Sheet Music and the Civil War
Question: Did sheet music have a significant influence on the civil war?
The function of music during war is always twofold; providing information and also being utilized as a psychological weapon. In the civil war, sheet music had different intentions and purposes ranging from recruiting and rallying songs, sentimental songs, campfire songs, patriotic songs, and entertainment songs. While some of the music tracked the proceedings of the war, others documented people’s attitudes towards it. Sheet music composed during the civil war was of greater quality and variation than that from other time periods (Anderson). This paper aims to show these aspects and posits that sheet music was a significant if not highly influential aspect of the civil war.
The First Gun is Fired by Root (1861) was the first song of the war. It was used to communicate the commencement of the war as well as rally the sons of the North to pick their arms and fight against the Southern tyrants. While this song as well as others such as ‘We are coming, father Abraham’ are straightforward on their support, others such as ‘Don’t draft me’ and My wife has got a sick baby’ express disdain for the war. Yet other songs expressed derision or support for military leaders as well as articulate the bravery of individual regiments, thereby either winning support or opposition to the war. Copies of these songs were distributed widely and had a significant impact on the people’s attitude towards the war.
Besides expressing the attitudes of people towards the war, other songs were meant to offer emotional support to the soldiers in the war or to provide entertainment. These songs were either popular entertainment songs for both the soldiers and the common populace or ones that reminded soldiers of life back at home and of their relations. These songs were either sang in camps to boost the morale of the men or sang during battles by matching bands to taunt the enemy. Marching bands would usually play these sheet music the night before the battle to give encouragement to the soldiers.
Both the confederates and the North adopted music during the war and had differing lyrics to suit their differing motives. The language used in these songs would be considered offensive in modern times and this is reflective of the diversity of attitudes at the time. Usually, the South and the North had different versions of the same song intended to put different points across. The Battle Cry of Freedom by Root (1862), for example, was a patriotic song advocating for unionism and abolitionism but was adapted for the confederacy by Schreiner and Barnes. It was later altered for use in the 1864 presidential election campaigns. While each side had their own preferred music, some compositions such as Dixie by Daniel Emmett (1861) were adopted by both sides of the divide showing the commonality of some attitudes such as ending the war and the need for togetherness.
Lithographs and supplementary messages printed onto the sheet music also increased the effect that the music had. Most printing houses included illustrations on song sheets that depicted political and military figures, landscapes, social settings, and scenes of battles. Welcome, Mother by Charles Magnus is a song telling of a young soldier’s longing to be reconnected with his mother. While the song sounds melancholic, however, the illustration of the president’s house gives it another meaning. The soldier, in this case, has a duty to two mothers; the birth mother and the nation he serves.
The significance of sheet music during the war can also be illustrated by the popularity that the composers enjoyed and the immense wealth of printing houses. The civil war came at a period when the mechanized printing press was gaining popularity. There was no radio and hence song sheets were the main instrument of a nation wishing to be heard, and song sheets could be found almost everywhere. The composers of sheet music during the civil war were also revered for the role they played. Abraham Lincoln, for example, wrote to George F. Root commending him for his songs during the war and for doing ‘more than a hundred generals and a thousand orators.’
In conclusion, history has proven that music has the power to influence people to patriotism or towards a common cause, and sheet music during the civil war is no different. During the civil war, the primary means of communication was through the printed press and this was usually done through the composition of sheet music. Sheet music of the time not only communicated facts about the war but was also used as a propaganda tool to influence the attitudes of people towards the war. Besides, the songs provided entertainment as well as solace to lonely soldiers and their families back at home. As a result, music composers during the time were highly revered and influential with even President Lincoln alluding to their significance. Sheet music thus not only had a significant bearing on the war but also offers a unique perspective on the political, social, and economic life of the time.
Anderson, Gillian B. “Putting the Experience of the World at the Nation’s Command: Music at the Library of Congress, 1800-1917.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 42.1 (1989): 108-49. Print.