Civil War Sheet Music

By Judith Partington
Head Librarian

The Filson library recently added two separate sets of Civil-War sheet music - one Union and one Confederate - to its already substantial collection of over thirty-five hundred titles. At first glance one is struck by the color and pageantry displayed on many of the covers. Themes center on the flag, the homeland, and the heroes, mostly generals commanding large armies.

Little else is recognized early on in the war, so the initial titles read like a patriotic primer: Flag of the Sunny South, General Beauregard’s Grand March, God Save the South, and God Will Defend the Right.  Given that a “Lady of Richmond, Virginia” composed this last piece, the Confederacy was, of course, “in the right.”

Not to be outdone, Union composers also devoted many hours exhorting people to Rally Round the Flag. As the pace of the war quickened, however, the spotlight focused on one Union commander after another. In the very beginning, there is Our Generals Quick Step with old General Winfield Scott, the hero of the Mexican Way sitting front and center on a white charger, flanked by generals Butler, Rosecrans, McCook, Anderson, McDowell, Sickles, McClellan, Burnside, Banks, and others.

As time went on and one campaign after another failed to produce a decisive victory for the North, people’s
hopes for an early end to the war began to focus on each successive leader of the Army of the Potomac, and the songwriters followed suit. There is General Burnside’s Grand Triumphal March, written and dedicated in 1862 presumably before he ordered his troops to attack Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. The following spring there is General Hooker’s March and Quick Step, also composed prior to his “quick step” out of Chancellorsville where Stonewall Jackson badly overran “Fighting Joe’s’’ right flank. Later that year, composer Lewis Rymer respectfully dedicated a grand march to Major General George. G. Meade who commanded the Union troops at Gettysburg. Still though, Lee’s gallant Army of Northern Virginia marched on, and people North and South wanted these long, bloody engagements to end. Tired, homesick, afraid for the lives and welfare of their loved ones, people were worn down by the concerns of war, and this too began to surface in the music of the times.

Quick steps and grand triumphal marches were gradually replaced by funeral dirges. Lyrics that once urged patriots to support their flag and homeland, now implored them to Strew Fresh Flowers Oe’r Their Grave, a song whose lyrics were written by L.L. Ross for the “New National Day, appointed for decorating the graves of our brave soldiers.” The cover portrays a handful of grief-stricken young women caring for the graves of loved ones while a one-legged soldier watches from the side, balancing himself on a pair of crutches. Gone is the glamour of marching off to war. The Soldier’s Vision is depicted in the words and music of C. Everest. Men want to go home. They want their wives and families around them as expressed in the lyrics:

ah! What scenes to me appear,
which entranced I fondly view;
‘Tis my home and friends so dear,
I behold in joy anew.

Not outstanding poetry perhaps, but the sentiment behind such thoughts is clear- men wanted their lives to return to what they once had been. And they were not the only ones tired of the conflict.

In Henry C. Work‘s composition We’ll Go Down Ourselves, a band of feisty women brandishing brooms and teakettles filled with boiling water are pictured in hot pursuit of the men in gray. The lyrics ask:

What shall we do as the years go by
and peace remains a stranger
With Richmond yet in rebel hands,
and Washington in danger?

What shall we do for leaders
When Old Age this race is cropping?
I asked some ladies whom I met
and didn't it set them hopping!

What shall we do when armies march
To storm the rebel quarters
If as of yore, their marches end
Beside Potomac's waters?

May not we call our soldiers home?
May not we think of stopping?
I strove to frame the question fair
But didn’t it set them hopping!

We’ll Go Down Ourselves was copyrighted in 1862 - three years before the surrender at Appomattox. In the ensuing years, names, such as Gettysburg, Shiloh, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Vicksburg, and Lookout Mountain, would make their way into the American consciousness. In 1862 they were not yet there, and already people were tired. Our sheet-music collection provides us with an insight into this sense of war weariness.

Wallace Stevens, an American poet, once wrote that, “Music is not sound, but feeling.” Toward the end of the war, people’s feelings began to focus on widows and orphans, the innocents left behind. The Children of the Battlefield, poetry and music by James G. Clark, superseded titles such as Wait Love Until the War is Over and The Vacant Chair. Copyrighted in 1864, Clark reserved the proceeds from the sale of this music “for the support and education of orphan children.” That same year, two new grand triumphal marches were composed, one dedicated to Major General William T. Sherman and the other to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The people may not have known it yet, but the War Between the States and the feelings it engendered in its music had come full circle.

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