The Blue and the Grey on Black and White: Music in the Civil War Era (Part 1)

By Meg Sutter ’16

Union saxhorn and drum musicians probably at Camp Griffin, Langley, Virginia. Photo credit Library of Congress.
Union saxhorn and drum musicians probably at Camp Griffin, Langley, Virginia. Photo credit Library of Congress.

For many of us, music has had an undeniable impact on our lives; so too was it for the men and women of the Civil War era. In the decades since 1865, scholars have often utilized music as a unique interpretive lens through which to examine the American Civil War. What the field has enduringly lacked, though, is scholarship written as a convergence of History and Musicology. Without advanced study in music, historians can effectively outline the historical significance of period music but not the artistic analysis of the musicologist. Likewise, the musicologist can expand on the technical and creative foundations of music, but not as adeptly on the historical context in which it emerged.

In 2001 and 2002 there were two National Conferences on the Music of the Civil War Era. For those who were unable to attend, Bruce C. Kelley and Mark A. Snell assembled a book entitled Bugle Resounding: Music and Musicians of the Civil War Era that includes selected lectures given on the subject. Something I noticed, though, was that most if not all of the speakers were musicologists rather than historians. This raises a question: whose role is it to analyze the significance of music during the Civil War? Much can be learned about the American people’s antebellum and wartime morale and culture through their music, whether they be soldiers or civilians, Union or Confederate, and it is my goal in this series to consult both historians’ and musicologists’ works to offer a more comprehensive approach to music from the Civil War era.

Music functioned as a unique cultural tool both in antebellum and wartime America. The mid-nineteenth century saw a shift from the high culture classical music of Europe to an emerging genre of American patriotic music that was more easily appreciated by the masses. After this change, virtually every American had access to popular music. They no longer needed to attend the opera or concert hall, and popular song lyrics were often published in newspapers. Text became more lowbrow, explains Christian McWhirter, as individuals exchanged overly sophisticated lyrics for more easily understood ones. As Richard Crawford describes, sheet music and musical instruments also became more affordable, and the production of instruments such as pianos soared in the 1850s, dropping prices even further and making their purchase by less wealthy households more manageable. The parlor tradition was formed by this emerging presence of pianos in the home.

Several new musical genres developed in Civil War era. Parlor songs were often sentimental fixtures of the domestic sphere, writes Crawford, with ballads becoming a popular genre expressing the romanticism of Victorian ideology. These songs were often marked by slower tunes that told stories about love, family, tragedy, and death and are sometimes divided into such groups as home songs, sweetheart songs, mother songs, and death songs. Patriotic songs became another popular genre, especially in the first year of the Civil War. Because there was closer contact between civilians and soldiers during this period, explains McWhirter, patriotic tunes spread quickly. Songwriters published music over a large geographical area and soldiers helped spread their favorite songs as they marched. Soldiers also collected hymnals and as one soldier from the First Virginia reported, “Every evening . . . for miles around you might hear thousands of voices singing for their own gratification, but many others through a sort of religious feeling of their own, thinking that this the most convenient way of manifesting it.”

Music varied between the Union and Confederacy, as well as between the home front and battlefronts. For instance, certain songs like “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom” became standard tunes in the Union while “Dixie’s Land” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag” became standard in the Confederacy. In my coming posts I will focus on these four popular songs, regional differences in music, regimental bands, and the memory and legacy of Civil War era music.


Cornelius, Steven. Music of the Civil War Era. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Kelley, Bruce C. and Mark A. Snell, eds. Bugle Resounding: Music and Musicians of the Civil War Era. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.

McWhirter, Christian. Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

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