This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead: Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition inSpecial Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will runthrough December 18, 2017.
Given the dreadful reality of the Civil War, there was little use for songs that accurately reflected the duties and risks of soldiering when it came to recruiting civilians to fight. The danger involved in the war was high for all men, but black soldiers faced additional, unique threats. The particular hostility of Confederates to armed black men and distrust from their white Union comrades meant that they were especially vulnerable targets of wartime atrocities. Possibly written by a private in Company A of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first official African American units, “The Colored Volunteers” (also referred to as “Give Us a Flag”) was a song used as recruitment propaganda to encourage black men to enlist during the Civil War. The song’s lyrics sanitize many very serious issues and threats soldiers faced, offering a romanticized representation of the challenges a black enlistee would face.
Canada! America’s hat! Our friendly little brother to the north. The home of hockey and Tim Horton’s and your home, too, when that other political party elects their crazy candidate. All jokes aside, the United States has long had a close relationship with our northern neighbor, and the Civil War proved no exception. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Canadians fought during the war, typically on the side of the Union due to their geographic proximity and cultural sympathies. Of that number, approximately 5,000 were killed.
Of course, not all Canadians who partook in the war were there to fight. Among the number who volunteered in the Union army was a young musician by the name of Calixa Lavallée, who some two decades after the war became responsible for one of the most enduring symbols of Canada (at least as we perceive it here in the United States): the music of their national anthem, “O Canada.” Born in Quebec to parents of French descent, he was only sixteen when he traveled to the United States for the first time to join a traveling minstrel show based out of Rhode Island. Already an extremely versatile musician, he journeyed across the politically-tense nation to cities like New Orleans, Vicksburg, Richmond, Washington, Philadelphia, and New York to perform on tour. On 19 January, 1861, Lavallée and his troupe were in Atlanta when Georgia seceded from the Union.
Hamilton is one of Broadway’s newest musicals and it’s the hottest thing to hit the stage in a long time. The show, a rap-opera, follows the life of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s ‘forgotten Founding Father.’ The show has had immense success since it opened in August 2015, with thousands of followers on the show’s Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube pages. It has exploded from the stage into a cultural phenomenon, but what makes the story of this Founding Father so compelling for audiences? Previous productions of historical musicals and plays have failed on the stage, while Hamilton thrives. What is its secret?
Last Sunday, the Lutheran Theological Seminary Chapel was packed full of people eager to see the world-renown a capella group Anonymous Four for their final touring season. For nearly thirty years, the four women who make up the group have performed around the world with their unique style and sound. This season, Anonymous Four invited Bruce Molsky, “one of America’s premier fiddling talents,” to join them for their “1865” concert celebrating the end of the Civil War through their own interpretation of Civil War music. The event, co-sponsored by the Civil War Institute and the Sunderman Conservatory of Music, opened with remarks by the Civil War Institute’s Dr. Jill Titus, on the importance of analyzing and studying music when trying to understand the culture of the Civil War Era.
An ongoing and rather controversial debate in the Civil War world is that over the rightful placement of the Confederate battle flag in American memory. Being such a provocative symbol both in terms of history and race relations, its ‘true’ meaning and ‘true’ symbolism are constantly in flux. With recent disputes on the removal of the Confederate flag from Robert E. Lee’s tomb at Washington and Lee University making their way into the mainstream news, the complicated meaning of the rebel symbol and where it belongs in American memory have earned their places at the forefront of the national consciousness.
Brad Paisley worked the issue even further into the public arena with the release of the song “Accidental Racist” on his 2013 album Wheelhouse. Set toward the end of the album, the country song with a little flavor of rap features LL Cool J as a guest artist. Immediately after its release, the song drew criticism both from white and black Americans about its aims and the intended meaning behind its unusual yet distinctive lyrics.
July 2012. My best friend and I packed into my 2003 VW Jetta wagon and headed out from Gettysburg, bound for Virginia. We were on Grantcation, a Civil War road trip of two former college buddies. Our mission was to wander battlefields in 100 degree plus heat, a trip which our wives endorsed willingly, I suspect, because they both knew it was far better for us to do it together than subject them to such unabashed nerdery.
In July 1863
A Nation Torn In Tragedy
A Trick Of Fate, Two Great Armies Merge
Gods Of War At Gettysburg
Devastation Lies Ahead
50,000 Bodies Litter The Land
Hell Rages Three Full Days
The Reaper Sows, There’s The Devil To Pay.
Thus begins the first song in Iced Earth’s three-part ballad inspired by the Battle of Gettysburg. The heavy metal epic is intense, dramatic, brutal, tragic, and romantic. Released in 2004 on their album The Glorious Burden – which, incidentally, also features songs inspired by Attila the Hun, the Red Baron, Waterloo, and Valley Forge – Iced Earth’s “Gettysburg (1863)” trilogy offers listeners a vivid musical interpretation of the memory of Gettysburg popularized by Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Beginning with the “The Devil to Pay” and continuing in “Hold at All Costs” and “High Water Mark,” each song in the trilogy is devoted to the events of a single day of the battle. Encapsulating some of Gettysburg’s best-known moments, the songs each convey a sense of the battle’s epic scale and its powerful legacy. In consequence, however, the ballad reinforces an exclusively emotional interpretation of the Civil War that can obscure a more meaningful understanding of the battle and its larger implications. Continue reading “Heavy Metal Gettysburg and the Allure of Emotive History”
The Dropkick Murphys is a popular American Celtic Punk band known for their combinations of punk rock and bagpipes. Their songs are filled with Irish pride and often have something to do with hard partying and whiskey. However, in their 1999 album The Gang’s All Here, the Murphys took on the topic of Irish soldiers in the American Civil War. The song “The Fighting 69th” was first sung by the Irish band The Wolfe Tones on their 1993 album Across the Broad Atlantic. The album features several songs dedicated to Irish immigrants to America and holds a certain fascination for the Irish American. The Wolfe Tones version of the song is a more traditional-sounding Celtic song detailing the journey of Irish immigrants as “they sailed away/and they made a sight so glorious/as they marched along Broadway…and from there they went to Washington/and straight into the war.” When the Murphys released their version of the song in 1999, they added their signature punk anthem sound to make their version a hard rocking ballad dedicated to the men of the Irish Brigade.
Before “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the United States’ national anthem in 1931, there was another: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In 1861, the Committee for a New National Hymn became one of the first efforts to enact an official United States national anthem. There were 1,200 submissions, but the committee was not satisfied. Those citizens against the committee held up “John Brown’s Body” as an example of what a national anthem should be. This popular Civil War song would go through many changes before it became what we know today as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Today “The Battle Hymn” represents an invented Union cause for the Civil War and symbolizes a false reconciliationist notion of unity.
Many Americans are familiar with the tune “Dixie’s Land” as the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Despite the song’s ties to the Confederacy, it is still a popular tune even today. Some, like poet and critic Babette Deutsch in the 1920s, have even argued that it is more popular than the “Star Spangled Banner.” Deutsch writes that “the national anthem never is sung with the same hearty joy and strong emotion with which an audience, even of Northerners, greets [‘Dixie’].” Deutsch’s early twentieth century interpretation of this phenomenon is very likely dependent on the era in which she wrote it, but even today there are those in the South who rally for “Dixie” more than for the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Yet despite the song’s popularity, it seems that the majority of the American public is not aware of the long and somewhat unexpected history of “Dixie.” Even of those who know “Dixie” was actually written by a Northerner, how many are aware of its origins as a minstrel song functioning to draw comedic attention to the role of black slaves on Southern plantations? “Dixie’s” history has largely been obscured by time and the Lost Cause, and so it is significant not only to note the complex history of the tune, but also to raise questions about why such a song became the most popular rally cry of the Confederacy in the first place.