Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War (review)
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Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. By Christian McWhirter. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. vii, 321. $39.95 cloth)

Christian McWhirter's Battle Hymns paints a richly textured portrait of musical life during the Civil War. McWhirter has adopted the methodology of reception history, an approach that explores the shifting meanings listeners ascribe to specific musical works—here, vernacular songs—in their changing cultural and historical contexts. This focus on meaning, as opposed to the music itself, sets Battle Hymns apart from other standard books on the subject such as Music of the Civil War Era (2004) by Steven Cornelius and The Singing Sixties (1960) by Willard A. and Porter W. Heaps.

The main chapters of the book detail the important roles music played as patriotic expression for both the Union and the Confederacy, political propaganda on the home front, a source of energy and entertainment for soldiers, a site of identity formation for African Americans, an emotional release at war's end, and a tool for reimagining history. Since topics such as nationalism, slavery, hardship, and death reappear in each chapter, this thematic organizational structure allows the reader to view the same phenomena from several different perspectives and to develop a sense of the intriguing and clever intertexuality found in many songs from the period. McWhirter deliberately focuses on widely popular and still-familiar tunes, such as "John Brown's Body," "Dixie," "The Battle Cry of Freedom," and others that inspired multiple retextings (i.e., new words set to the same tune) or direct musical responses (parodies, "answer songs," or sequels). His refreshingly accessible prose likewise never approaches esotericism.

The vast array of primary-source material that McWhirter has [End Page 602] carefully amassed is another of the chief strengths of the book. The scope of his sources speaks directly to his thesis that music was a powerful medium of political and emotional expression during the war. Its ubiquity in common discourse strongly suggests that it was an equally important feature of everyday life for soldiers, current and former slaves, and families on the home front, all of whom left documentation revealing their feelings about and experiences with music. McWhirter skillfully weaves their voices into his narrative. At times, however, the diffuseness of the sources may leave the reader wondering how representative a particular experience or opinion might have been.

McWhirter's claims about the uniqueness of his topic are overstated and reveal his inexperience with areas outside of the scope of the book. Music was no less important during the Revolutionary War or the two world wars, for example. Composers, performers, and listeners alike confronted the particular cultural challenges posed by each. McWhirter also largely ignores the thriving musical cultures that were less directly affected by the war itself—music at theaters, beer gardens, or concert halls—thus potentially leaving the reader with the impression that the war was a singular musical obsession; it was not. Lastly, McWhirter's focus on meaning leaves questions about precisely what sounds elicited such strong responses. Perhaps he will consider creating a companion website that includes streaming musical examples.

These weaknesses notwithstanding, Battle Hymns convincingly combines historical and musicological perspectives by illustrating the mutual enrichment of music and extramusical culture. A song written and printed first in Chicago, for example, could be sung at a political rally there, purchased at a music store by a rally attendee, mailed to her brother on the front lines, arranged by the regimental bandmaster for use at an evening performance, and finally retexted by drunken soldiers before bed. Such rapid movement and adaptation of music was made possible by the increased nationalization of the economy, transportation networks, and the musical marketplace, all [End Page 603] of which enter McWhirter's analyses. Battle Hymns is filled with many more stories like this (and much more compelling) and thus deserves a place on the bookshelves of anyone interested in the Civil War.

Douglas Shadle

Douglas Shadle is a visiting assistant professor of music history at the University of Louisville. He is the author of several articles and book reviews on nineteenth-century American...