- Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War
This book meets a need. As the author observes, “few historians have considered how music functioned during the 1860s” (p. 1). For those seeking a sensible reading of the context and themes of Civil War music, and by an historian rather than a musicologist, this is an excellent starting place. Those familiar with the music will find the work engaging. The interpretive line is sensible and informed by a broad reading of the field, along with detailed examination of sheet music sales records. The book is moreover concise, at a bit over two hundred pages. All this is to the good.
It is, however, difficult to pin down an overarching thesis, save that the music mattered more than Civil War historians generally emphasize. There are instead several interrelated themes that emerge over the course of the book, mostly relating to the social circumstances of songs’ dissemination. Soldiers determined which tunes gained prominence, imparting a “decidedly ‘lowbrow’” bias toward easily understood lyrics suited to the march (p. 4). Thus the combative “John Brown’s Body” was far more widely sung during the war than its poetic “Battle Hymn of the Republic” version. After the war, however, the more uplifting lyrics prevailed, and McWhirter attends to such reworking of musical memories in the postwar decades.
That tune illustrates another McWhirter theme, that many songs became popular because “they were lyrically and ideologically flexible” (p. 2). Appearing in 1861, the initial John Brown song was apparently about a diminutive Massachusetts soldier named Brown comically overwhelmed by his huge backpack—whose “soul went marching on.” As it spread from camp to camp, the words inevitably morphed into a paean to the abolitionist martyr. McWhirter contends that the lively song popularized antislavery attitudes of northern soldiers, that the song itself mattered politically. Committed abolitionists tried to influence the course of the war through antislavery lyrics, with modest success, but this accidental and rather vulgar hit reshaped soldiers’ sense of their cause [End Page 320]
Published northern songs outnumbered southern ones by perhaps 9,000 to 700, so the evolution of that region’s musical thinking necessarily occupies more space (p. 16). Some were inspired by a contest with a $500 purse offered for the best Union song, an ironic expression of Yankee patriotism Confederates commented upon (pp. 36–41). The evidence suggests there was an arc to northern music, with antislavery occupying a progressively larger role in the narrative of national triumph. General Sherman never cared for “Marching Through Georgia,” for example, but his men sang of bringing the slaves’ Jubilee for decades at reunions
The leading Confederate tunes had a more problematic trajectory. “Dixie” was written by a northerner, without reference to separate nationality, and its nostalgic themes were thought unsuited to a nation at war. “Bonnie Blue Flag,” in some versions, had proslavery lyrics, and its author defected to the North halfway through the conflict. Such spritely tunes ill-matched the latter phases of the war, and for years afterwards they were seldom heard. Only the lapse of time and the emerging Lost Cause restored them to a central place in regional culture, and the author traces their use through the civil rights struggle to the current day.
As McWhirter was University of Alabama Ph.D., one might have expected specific attention to the state’s history, but there’s only limited evidence of it here. “Kingdom Coming” first appeared near Athens in 1862, and Federal occupation troops embraced it (p. 159). Alabamians did contribute several revised versions of “Dixie,” with Julia Tutwiler’s New South variant perhaps the most unintentionally amusing: “Hark, the factory’s busy humming/ And hurray. . .Dixie Land!” (pp. 199–202). On the other hand, the book incorporates African American spirituals into the central narrative quite effectively. It reflects thoughtfully upon how black troops’ music both mirrored and diverged from that of their white Union colleagues.
The author identified...