- MUSIC ALONG THE RAPIDAN: Civil War Soldiers, Music, and Community during Winter Quarters, Virginia by James A. Davis
When Ken Burns’s The Civil War aired in the fall of 1990, its narrative, imagery, and lyricism captivated the nation, as it became the most watched television program in the history of public broadcasting. Narrated by a range of voices—regal inflections, grim baritones, and regional vernaculars that included David McCullough, Sam Waterston, Morgan Freeman, Garrison Keillor, Julie Harris, and Jason Robards—sonic elements were at the center of its popularity. But it was The Civil War’s music, particularly the signature (and modern) piece, “Ashokan Farewell,” that provided the emotional pulse of the series. The soundtrack introduced countless late-twentieth-century laypeople to mid-nineteenth-century music, creating a type of general public around a sensory experience. In Music Along the Rapidan: Civil War Soldiers, Music, and Community during Winter Quarters, Virginia, musicologist James A. Davis explores that relationship between sounds and people during the war itself.
A case study, Music Along the Rapidan examines the link between music and community as the Union Army of the Potomac and Confederate Army of Northern Virginia glowered at one another across Virginia’s Rapidan River during the winter encampment of 1863–64. Davis begins with a simple premise: music is a social process, and who we are and where we are listening is just as important as what we hear. Indeed, Civil War camps combined downtime with high musical literacy, soldiers with civilians, officers with enlisted men, and—especially in the case of northern armies—considerable social diversity. Music was ubiquitous in the form of field musicians, regimental bands, religious hymns, minstrel shows, and campfire string quartets. It could be a bureaucratic routine, a communal ritual, and a deeply personal behavior, Davis argues. Music was also functional, acting as an emotional release, an instrument of order, a means of grieving or entertaining, a source of nationalism, and a mode of class delineation. In short, “musicking” was an identity-shaping experience, according to Davis. It was both transformed and transformative, and its contours reveal much about nation, class, race, and religion during the Middle Period.
Music Along the Rapidan’s strongest and most alluring discussion is that of the relationship between music and common soldiers. Through daily drill, dress parade, and funerary ritual, music “created” soldiers out of citizens. It also brought soldiers together, as the guitar and the fiddle, the bugle and the banjo worked as democratizing forces within relatively democratic armies, unifying and consoling “diasporic” communities. [End Page 165] Universal yet also deeply personal, soldiers’ music could be confrontational, pragmatic, or used to negotiate between identities, such as when it functioned as a substitute for domestic values. Davis suggests that while music mostly served as a creolized leveler and centripetal force of identity formation, it also disclosed social hierarchies and class barriers, in the form of officers’ balls, and racial boundaries, evidenced by the exclusion of African Americans. More than other groups, the all-purpose brass band proved the most successful at performing the many social functions assigned to Civil War musicians, providing an “intersection” of musical communities. Ultimately, Davis maintains that the Civil War changed soldiers, and music both influenced and was influenced by that change.
Although his evidence is more than ample, Davis’s work suffers at times from repetition. From the perspective of a historian, Music Along the Rapidan also appears thin at times on historical context, particularly on themes such as ethnicity and nationalism (although his analysis of “community” is meticulous). Other blemishes seem inherent to case studies. For example, while Davis’s subjects are overwhelmingly from the Northeast and Virginia, greater regional variation and analysis might reveal differences in music and community between eastern and western armies. Furthermore, while recognizing that it was not the aim of his study, it would have been fascinating to see the function of music not only in repose, but also on campaign and in the heat of battle. Incisive, well-researched...