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  • Confederate Music and the Politics of Treason and Disloyalty in the American Civil War
  • Billy Coleman (bio)

On June 9, 1862, the New Orleans Bee heralded the arrival of "New Music" from local music-publishing firm Messrs. Blackmar & Co. The timing and content of the news item was provocative. After five weeks of Union army occupation under Major General Benjamin F. Butler and just two days after the execution of William B. Mumford for "tearing down the United States flag," the Blackmar brothers alerted readers to the availability of two already well-renowned Confederate songs: "The Bonnie Blue Flag" and "Maryland, My Maryland." The audaciousness of doing so would have been clear to readers at the time, who need only have diverted their attention two columns to the right to find the Bee's report of Mumford's execution.1 Yet, despite efforts to suppress its use, secessionist music proved to be a stubborn mainstay of resistance to the Federal occupying force. And for many Confederates, the willingness of the United States military to regulate music was confirmation of their belief that the federal government was a threat to their personal liberty and the so-called southern way of life. "Was there ever such nonsense and such a want of pride and dignity," complained diarist Julia Le Grand at the thought of her New Orleans neighbors being put on trial for their singing; "I'm afraid Mrs. Stewart's daughters [End Page 75] next door will be arrested some day, for their piano and mingled voices are continually doing duty to [a] contraband ditty."2

Less than three weeks later, the Democratic-leaning St. Louis Daily Missouri Republican announced the "Arrest of Balmer & Weber, Music Dealers" by order of Provost Marshal George E. Leighton and the closing of their establishment due to their involvement in the trade of "rebel music." The arrest occurred two weeks after Leighton had issued Order No. 834, which, in an effort to curb "malicious manifestations of disloyalty," singled out for rebuke "singing secession songs."3 Balmer and Weber, being vendors of secession songs such as "The Southern Confederacy March" and "Southern Rights Polka," were thus accused of circulating "signs of treason." According to a correspondent for the New York Tribune, the arrest of the well-known music publishers caused "whirls of excitement" in town, and though the correspondent could accept that Balmer and Weber "must suffer the consequences" of their actions, many locals in St. Louis were less convinced. The Daily Missouri Republican, incredulous at the harsh measures, declared the military government's handling of the affair "a musical humbug."4

Both episodes speak to music's now familiar presence in the political combat of wartime experience. But the phenomenon of Confederate musical arrests also raises questions: What made the sensory impact of Confederate music powerful enough to be considered a crime? Why did Confederates think it was a good idea to sing Confederate songs, even after they were banned by an occupying military government? And how did efforts to regulate Confederate airs bear on debates over the balance between rights and liberties in wartime? To answer these questions, I emphasize that ideas about the power of music before the Civil War muddied the boundaries of acceptable political action during the war, that cultural assumptions about gender, class, and music itself characterized how musical arrests played out on the ground, and that the Union army's attempts to suppress Confederate singing did not amount to an unambiguously effective policy. If anything, music-related arrests most clearly succeeded in providing critics of the Abraham Lincoln administration—both at home and abroad—with headline-grabbing evidence that the Union [End Page 76] really was as repressive and unjust as they had feared. In all, Confederate musical arrests, as political reflections of power and its subversion, reveal how Confederate music helped shape the boundaries, experience, and outcome of Union occupation.5

That experiences of Union military occupation crystallized fundamental questions about gender roles, the purpose of a standing army, and the limits of American freedom and treason lies at the heart of an already impressive literature.6 We know that the actions of...