The song’s origins are murky, and its lyrics border on nonsensical. In its lifetime it has invigorated dance hall drunks, given zest to presidential campaigns and inspired military ardor with partisan lyrics. It’s also been abhorred by some, who view it as a lingering tribute to slavery. But no matter how you see it, “Dixie” remains a quintessentially American tune and a deeply ingrained and influential part of the Civil War era.
Daniel Decatur Emmett, the man most often associated with the song, was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, on October 29, 1815. Though others have also staked a claim to writing it, without a doubt Emmett at least popularized the ode to the American South.
His father, Abraham, a native of Staunton, Va., had arrived in Mount Vernon in 1812, and became the village blacksmith. “Uncle Dan,” as the future composer was later called, worked in the shop when he wasn’t in school, and impressed neighbors with his innate musical talent. Before the age of 15 he had taught himself to play the fiddle, and when a touring theatrical troupe visited Mount Vernon and needed a fiddler, the manager was pointed toward the Emmetts’ blacksmith shop, where as Daniel later put it, he had been told there was a “boy who could play very well.”
The manager offered Emmett a one-night gig and assured him “anything you can play will be right. In fact, all I want you to do is to fill up a vacuum.” But what was meant as reassurance initially tripped up the youthful musician. Emmett later recalled: “Vacuum was a new word which had never gotten around in our country, and we did not know what it meant. I supposed he would want me to go to work and fill up a hole with a wheelbarrow or something of the kind.” Despite the misunderstanding, Emmett took the job.
On May 2, 1834, Emmett signed up for three years in the U.S. Army, and was assigned to the Newport Barracks in Kentucky. His musical talents were soon given full attention. “I practiced the drum constantly,” he later recalled. On March 3, 1835, he joined the 6th U.S. Infantry and was stationed at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis. But when it was discovered that he was actually underage, he was discharged on July 8, 1835. Army records listed him as a “fifer.”
After his brief army career, Emmett held two jobs in Cincinnati, working as a printer in the winter and traveling with a circus in the summer. In 1837 he joined Sam Stickney’s Circus, then considered among the country’s best. It was during this time that he learned to play the banjo. For 22 years Emmett performed with the circus, but in the spring of 1859 he was employed by Bryant’s Minstrels, then playing on Broadway in New York City.
One Saturday night after a performance, Jerie Bryant asked Emmett to compose a new “walk around,” a type of raucous song that would inspire the audience to “whoop and holler,” Emmett recalled. According to the most widely accepted story of the song’s creation, the following morning Emmett looked outside, where it was raining as if “Heaven and earth would come together.” Looking at the gloomy landscape, he sighed and muttered, “I wish I were in Dixie.” Dixie had become a commonly used nickname—of vague origins—for the South, and that expression was often used by showmen traveling in the North during the dreary winter months. He then began humming the phrase, accompanying himself on his violin. The following day he took his new song to rehearsal, where his fellow performers were “so pleased with it that they had the second rehearsal after dinner, so we could get it just right for the night performance.”
Indeed, the song proved so popular that it rapidly spread from New York City across the country. In the process, it was adapted for a variety of purposes. In the fall of 1860, for example, the tune was belatedly added to an elaborate production of the play Po-ca-hontas (memorably subtitled “An Original Aboriginal Erratic Operatic Semicivilized and Demi-savage Extravaganza”) staged at the New Orleans Varieties Theatre—and performed by a drill team of 40 female Zouaves, at the whim of orchestra leader Carlo Patti.
As sectional tensions heightened, “Dixie” was well liked by both sides. It was reportedly played at some of Abraham Lincoln’s campaign rallies, and Lincoln himself was apparently partial to the tune. For obvious reasons, however, it gained greater favor in the South, and from early on it was associated with the Confederacy.
On February 18, 1861, in Montgomery, Ala., a band playing “Dixie” headed the long procession escorting President-elect Jefferson Davis on his way to take the oath of office at the state capitol. Colonel John W. Inzer, a representative of the secession convention in Alabama, remembered that when he entered Montgomery, he noticed the “strong, quick, elastic steps of all persons, the stern and determined countenances of men. Added to this were an unusual number of shrill whistles on trains and boats approaching and leaving the city and the soul stirring music of the calliopes on the steamers playing ‘Dixie’ and other Southern airs….”
Captain, later General, John B. Gordon recalled after the war that when his company, the “Raccoon Roughs,” passed through Montgomery, “vast throngs gathered at the depots, filling the air with their shoutings, and bearing banners with all conceivable devices, proclaiming Southern independence, and pledging the last dollar and man for the success of the cause. Staid Matrons and gaily bedecked maidens rushed upon the cars, pinned upon our lapels the blue cockades, and cheered us by chanting in thrilling chorus: In Dixie-land I take my stand, To live and die in Dixie.”
The London Times’ William Russell, passing through North Carolina when news of war arrived, wrote of “flushed faces, wild eyes, screaming mouths, with men and women shouting so boisterously that nearby bands playing ‘Dixie’ could not be heard. And North Carolina had not yet left the Union.”
On August 13, 1861, Company C, 16th Louisiana Regiment, marched off to war from Shreveport, La. A Lieutenant Pegues later recalled that “the Caddo Fencible, as gallant a body of men as ever shouldered muskets, formed line, marched down Texas Street, and embarked for the seat of the war. Streaming banners, the booming of cannon, and the inspiring of ‘Dixie’ filled our souls with patriotic ardor….” B.L. Aycock of Company E, 4th Texas, commented on his way to war: “Here at New Orleans was the first time I ever heard ‘Dixie.’ Two little Italian boys with violins played the air that was to be the war cry.”
Alice Allen, a girl of 11 in 1861, re – membered that when Georgia troops camped near her Virginia home, many neighbors brought them food. As the soldiers prepared to leave, “the bugle sounded, and all fell into line. The band played ‘Lorena,’ ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,’ and ‘Dixie’ and the whole crowd was singing ‘Dixie’ as they marched away.”
After war broke out, Bryant’s Minstrels found they could no longer perform their former favorite. The once acclaimed “Dixie” had become so tainted that they were jeered when they tried to play it in New York.
The song was soon recognized as the Confederate Army’s mainstay. During Sterling Price’s Missouri campaign of 1861, when the Confederate Callay Guards marched into Fayette, Ark., they were greeted with hot coffee and baskets of food provided by the Southern-sympathizing ladies of the town. Guardsman John P. Bell remarked that “We did justice to the good ladies’ bounty, and after eating and drinking to our fill, our quartet of singers gave them their rendition of ‘Dixie.’”
In Federal-occupied Louisville, Ky., J.M. Robinson, a business owner and fearless champion of the Southern cause, was arrested for too freely expressing his views. While he was being marched off to prison he sang “Dixie” with all the wind he could muster. In Frederick City, Va., a young woman identified only as Miss Eliza P. would immediately go to the parlor, seat herself at the piano, and play ‘Dixie’ and ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’ whenever she saw the Federal provost coming down the street.
The song inspired troops in camp as well as during battle. At Fredricksburg, Va., in December 1862, the bands of both armies engaged in a duel across the Rappahannock River. Confederate bandsmen opened with “Dixie,” and Federals responded with “John Brown’s Body.” The Rebels continued with “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” countered by “The Star Spangled Banner.”
After the battle, Union correspondent Murat Halstead wrote: “The Confederate army was drawn out the day after the battle on the sunny hills. The keen flash of their arms were seen, and their bands playing ‘Dixie,’ plainly heard.”
At Chancellorsville a member of Archer’s Brigade stated that “just before break of day, every band of music along the Confederate side struck up ‘Dixie.’ It was grand. As our music died away, every band along the Federal lines struck up ‘Rally Round the Flag, Boys,’ and it too was grand.”
Two accounts of the Battle of Franklin, one by surgeon G.C. Phillips of the 22nd Mississippi and another by Captain Joseph Boyce of the 1st Missouri, agree that “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag” were performed during the fighting. Boyce remembered: “About four o’ clock the corps of Lee and Cheatham were ready for the grand assault….And this array of hardened veterans, moved forward to our last and bloodiest charge. Our brass band, one of the finest in the army, went up with us, starting with ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag,’ changing to ‘Dixie’ as we reached the deadly point.”
After one of the battles for Atlanta, Chaplain J.H. M’Neilly of Quarle’s Brigade commented that “Before it was time to start on our perilous mission, it was found necessary to evacuate our positions. The magnificent Yankee bands were playing ‘Yankee Doodle’ and ‘Hail Columbia,’ and our cracker orchestra was replying with ‘Dixie’ and ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’ and we silently folded our tents and stole away to a better position.”
At Petersburg, Confederate John Knox recalled a truce: “Officers of both armies conferred and mingled on the field between the lines, the Federal dead and wounded were recovered, soldiers of both armies laid down their arms…cheered each other, enjoyed a few hours of peace and recreation, while their respected brass bands alternately played several airs, among them being ‘Dixie’ by the Federals and ‘Yankee Doodle’ by the Confederates.”
Despite the South’s stubborn loyalty to the song—or perhaps because of that—“Dixie” remained popular after the conflict ended. The day after Lee surrendered, President Lincoln told a crowd at the White House, “I have always thought that ‘Dixie’ was one of the best songs I heard.” He then ordered a band to play it.
“Dixie” continued to inspire Southerners long after the war. At the 18th reunion of the 29th Tennessee on September 13, 1893, it was reported that “The regiment was formed on the square and marched to the tune of ‘Dixie’ out to the ground, where a great multitude was awaiting the arrival of the procession.” “The heart of every Southerner thrills when he hears the stirring strains of the famous battle hymns of the Confederacy,” said Andrew Carson in 1894. The song was heard on January 19, 1898, at the celebration of Lee’s birthday in Washington, D.C., as well as at veteran rallies across the nation and when Confederate monuments were dedicated.
Well into the 20th century, the song was regarded as an appropriate tribute to slain Confederates. An American Weekly article dating from the early 1900s explained how South Carolinian Archibald Rutledge, employed by a Mercersburg, Pa., school, came across three Confederate graves in a cemetery there. He discovered that two of the Southerners were brought to the town after being wounded at Gettysburg. When they died, they were buried next to Federals. Through an inquiry published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Rutledge found one soldier’s widow who had not known her husband’s fate. When she traveled to Mercersburg, the town turned out, along with the local Grand Army of the Republic chapter and their band, to greet her. As she stepped from the train, the old Federals removed their caps and the band played “Dixie.”
In 1903 members of the Alabama Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy voted to change the words from Dan Emmett’s version to General Albert Pike’s wartime words (see sidebar, P. 49). Mrs. T.A. Hamilton of the UDC’s Birmingham chapter said in November 1903, “The glint of our bayonets would have never flashed around the world the glory of our defense if these insignificant words were a part of our ‘Dixie.’” She even claimed that the song had never had any words until Pike penned his.
A Missouri Confederate summed up the soldiers’ point of view: “We fought all through the war to the words of ‘Dixie.’ When lying in camp, one part of the camp would begin singing it and the others would answer with the next versus [sic]. When we won victories, the words of ‘Dixie’ were our shouts of victory; and when we were defeated, the old words of ‘Dixie’ were our greatest comfort. They were good enough for us then, and are good enough now.” Only a few UDC chapters adopted the new words.
In the past half-century, African Americans have challenged “Dixie” as a politically incorrect racist relic, an unrepentant Southland’s tribute to slavery. But many Southerners view it as a legitimate symbol of their heritage.
As for Emmett, who is generally remembered as the unofficial Southern anthem’s composer, his final years were lean ones. After his career ended, he lived on $5 a month from the “Actors Fund” of New York. When that evaporated in 1898, he penned a plea to Confederate Veteran magazine: “I have two more payments to receive, and then God only knows what I shall do. I live in hope of my Southern bretheren doing something for me.”
“Dixie” was played at Dan Emmett’s 1904 funeral. His tombstone inscription reads:
To the Memory of
Daniel Decatur Emmett,
Inspired the Courage and Devotion of the Southern People and Now Thrills the Hearts of a Nation.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.