Legends: Sing a song of war | HistoryNet

Legends: Sing a song of war

By Ron Soodalter
9/5/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

Since the dawn of time, men have waged war, and always there was the music. Horns and drums, lyres and pipes inspired and preceded men into battle; bards celebrated victory, lamented defeat. We know this from Homer, from the Celtic and Nordic hero tales, from the Bible, from the carvings in the stones of ancient Egypt and Babylon. And the Civil War inspired music of its own. Some of the songs of our greatest conflict were unreservedly maudlin. The Civil War was fought in the midst of the Victorian era—arguably the most sentimental period in the history of this nation. It was a time when “In Memoriam” woodcuts of gravestones and weeping willows hung on parlor walls, tintypes of deceased children decorated the mantels and death was a key player in the popular literature of the day. So it is no surprise that many Civil War songs reflected the tone of the time.

Such heart-wrenchers as “Just before the Battle, Mother” enjoyed widespread popularity as families gathered at the piano in the parlor:

Farewell, Mother, you may never
Press me to your heart again
But, oh, you’ll not forget me, Mother
If I’m numbered with the slain.

Along the same lines was “The Vacant Chair,” which, although written to commemorate the death of a Massachusetts infantry officer, was popular among the soldiers of both armies:

Sleep today, O early fallen,
In thy green and narrow bed.
Dirges from the pine and cypress
Mingle with the tears we shed.

And no less a composer of popular ballads than Stephen Foster weighed in with several of his own contributions, including the moving “Was My Brother in the Battle”:

Was my brother in the battle when
the noble Highland host
Were so wrongfully outnumbered
on the Carolina coast?

Did he struggle for the Union
’mid the thunder and the rain,
Till he fell among the brave
on a bleak Virginia plain?
Oh, I’m sure that he was dauntless
and his courage ne’er would lag
While contending for the honor
of our dear and cherished flag.

Some songs, such as “Rally for Old Abe,” doubled as campaign ditties. The rousing “Lincoln and Liberty, Too,” sung to the tune of “Rosin the Beau,” is a well-wrought example:

They’ll find what by felling and mauling,
Our railmaker statesman can do;
For the people are everywhere calling
For Lincoln and Liberty, too.
Then up with the banner so glorious,
The star-spangled red, white, and blue,
We’ll fight till our banner’s victorious,
For Lincoln and Liberty, too.

The soldiers appreciated a sentimental or inspirational ballad, and such parlor pieces as “Aura Lea” and “Lorena” made the rounds of the campfires, as did such songs of faith as “Wondrous Love” and “Wayfaring Stranger.” But they took a more immediate view of the war than those who waited at home. One favorite, “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight,” tells the story of a doomed picket. There is no indication whether he is a Yankee or a Rebel. Authorship was attributed to both Lamar Fontaine of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry, who reportedly composed it for a comrade killed after First Bull Run, and Ethel Lynn Beers of New York, who published it as “The Picket Guard” in Harper’s Weekly:

He passes the fountain, the blasted pine tree
The footstep is lagging and weary;
Yet onward he goes, through the broad belt of light,
Toward the shades of the forest so dreary.
All quiet along the Potomac tonight.
Hark! Was it the night wind that rustled the leaves?
Was it moonlight so wondrously flashing?
It looks like a rifle—“Ah! Mary, good-bye!”
And the lifeblood is ebbing and splashing.
All quiet along the Potomac tonight,
No sound save the rush of the river;
While soft falls the dew on the face of the dead
The picket’s off duty forever.
All quiet along the Potomac tonight.

The black troops had their songs as well; one of the best is “Give Us a Flag.” One verse cites their response to Jefferson Davis’ threat to execute any black troops caught in Union uniform:

Old Jeff says he’ll hang us if we dare to meet him armed.
A very big thing, but we are not at all alarmed.
For he has first got to catch us before the way is clear
And that is “what’s the matter” with the colored volunteer.

Of all the soldiers’ songs from this or any other war, the winner for in-your-face defiance is a Confederate ditty composed right after Appomattox by Randolph Innes, formerly a major on J.E.B. Stuart’s staff. Venom virtually drips from every line:

Oh, I’m a good old Rebel soldier, now that’s just what I am;
For this “Fair Land of Freedom” I do not give a damn!
I’m glad I fit against it, I only wish we’d won,
And I don’t want no pardon for anything I done.

I hates the Constitution, this “Great Republic,” too!
I hates the Freedman’s Bureau and uniforms of blue!
I hates the nasty eagle with all its brags and fuss,
And the lying, thieving Yankees, I hates ’em wuss and wuss!

I followed old Marse Robert for four years, near about,
Got wounded in three places, and starved at Point Lookout.
I cotched the “roomatism” a’campin’ in the snow,
But I killed a chance o’ Yankees, and I’d like to kill some mo’!

Three hundred thousand Yankees is stiff in Southern dust!
We got three hundred thousand before they conquered us.
They died of Southern fever and Southern steel and shot,
But I wish we’d got three million instead of what we got.

I can’t take up my musket and fight ’em now no more,
But I ain’t a’gonna love ’em, now that’s for sartain sure!
I do not want no pardon for what I was and am,
And I won’t be reconstructed, and I do not care a damn!


Writer, scrimshander and historian Ron Soodalter is the co-author of The Slave Next Door.

Originally published in the January 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.

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