Friday, February 12, 2016

From the Battlefield, with Love: Civil War Soldiers' Songs

Kathleen Rice Adams
Americans didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day as we know it until the mid-1800s. By 1856, the practice of sending somewhat sappy cards had become so widespread that newspapers began to call the blossoming tradition a “social disease.” Conservative elements in society tried to stamp out the celebration because they considered such unvarnished expression of fondness evidence of “moral deterioration.” The February 1856 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine included a cartoon depicting card-giving as crass and self-indulgent.

A "window" valentine, ca. 1864. Such cards were called
"window valentines" because front flaps opened to reveal
a hidden message or image.
A scant five years later, as the Civil War began, Valentine’s Day took on new significance. Cards often depicted sweethearts parting. Many incorporated flaps that opened to reveal soldiers standing in tents or couples at the altar. Some included a lock of the giver’s hair.

In addition to cards, songs of love and loss became popular with Civil War soldiers on the battlefields. At night, encamped on opposite sides of imaginary lines only hundreds of yards apart, men wearing blue and men wearing gray sang as one. Some of the songs were meant to keep sweet memories alive; many mourned happiness never to be.

The following are a few of the most popular love songs of the Civil War. All except “Just Before the Battle, Mother” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas” were performed by Tom Roush. (“Just Before the Battle” was performed by the 97th Regimental String Band, and “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was performed by Bobby Horton.)

The Yellow Rose of Texas

A popular marching tune all over the Confederacy, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” dates to the state's early colonial period. The first known transcribed version—handwritten on a piece of plain paper—appeared around the time of the Texian victory at San Jacinto in April 1836. In its original form, the song tells the story of a black man who has been separated from his sweetheart and longs to reunite with her. This YouTube video contains the modified version Texas troops actually sang during the Civil War, complete with references to “Bobby Lee” and Hood's Texas Brigade...with one exception. By the time of the war, the phrase “sweetest rose of color” had been replaced with “little flower” in order not to imply white soldiers were pining for a mulatto woman.


Aura Lea (also spelled “Aura Lee”)

Most people today recognize the melody to “Aura Lea” as “Love Me Tender,” which became an instant hit when Elvis Presley sang the song during his first appearance on the big screen in the 1956 movie of the same name. The original, composed in 1861 by W. W. Fosdick (words) and George R. Poulton (music), is one of the happier songs of the era.


Lorena

The Rev. Henry D. L. Webster wrote the words to one of the most popular love songs of the Civil War in 1856 after his intended broke off their engagement. His friend Joseph Philbrick Webster composed the music. Western Writers of America listed "Lorena" as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time; an instrumental version appears in the iconic film Gone with the Wind.


When I Saw Sweet Nellie Home

Also known as “Seeing Nellie Home” and “Aunt Dinah’s Quilting Party,” the original was composed by John Fletcher (music) and Frances Kyle (words) in 1859. In 1861, Otto W. Ludwig changed the words to create the strident Union ballad “Courage, Mother, I Am Going,” about a young man who believes he won’t return from a war he is morally obligated to fight. Needless to say, Confederates sang the original. The Union version faded into obscurity after the war.


Oh! Susanna

Published by Stephen Foster in 1848, "Oh! Susanna" was popular with both bluebellies and graybacks, who viewed the words through entirely different cultural lenses. This version contains the original second verse, which is controversial (and potentially offensive) because of the language.


My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night

Published by Stephen Foster in 1853, “My Old Kentucky Home” speaks of love for home and family. The song became enormously popular with both armies during the Civil War—which was odd in the case of the Confederacy, because Foster’s notes on the original handwritten sheet music clearly indicate he intended the song to be an abolitionist anthem inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (Foster was a staunch abolitionist.)


Just Before the Battle, Mother

One of the saddest Civil War favorites speaks of love not for a sweetheart, but for a young’s man’s mother. With words and music (1862) by George F. Root, "Just Before the Battle, Mother" was strictly a Union song. (The lead-in on this one is long. The words start just before the one-minute mark.)


The Picture on the Wall

A sad song more popular among the folks at home than soldiers on the battlefield (for obvious reasons), Henry Clay Work’s “The Picture on the Wall” (1864) is almost unknown today. During the Civil War, it expressed tremendous grief about the loss of both sweethearts and sons.


Annie Laurie (also spelled “Annie Lawry”)

Brought to America from Scotland around 1832, authorship of the song is unknown. By the time of the Civil War, the words had changed from the original Scottish. Because the song was so well known, it was one of the most often sung across the lines, despite—or perhaps because of—the haunting chorus: “For bonnie Annie Laurie, I'd lay me down and die.”


Sweet Evelina

Composed in 1863 by Mrs. Parkhurst, the tune to “Sweet Evelina” is spritely even though the words come from the point of view of a young man fated never to marry the beautiful girl he loves. The song was incredibly popular among soldiers on both sides during the war but had all but disappeared by 1900.


Listen to the Mockingbird

Septimus Winner, using the name Alice Hawthorne, wrote the words to “Listen to the Mockingbird” in 1855 and set them to music composed by a guitarist friend. Despite the upbeat melody, the song tells the story of a man’s love for a young woman who has died. The tune was popular with both Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs. As an aside: In 1862, Winner was arrested and charged with treason after he published “Give Us Back Our Old Commander: Little Mac, the People’s Pride.” The song protested Lincoln’s firing of Gen. George B. McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Federal authorities released Winner only after he promised to destroy all remaining copies of the sheet music...but calling back the 80,000 copies that sold in the first two days after the song's publication proved impossible. (McClellan was an exceptionally popular man.)



An excellent album called Songs of the Civil War contains renditions of some of these songs by artists including The United States Military Academy Band, Waylon Jennings, Richie Havens, Hoyt Axton, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Kathy Mattea, and Jay Ungar and Molly Mason (of “Ashokan Farewell” fame). It’s available from Amazon on CD and audio cassette, as well as in MP3 format and via Amazon’s PrimeMusic.


Right now, I'm finishing an "extra" story in the Dumont series, a trilogy about a Southeast Texas ranching dynasty. The first volume, The Dumont Brand, released last July. The two short novellas within tell the big-as-Texas stories of brothers Bennett and Amon Collier and the women who kept them going during and immediately after the Civil War, when the ranch nearly fell apart. Undoubtedly, the men who served under Bennett, a Confederate cavalry officer, sang some of the songs in this post. Watch for the "extra" story, The Trouble with Honey, from Prairie Rose Publications later this spring.



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A Texan to the bone, Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperadoes. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen’s stories, even the good guys wear black hats.

Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the coveted 2015 Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun is the only western historical romance ever to receive a Peacemaker nomination in a book-length category.

Visit her hideout on the web at KathleenRiceAdams.com.

39 comments:

  1. What a lovely look at the not-so-Civil War. Thanks!

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    1. I never have figured out why that war wasn't called "the Great Calamity" or something. Glad you enjoyed the post, Di. :-)

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  2. Very interesting stuff here Kathleen. What an apt post for the season! I love the history you uncovered here!!

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    1. Thanks, Sara! This post took quite a bit of time, but it was lots of fun to put together. Almost got stuck down in that research rabbit hole, though. :-D

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  3. As in all troubled times, music soothed heavy hearts. Thanks for rounding up these titles. I read that some senior officers forbade the singing of "Lorena" because it was bad for morale. The song too sad to be sung.

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    1. Dangit -- I knew I should've gotten in touch with you about this post before I...well, posted it. I didn't uncover that about Lorena, but I have no doubt it's true. Imagine a bunch of guys stuck a long way from home ruminating on a song about their intended leaving them. I'm just guessing here, but I can see "desertion" written all over that.

      I was surprised by several of these songs -- particularly the ones Rebs sang despite obvious anti-slavery connotations. A couple of the "Yanks-only" songs were a mite mean-spirited, too, if you ask me...but then, what else would one expect from a damn Yankee? ;-)

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  4. Awesome post, Kathleen! Well-done, and definitely one to come back to. I attended a local presentation of Little Women, and they played a recording of Lorena. Aw. I'd heard once that Civil War soldiers got so homesick hearing Lorena, they'd go AWOL. Sob. Good job today!

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    1. Judging by Vonn's comment (above), I'll bet that's exactly what happened. Poor guys.

      I'm glad you liked the post! HUGS!!!!

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    1. Thank you, Denise. I'm glad you enjoyed it. :-)

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  6. Kathleen, this is a wonderful post. I know most of these songs--and many were in an old songbook I used to play from on the piano. Some beautiful melodies and lyrics. Thanks so much for this!

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    1. I used to play "Aura Lea" and "Listen to the Mockingbird" on the piano -- and, of course, "The Yellow Rose of Texas." ;-) I didn't realize "Listen to the Mockingbird" was as old as it is. Did you?

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    2. No, I didn't, but that was a song my mom used to sing sometimes around the house. Now I want to go get out all these old songs and play them--it's been a while!

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  7. This was such a great blog. I know most of these songs, but there were some I didn't. Stephen Foster is the composer who wrote so many Civil War songs of which I can recall. We played many of these songs in violin class. There are some really sad songs here. Knowing what we now know about the huge loss of life during the Civil War, makes these songs all the more sorrowful.

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    1. Doesn't it, Sarah? Can you just imagine all those boys so far away from home, staring horror in the face every day, and all they had to hang onto were songs they knew by heart. Such a sad, sad period in history.

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  8. Kathleen--I've already bragged on this post to high heaven, but it does deserve high praise. Honestly, it's one of...if not the best...post I've seen in a while. I know the time you spent finding the videos and photos and compiling it all into a coherent post was a big job. But then, you were meant for "big jobs." I love it and have spread the word. I do hope others will enjoy it as much as I have.
    Look up "Somebody's Darling" as sung by Kathy Mateo. Even you will cry. Thanks, my friend.

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    1. I've heard "Somebody's Darling" by Kathy Mateo. (It's on the album I mentioned in the post.) What a heart-breaker! I thought about including that one in this post, and I don't know why I didn't. Maybe because the words were written by a young woman who'd just received word of her fiance's death, and I'm not sure she intended them to be more than a catharsis for her own heart. Or maybe because it's just so hard to listen to the song without crying.

      Thank you for bragging on the post, dear lady. Of all the posts I've written to date, this one affected me most deeply. I'm still not sure why.

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  9. Kathleen, fantastic post. I kept saying, oh I won't listen to this one, but gosh darn it I had to listen to each one of them. Talk about being committed to a project--WOW! I can't even imagine the length of time and fiddling around to compose a post such as this. Loved it. And a ton of information. Wishing you much success as always and looking forward to a great read with The Trouble with Honey.

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    1. Thanks, Bev. This post was a lot of trouble, but I enjoyed it, too. I had to listen to all of those songs over and over and over again once I found them -- especially the couple I'd never heard of. One of these days, I'm going to get lost down a research rabbit hole -- so when y'all notice I'm missing, that's what happened. :-D

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  10. Fascinating post, Kathleen. I've been doing some digging on this subject myself, since one of my novels deals with post-Civil war and songs therein. Always loved this subject. I was going to bring up the snippet about "Lorena" - one of my favorites - being banned in some of the Confederate units, as the song drove men AWOL -- but it looks like others beat me to it. ;-) What surprised me with my song research is that one of my favorite melodies, the song "Ashokan's Farewell" is not period at all, but a haunting melody written for the Ken Burns Civil War documentary. Still, I've walked the Gettysburg Battlefield on a foggy summer morn, playing this melody in my head. Shivers and chills.

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    1. Yeah, you got here just a little late to school me on the AWOL thing. (Whew! That would've been embarrassing.) Makes perfect sense, though, doesn't it?

      I LOVE "Ashokan Farewell." Like you, I thought it was a Civil War piece until I went to buy an MP3 copy from Amazon a year or so ago and read about the music. Jay Ungar really hit the mood of the period, didn't he?

      I like "Lorena," although to me it always sounded very hopeful there at the end. All these years, I thought it was written to a woman who had died, not someone who jilted her lover! With the new information about the broken engagement, I'm wondering if the end that sounded so hopeful to me was intended to be more like a "God will get you for that" threat. ;-)

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  11. Beautiful post Kathleen, perfect gift of memories and music for Valentines Day. Thank you.

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    1. You're welcome, Janet. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. :-)

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  12. Oh Kathleen, you hit upon one of my favorite topics. Music from yesteryear. Amazing and addictive post. I found myself singing along. (Of course I did start college as a musis major, as a soloist. Oh the memories) Thank you for all the work you put into this post. Loved it. Doris/Angela

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    1. Doris, I knew we were kindred spirits! I couldn't help singing along with most of these, either (especially "The Yellow Rose of Texas" ;-) ). They've been playing in my head like a soundtrack since I wrote the post. :-D

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  13. Amazing post! This definitely took a lot of time and effort, but was a joy for those of us who visited. Great job and what a reminder of how much music means in every situation.

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    1. Rebecca, it's so nice to "see" you! Music really is a comfort in trying times, isn't it? I think soldiers on opposing sides singing the songs together says so much about not only music's ability to unite people on some primal level, but also about how similar people are beneath disagreements. :-)

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  14. This is really beautiful, Kathleen. I saw there was a fuss about your post but didn't get to it until this morning. I love the images. There is so much pain, heartache, and joy in the world especially in wartime, what would we do without music to express ourselves. Music is one art form accessible to all. I cannot imagine what it would be like to either be on the battlefield or be the one waiting at home. And this was in the time before Skype and other forms of communication. Thanks for your hard work.

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    1. There was a fuss about my post? I'm not sure whether to be very happy or worried that a lynch mob is looking for me. :-D

      I agree with everything you said 100 percent, Patti. Music has been around since mankind has been around. That's a powerful art. :-)

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  15. What a wonderful collection of songs! Thank you, Kathleen, for putting it together for us. It's a keeper!

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  16. Kathleen, I loved this post. I have a friend whose daughter is named Lorena after the song. My dad used to sing "Listen to the Mockingbird" but changed the name Hallie to Hattie, after his mom who died when he was four. This post brought back memories.

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    1. Oh, Caroline, that's both sad and very touching. I'm sure you have a deep emotional bond with that song. Music always plays in the background of our lives, grounding us in ways nothing else can. :-)

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  17. Thank you, Kathleen, for this wonderful, informative and very enjoyable post. Some songs I knew, some never heard before. And yes, there is no doubt you spent a lot of time and effort to gather all that information.

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    1. Thank you, Cheri. I was surprised by how old some of these songs are, and I'd never heard several of them, either. Next time either of us writes something set around the time of the Civil War, at least we'll have background music! :-D

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  18. This is such a fantastic blog Kathleen. I had no idea where these beautiful songs came from. I remember my grandmother singing Listen to the Mockingbird when I was little. And of course My Old Kentucky Home we sang in school. Out of much sadness came something beautiful to passed down one generation to the next.

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    1. As usual, Barn, you have such a beautiful way of phrasing things. You are one of the best silver-lining finders I've ever met. HUGS!!!!

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