Civil War Ballads
Caleb Fiske Harris Collection on the Civil War and Slavery
About the Collection
his maturity, Harris collected in three areas: the literature of
Civil War collection includes over seven hundred ballads issued during the war.
Ballads had long been used to circulate accounts of maritime disasters,
earthquakes, fires, executions and other events of public interest. According
to E.L. Rudolph, author of Confederate
Broadside Verse, in 1861 printers both north and south exploited the street
ballad to the utmost as a means of propaganda and profit. Ballads were written
and sung by Confederate and
Author and librarian Edwin
Wolf (American Song Sheets) notes
that by 1850, a fad in American life produced a shower of song sheets, slip ballads,
and poetical broadsides. Songs of topical interest began to appear with greater
frequency. Their popularity peaked during the Civil War and inspired poetry,
verse and doggerel. The war stimulated an already active music industry and
sheets flowed from the presses. Northern publishers A.W. Auner and J.H. Johnson,
Ballads were just as
important in the Confederate States even though most were issued without any
imprint and without the benefit of the commercial appeals made by Gay, Johnson,
Magnus and Wrigley. The Confederacy
simply did not have the printing houses, the paper or the publishers the
Although an exact number does not exist, Irwin Silber has allegedly gone through some 10,000 songs through library and personal manuscript collections, aged songster, old newspapers, folk song collections, and regimental histories. The ballads presented here represent a small collection of published material and provide but a fraction of the number of songs that were sung by Americans in the Civil War.
“songs, however imperfect, either as literature or popular poetry, are the most genuine expression of feelings and thoughts which have filled…hearts and minds, and have a genuineness which inform the rude or inadequate words, and are a most important illustration of the history of that tremendous conflict.” (Former editor of the Providence Journal and Civil War veteran Alfred M. Williams).
northern Verses Southern Ballads
Dixie, Where is Dixie?; Our Union, Right or Wrong; Root Yank or Die!; Stand By the Union
Many war-inspired songs were sung on both sides, often with a slight change of lyric. The shared elements of music did not lessen the hostility of the opposing forces. In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln said, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered” (Moseley, Journal of Popular Culture 48).
However, there are notable
differences emphasized in the lyrics of the ballads of the opposing sides. A noticeable theme that sets the Northern
ballads apart from those of the South is a dedication to preserving the
Southern verse was often rural
in nature, which can be seen in the poetic description of the land and the
fruits of its soil in “
The Debt; I Have Enlisted for the Army, My Name is “Bob’; I Want to be a Soldier; Yankee Volunteer
The war saw large numbers of ballads produced as recruitment propaganda and moral boosting songs on both sides, including “We are coming father Abraham,” rapidly written in response to Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms in 1862. Most successful on the Union side was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written by Julia Ward Howe in 1862, using an existing tune that had been used as a hymn and soldier’s song.
Some ballads were written to give a personal touch to the propaganda. “I Want to be a Soldier” uses simple language to give incentives to fight. It names prominent figures such as Confederate president Jefferson Davis and General P.G.T. Beauregard, and singles out “traitors” as targets for violence. This was used as a means to rally recruits who shared a common desire for vengeance.
“The Yankee Volunteer” and “I Have Enlisted” show two men more than willing to provide for the war effort. “The Yankee Volunteer” offers his service to fight while his father can provide food for the troops from his farm. His sister and brother are also both eager to serve even though they are not able to enlist. “I Have Enlisted” is the story of “Bob” who escaped a trade, being bound “to a dirty Snob” to fight his “way to glory.”
Marching Along No. 1 ; Marching Through
Many of the ballads written were marching songs sung in unison by the troops to boost morale and to keep the troops in line. “Marching Along” is a hymn-like marching song written by William B. Bradbury and was one of the favorites of the Union Army. Quartermaster Bingham of the First South Carolina Black Volunteer Regiment is reported to have taught the song to his troops, although the phrase “Gird on the armor” (Silber, 12) was difficult for them to pronounce and was changed by the soldiers to “Guide on de army.”
George F. Root wrote the words and music to “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” in 1863, when many Northern families were wondering about the fate of soldiers incarcerated in a prison camp. The song was an instantaneous success and was quickly picked up by the troops, among whom it became a favorite marching song.
Fort Sumptor A Southern Song No. 2; Only Nine Miles to the Junction; The Retreat of the Grand Army from Bull Run; Sherman’s March to the Sea; The Slain at Baltimore
Ballads were used to tell stories. During the war, the news function of balladry was still very much alive. In rural areas, mountaineers and farmers still fashioned crude narrative songs out of the military events of the day. In the cities, the stall-ballad or broadside writers frequently “scooped” newspapers with the details of an important event and used poetry to embellish tragedies such as floods, murders, and pitched battles with a high degree of personalized fiction (Williams, 267-268).
Many of the ballad writers
never stepped foot on a battlefield. The songs written by soldiers describing
their engagements, incidents of camp and march, or their feelings, were not
many, either in folk ballads or finished poetry. The only recollection of events presented here
that was written by a soldier was “Only Nine Miles to the Junction.” It was
written during the early days of the war by H. Millard, a member of Company A,
Seventy-First Regiment, concerning the March from
The Bonnie Blue Flag; The Confederate Flag, Red, White & Blue; The Flag of Our Union; The Flag of Secession; Freedom’s Banner; The Stars and Bars; The Stars and Stripes; We’ll Follow the Flag
Star Spangled Banner had a profound influence on earlier generations’
appreciation of the American flag’s value as an inspiring and unifying national
symbol. The Civil War expanded and intensified that patriotic attachment to the
flag and fostered a spirit of reverence and devotion that would endure for
generations. It became the primary icon of national identity and ideals,
infused with meanings and memories from all sides of the conflict. Northerners
saw the flag as a sacred emblem of the cause to defend the
and South set their own words the anthem. There was a Southern “Battle Cry of
Freedom,” and a Northern “Bonnie Blue Flag.” They shared a musical idiom, but
they had quite different ideas of “freedom” and “liberty,” as did blacks and
whites. “The Stars and Bars” declare the superiority of the Confederate flag to
that of the
Avoiding the Draft and Opposition to the War
The Copperheads; How to Close the War; I Am Not Sick, I’m Over Forty Five; Johnny, Fill Up the Bowl; My God! What is this All For?
As the war dragged on,
demanding greater and greater sacrifices, the feeling of universal enthusiasm
gave way to discouragement. Elements of bitterness, most evident in
The Copperheads were a
vocal group of Democrats from the North who opposed the war and wanted an
immediate peace settlement with the Confederates. Republicans started calling
them “copperheads” in reference to a poisonous snake. These democrats accepted
the label but for them it meant the likeness of
Dear Mother, I’ve Come Home to Die; The Dying Confederate’s Last Words; The Dying Soldier
The Civil War was bloodier than any other conflict in American history. The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865 is approximately equal to American fatalities in every war up to the Korean War combined. The significance of death to the Civil War generation changed, as it violated prevailing assumptions about life’s proper end; who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances.
Death was no longer encountered individually; mortality rates were so high that nearly every American family was touched. Its threat, proximity, and its actuality became the most widely shared of experiences. This shared suffering would override persisting differences about the meaning of race, citizenship, and nationhood to establish sacrifice and its memorialization as the common ground on which North and South would ultimately unite. The ballads presented here illuminate soldiers’ contemplations on the reality of death. They share a common theme of departure from this world with no regret for their struggle. “The Dying Soldier” is “a martyr to freedom, to justice and truth!”
Representations and Attitudes Toward Blacks
Anti-Slavery Hymn; The Big Nigger; Kingdom Coming; Niggers in Convention. Sumner’s Speech; The Poor Old Slave; The Southern Wagon; Uncle Ned; Uncle Snow
All of these songs were written by and for white people and the attitudes expressed therein are those of whites. The persona may be black but the true voice is white. These ballads tell us more about the white writers and the white audiences whom they addressed than about slaves or free blacks. The idealism and spirituality in “Anti-Slavery Hymn” expresses the wish for the nation to reject a way of life that was abominable, yet had been economically beneficial for centuries. Prejudice was evident in ballads from both the North and the South, although the latter presented a less lighthearted and more disdainful tone (Moseley, American Music 2). Although the “The Southern Wagon” does not mention slavery, the blank receipt printed on the back reveals a reality widely accepted. It is presented here to illuminate how common and informal the trade was.
The ballads show no fondness expressed for blacks; the only affection is between slaves, or the slaves affection for his master. The portrayal of blacks conveyed in nineteenth-century song are as confused and ambivalent as were the attitudes of Americans of that period.
The ballad “Niggers in
Convention, Sumner’s Speech” pokes fun at
Opposition to President Lincoln
Lines on the Proclamation Issued by the Tyrant
Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most popular, most widely quoted, and influential president in American history. He was also extremely controversial while in office. Hostility to Lincoln during the war was expressed by the people of the Confederacy and a sizable number of those in the southern border states; his political opposition, primarily the Democratic Party in the North and in the border states, including a number of conservative Whigs; and the anti-slavery radicals, including elements both within and outside the Republican Party.
ballad “Nobody Hurt” echoes the tradition of critical response stemming from
the statements of politicians. The author, John Ross Dix, a native of
The Confederate Soldier’s Wife Parting From Her Husband!; Just After the Battle; Just Before the Battle, Mother; Parody on When This Cruel War is Over; To the Soldier’s Sister; When This Cruel War is Over
Many of the ballads express the grief and anguish of separation felt by the soldiers and their loved ones. Both the North and the South produced a large number of sentimental poetry that was somber and patriotic. They were written from a soldier’s point of view expressing pain and sadness on the battlefield to mothers and wives at home. The perspective of the soldiers’ loved ones was shown with words that expressed a longing for their sons and husbands to return.
George F. Root’s successful “Just Before the Battle, Mother” produced a sequel, “Just After the Battle.” This was common with Root who was never one to let a good song go unrepeated. He said he wrote the sequel because many felt that the first one had been too sad, and that this was an attempt to give a more hopeful message.
Also known as “Weeping Sad and Lonely,” “When This Cruel War Is Over” was so popular and tugged so strongly at the emotions of the common soldier, North and South, that officers had to forbid its singing in the Camp. Its popularity influenced a parody attempting to render it in stereotypical Irish brogue and imagery. It also inspired Stephen Foster’s acclaimed “When This Dreadful War Is Ended” (Silber, 115-123).
The Irish Volunteers; The Isish Brigade [sic]; Meagher is Leading the Irish Brigade; To the Irish Brigade
Thomas Francis Meagher was a
member of the 69th New York State Militia. This ninety-day regiment first saw
action at First Bull Run, under the command of Colonel Michael Corcoran. The
colonel was captured and spent more than a year in a Confederate prison. When
the ninety-day enlistment expired, Captain Meagher returned, with his regiment
After his return, Meagher
raised the Irish Brigade, which were volunteers serving for a term of three
years. This unit would eventually become the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York
Voluntary Infantry Regiments. Meagher was appointed brigadier general and took
command of the Irish Brigade on February 5, 1862. Throughout its life in the Army of the
Bards were instantly inspired to sing the praises of the regiment and its commander, and ballads were written exactly reproducing the style and language of Irish ballads. There were similar elements of primitive verse, gleams of humor, and explosions of vigorous spirit (Wolf, v).
Rhode Island’s Role in the War
The Brave Volunteers of Rhode Island; The Hero of Rhode Island; Honor to Rhode Island Men; Richmond’s Song for the Times
William Sprague IV was
Governor of Rhode Island from 1860-1863. As the Civil War approached, Sprague
promised the president the support of
Dyer’s Compendium. http://www.civil-war.net/searchstates.asp?searchstates=Rhode%20Island
Moseley, Caroline. “Irrepressible Conflict.” Differences Between Northern and Southern Songs of the Civil War. Journal of Popular Culture, 25.2 (1991): 45-56.
Moseley, Caroline. “When Will Dis Cruel War Be Ober?”: Attitudes Towards Blacks in Popular Songs of the Civil War.” American Music, 2.3, (1984): 1-26.
Silber, Irwin. Songs of the
Thomas, Benjamin P., Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (1952) Southern Illinois University Press paperback edition, 2008.
Williams, Alfred M. "Folk-Songs of the Civil War". The Journal of American Folklore, 5.19 (1892): 265-283.
Wolf, Edwin 2nd. American Song
Sheets Slip Ballads and Poetical Broadsides.