The Civil War in Sheet Music

The popular music of the United States is seldom appreciated for anything more than its entertainment value.  In addition to its importance as a recreational diversion, it is a reflection, not just of ever-changing musical fads and styles, but of our collective historical experience as well.  In song, march, or dance step, our heritage as a people can be traced in American sheet music. Of the some three thousand pieces comprising the sheet music collection of the Ohio History Connection, more than five hundred were published between 1850 and 1865.  Detailed and impressive artwork adorns the covers of many pieces, while others simply display their titles in bold nineteenth-century-style typography.  Some were bound into large volumes by their original owners, whose names appear in gilt lettering on the front covers. 

Several of these were donated to the Ohio History Connection, most notably nine volumes that once belonged to Columbus artist and Columbus Art League founder, Josephine Klippart (1848 – 1936), whose name they bear.  Unbound pieces are stored individulaly in acid free envelopes and boxes to protect their now fragile condition, for more than a few are well-worn, a testament to their having been played, sung, and enjoyed repeatedly over a century ago. A number of themes flow through the sheet music collection.  Predictably, as in every generation, that of love predominates.  But one also finds titles that celebrate inventions (“Sewing Machine Polka,” 1860) and the national pastime (“The Base Ball Quadrille,” 1867) – including three that feature just the home run (“The Home Run Galop,” “Home Run Polka,” and “Home Run Quickstep”).  The “Cleveland Plain Dealer Mazourka” (1857) salutes a newspaper, and the “Ohio White Sulphur Springs Schottisch” (1860), a health resort.  In a more somber vein, “Lost on the Lady Elgin” (1861) commemorates a dreadful boating disaster on Lake Michigan on September 7, 1860.

Little Eva from the Sheet Music Collection of the Ohio History Connection.

But for sheer volume, one theme surpasses all others in the Ohio History Connection’s collection of mid-nineteenth century sheet music — more than one hundred thirty titles clearly relate to the Civil War and its approach.  Included are songs based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the publication of which, in 1852, is considered to have ignited the growing enmity between those supporting the institution of slavery and those decrying it.  Songwriters and music publishers were swift to capitalize on the book’s instant success with songs inspired by Stowe’s familiar characters.  Eliza, Eva, Topsy, and Uncle Tom himself are featured in “Eliza’s Fight,” “Little Eva,” “Little Topsy’s Song,” “Uncle Tom’s Grave,” and similar works — all published between 1852 and 1854.
Darling Nelly Gray from the Sheet Music Collection of the Ohio History Connection.

It was during this period that two Ohio composers flourished — Benjamin R. Hanby, a Fairfield County native, most famous for “Darling Nelly Gray,” a song that attests to his abolitionist sympathies; and Daniel Emmett, a Mount Vernon blacksmith’s son, best remembered for his stirring “Dixie” (formerly titled “I Wish I was in Dixie Land”), composed in 1859 as a minstrel tune, and soon adopted by the Confederacy as its principle marching song and unofficial anthem — much to the dismay of Emmett, who meant only to express a yearning for the warm climate of the South.  Both composers are well-represented in the Ohio History Connection’s sheet music collection.  Songs by Hanby include multiple editions of “Darling Nelly Gray,” which was first published in 1856; “Little Tillie’s Grave” (1860); “Ole Shady, the Song of the Contraband” (1861); “A Song for the Nameless Heroine” (1865); and “Terrible Tough” (1864) — all of which relate in some way to the Civil War.  Songs by Emmett include “Dixie” (1859); “Greenbacks!” (1864); and “High Daddy (1863).  Also in the collection is a reworking of “Dixie” entitled “Dixie for the Union” (1861).  With new and manifestly pro-Union lyrics by Frances J. Crosby, this version was welcomed by Northerners who had found themselves as excited by the rousing music as their adversaries and could now sing it without appearing disloyal.

On! ye patriots to the battle, Hear Fort Moultrie’s cannon rattle; Then away, then away, then away to the fight! …

The Stars and Stripes forever! Hurrah! Hurrah! Our Union shall not sever!

Sheet music published during the first year of the war reflected high purpose and the initial flush of combat, with such rousing titles as “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Hail! Glorious Banner of Our Land,” and “Our Country Forever.”  As the conflict progressed, warfare in its various forms became a favorite theme.  Here may be found such unlikely titles as the “Artillery Waltz” (1862), which, according to a notation printed on the piece, was “composed and respectfully dedicated to the officers and members of Company D, light artillery of Cleveland”; and the “Monitor Grand March” (1862), which commemorates the battle of the Monitor and Merrimack.  Still another, perhaps the most unlikely of all, took its title from a fundamental element of parade-ground drill, “Manual of Arms Polka” (1862).  

 Civil War generals were honored in marches, and the Ohio History Connection’s sheet music collection includes such tributes to Union generals Ambrose Burnside, John C. Fremont, and William S. Rosecrans among others.   There are four marches in honor of Ulysses S. Grant. There is only one Confederate general with a march tune.  “Gen’l Morgan’s Grand March,” published in 1864 in Richmond, talks about John Hunt Morgan.  But understandably he is treated with much less reverence in a tune published in Cleveland in 1863, “How Are You, Telegraph?”

John Morgan paid us a visit, you know; All booted and spurr’d was he; With a jolly good gang, four thousand or so, And cannon numbering three. He made it his boast, he could galop strait thro’ What a roystering blade was he! Buckeyes and Hoosiers, with all of his crew, Till he heard the bugles of Lee.

Although enlisted men were also honored with marches, more often they were acclaimed in songs such as “Raw Recruits” (1861), “Song of the Union Troops” (1861), and “How Are You, Conscript?” (1863). Yet even in the first year of the Civil War the ultimate tragedy of battle was acknowledged in “The Vacant Chair,” published for Thanksgiving 1861.  It became a popular classic.

We shall meet, but we shall miss him There will be one vacant chair;…

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

By 1862 similar songs bearing such poignant titles as “Oh, Fallen Hero” and “Tread Lightly Ye Comrades” expressed this theme of loss, often in a sentimental style that late twentieth-century Americans may find affected and ostentatious.  But these songs were immensely popular during the Civil War and for decades thereafter.  The fashion reached a peak in 1863 when plaintive songs about mother and home began to appear.  “Dear Mother, I’ve Come Home to Die”; “Just Before the Battle, Mother”; “Mother, Is the Battle Over?”; “Mother Would Comfort Me” and “Tell Mother I Die Happy” are noteworthy for their heart-rending lyrics. But the human spirit searches for levity in chaos and crisis, and so there is also comedy, of sorts, in such songs as “Grafted into the Army” (1862); “Terrible Tough! Being the Answer of Timothy Huff to the Call of Governor Brough” (1864), which was dedicated to the Ohio National Guard; and, for those who wished to avoid the draft in 1863, “Wanted — A Substitute!”

Wanted — a Substitute! Three hundred I’ll pay! If you know of one that wants it, Just send him ‘long this way! What glory he’ll inherit When Rebellion is put down, No greater mark of merit Could any mortal crown!

Jeff in Petticoats from the Sheet Music Collection of the Ohio History Connection.
Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was fair game for Union lyricists, whose sarcasm in the early days of the war reached an outrageous climax at its end, when the widely circulated story that Davis had garbed himself in his wife’s clothing to escape capture by Union autorities inspired at least three songs, copies of which are in the Historical Society’s collection.  The most scathing of these is “Jeff in Petticoats” (1865).

Now when he saw the game was up, he headed for the woods, His band-box hung upon his arm quite full of fancy goods: Said Jeff, “They’ll never take me now, I’m sure I’ll not be seen,” “They’d never think to look for me beneath my crinoline.”

The Civil War and its legacy were topics for songwriters even into the twentieth century, and the songs they wrote still throbbed with the ache of loss.  “The Blue and the Gray, a Mother’s Gift to Her Country” (1900) is one example.

One lies down near Appomattox, Many miles away, Another sleeps at Chickamauga, And they both wore suits of gray. ‘Mid the strains of ‘Down in Dixie’ The third was laid away, In a trench at Santiago, The Blue and the Gray.

A veteran’s melancholy vision of a reunion in the hereafter with fallen comrades is the theme of “The Boys of ’61” (1928)

Do you hear the fife and drum calling us to come Come and join the comrades that have gone before? With the flag of the free That belongs to you and me, Then we’ll sing the song of victory.

On the cover appears a portrait of President Warren G. Harding’s aged father, George Tryon Harding, a veteran of the 136th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, to whom the song was dedicated.

Poor Kitty Popcorn from the Sheet Music Collection of the Ohio History Connection.
But for unabashed sentimentality no subject can compare with that of the bereft pet.  The loyal dog has been lauded endlessly in song and story.  But, behold “Poor Kitty Popcorn, or, The Soldier’s Pet,” which was published just one year after war’s end.  The song recounts the tale of a Southern cat who falls in step with a column of Union soldiers.  She adopts one as her master, and soon accustoms herself to riding into battle on his shoulder.  Together they manage to survive the ravages of war; and when peace comes, she follows him to the “northern land.”  But happiness is short-lived for this Rebel cat and her Yankee “gallant.”

Did you ever hear the story of the loyal cat? Me-yow! Who was faithful to the flag, and ever follow’d that? Me-yow!

… But it is too painful to record all four verses.  Suffice it to say, Popcorn comes to her grief-stricken end, yes, on her master’s snow-covered grave.

Poor Kitty Popcorn! Burried in a snowdrift now — Never more shall ring the music of your charming song, Me-yow!

And, on the cover, the mournful scene is depicted, poor Popcorn expired by the tombstone which bears the inscripton:

Joan Jones Library Cataloger

Posted July 5, 2011
Topics: Civil War
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