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American Civil War Music: History, Songs & Instruments

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

More so than in any other war, music played a significance role during the American Civil War. In this lesson, learn about the purpose and presence of music in the war, as well as popular songs and instruments during this era.

Importance of Music in the Civil War

Robert E. Lee, famous as the commander of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, once claimed that without music there would be no army. He was not alone in this sentiment. In 1862, the New York Herald, one of the largest newspapers in the Union during the war, said that, ''All history proves that music is as indispensable to warfare as money; and money has been called the sinews of war.''

Throughout the Civil War, music helped soldiers pass time, provided entertainment and comfort and reminded soldiers of home. In the Confederacy, a nation formed at the very beginning of the war, music helped to create the national identity. Kenneth A. Bernard, a historian who studied the role of music in the Civil War, said that during the War Between the States, more music was written and played than all previous American wars combined.

Why was music so important to these soldiers? What does their music tell us about the war? We will answer these questions (and more!) in this lesson.

History and Purpose

During the Civil War, music played a vital part in day-to-day life for soldiers. It was played in marches, at camps and even in battles! Music helped calm soldiers before and after a battle, and patriotic songs played during battle reminded soldiers of their purpose.

In both the Union and Confederacy, music was played at recruitment rallies to inspire people to enlist. Initially, regimental bands were a part of units on both sides. Over time, the government decided that this used too many soldiers as musicians instead of infantrymen, so bands were reduced to one per brigade (a brigade is composed of several regiments).

Although the instruments and roles of bands were similar in the North and South, bands in the Union were larger. This was not because the Union valued music more, but was simply because the Union had more money to afford instruments for musicians to play.

Instruments

A Union band from Washington D.C. during the Civil War

Brass instruments were rare during the war because the material was needed for weaponry. The North and South both relied on three main types of instruments: drums, fifes and bugles.

Infantry companies used drums to get soldiers up and let them know when it was time to report for various formations. Commanding officers used drums in battle to tell troops what to do. Imagine how useful and vital it was to a unit to get these message across! Drums were made of small strips of wood that were then steamed into a round shell. These were then covered with calf hide and sometimes decorated.

In cavalry and artillery units, bugles were used in place of drums to denote the same things. The company bugler was so important to the unit that soldiers could distinguish the call of their own bugler from the call of other ones.

Fifes, which are similar to piccolos, are small instruments that make a high pitches noise. Fifes were used in many types of units to help soldiers keep a march and play patriotic songs.

When a battle was about to break out, musicians were typically sent to the back of the formation to help the doctors and medics. However, some musicians went into battle and played patriotic songs in the middle of the battle. Can you imagine being a musician and playing music to inspire soldiers while bullets flew past you and your friends were getting shot? It certainly took a lot of courage!

Songs

Many songs, some of which you will likely recognize, were written and played throughout the Civil War. We will look at these songs by category.

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