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History Spotlight: Revelry, Sadness, and the Music of the American Civil War

Created on 09 August 2012

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During wartime, we tend to only focus on the vast differences separating the two fighting factions, such as political or religious beliefs, and lifestyles, among many other aspects one can argue about. What we tend to forget is that soldiers are human. They each come from a family and have loved ones waiting for them to return. No one wants to talk about how deep down, we are more alike than different, as we all tend to find pleasures and enjoyment in many of the same things. The American Civil War was fought between two very passionate sides, each believing, without a doubt, that they were in the right and that God was on their side. They fought with intensity and tenacity that has gone unmatched in any of the other vicious engagements to occur on the North American continent, but did they really hate each other? Though their opinions differed greatly, if you read letters written from the soldiers themselves, when talking about the enemy, more often than not there is a sense of respect. Each soldier thought his cause was noble, and like the ideals he fought for or not, they believed in their side strongly enough that they would be willing to lay down their life and die for their cause if need be, a very commendable action. They recognized that amongst themselves, and even most works written/filmed on the subject, both fiction and non-fiction, seem to drive that point home—it’s one thing that Hollywood and the entertainment industry seems to have gotten right. These were soldiers who traded with one another when both armies were camped close by for long periods of time. In the novel Play for a Kingdom, by Thomas Dyja, this theme was taken to another level, and resulted in a rudimentary baseball game that was played between the two sides on the eve of the battle for Spotsylvania. A quote regarding the essence of this novel, written by reviewer John M. Anderson, states the following, something that would also align with the theme of Copperhead: The War at Home: “[War] is not tragic merely because it kills and maims good men; it is dispiriting because it robs them of their identities.” In other documented instances during the Civil War, enemy soldiers shouted jokes across streams, and in some cases, played music on opposite sides of rivers so that the other army could hear it. That is where they unite, where they can forget about the horrors of war for a few moments and enjoy something that most of our souls seem to be in-tune with: music. This is something that is very important to the human psyche. It aids in relaxation, helps creativity, and just generally raises spirits. The importance of music during the Civil War is very underestimated. After all, no matter what the occasion, what is the one thing we are guaranteed to experience? Music! When we want to get pumped up and ready for action, we play something rousing. When we win a battle or sporting event, we play something joyful. On a more sad note, when someone dies, we play something sorrowful. Whether for revelry or a sad observance, both during the Civil War and now, we have music to help us along. There is a reason why musicians have always been respected, because to be able to play something that can make someone laugh or cry is something that is seen as God-given. From the earliest composers, stretching back from the first monks and holy men who wrote down notes for hymns, to Mozart and Beethoven, to the modern-age music we have now, all are important. During the Civil War, with the incredible amount of down-time in the schedule of a fighting soldier, regimental bands became a focal point for keeping spirits and morale high, especially during the winter months. The Union had the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” while the Confederates had “Dixie” and “Bonnie Blue Flag”, the former of which was so important to regional identity, that even though it was the song of the enemy, Abraham Lincoln had it played at his Second Inaugural Address. He meant what he said by “…with malice toward none, and charity for all…”, as a way to heal the nation with the end of the war finally in sight, and by God, if playing a song would help that along, that’s what he was going to do. Though he meant well, it was seen as an insult by southerners, most notably by his eventual assassin John Wilkes Booth, who was in attendance on that day. Even at home, the loved ones waiting wrote and played songs to pass the time along, which could be seen as ballads now. It was something that needed to be done, and if you were a wife or mother waiting for your dear husband or child to return, writing music (or keeping a diary/journal) was like a self-therapy to help one cope. One of the most famous songs of the Civil War was actually written in the 1830s, but became extremely popular because of it’s somber themes that went recognized during the war. It was called “Kathleen Mavourneen”, the latter word translating from Gaelic to mean “my beloved”. In short, it details two lovers not being able to see each other and the turmoil they are experiencing because of that.

Kathleen Mavourneen! The gray dawn is breaking, The horn of the hunter is heard on the hill; The lark from her light wing the bright dew is shaking, Kathleen Mavourneen, what slumbering still! Oh, hast thou forgotten how soon we must sever? Oh, hast thou forgotten this day we must part? It may be for years, and it may be forever; Oh, why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart? It may be for years, and it may be forever; Then why art thou silent, Kathleen Mavourneen?

It may be for years or it may be forever indeed, because if the soldier is lucky enough to survive the war, he will return home to his beloved after such a long period of time, and might not be recognizable, either mentally or physically. But if he should fall, he would never see that person again, the ultimate horror that we will all face one day, in not being able to see who we love once more. This is a song that unintentionally became the perfect picture of families separated by war, or who were on the verge of becoming distant. In Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, and subsequent prequel by son Jeff, Gods and Generals, this is the song that sends old friends off on their way, only with a twist, to different armies. Though it has never been proven to have actually taken place, the Shaara duo’s usage of Lewis Armistead leaving for the Confederacy while best friend and fellow soldier Winfield Hancock staying with the Union, as the vehicle for the many similar situations to have taken place throughout the course of the war, illustrates exactly how mentally excruciating war can be, without even having to step foot on a battlefield and fire a shot. The two soldiers had dinner, before Hancock’s wife Myra sat down at the piano to say “farewell” in her own, special way. Another song, that is arguably the saddest of them all, because the language is much simpler, and it is easier to put ourselves into the situation it details, is “Just Before the Battle, Mother”. We can picture a young soldier on the eve of battle, scared out of his wits, and the only thing he can turn his thoughts to is his home and family. He is probably in an unfamiliar place, and all he wants is to see his mother, and maybe hold her just one more time before he dies:

Just before the battle, mother, I am thinking most of you, While upon the field we’re watching With the enemy in view. Comrades brave are ’round me lying, Filled with thoughts of home and God For well they know that on the morrow, Some will sleep beneath the sod.

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.

Though the rest of the song has a Union theme, which was further enhanced at the time of the 1864 election, in support of the Lincoln-Johnson ticket (and ironically against Copperhead-supported candidate, former general George B. McClellan), the situation could be shared by soldiers on both sides. When people left for war, were in the midst of it, or were lucky enough to have survived it, there was music to guide them along. In Copperhead: The War at Home, there will be such a sad song, as actor and singer Cieran MacGillivray, playing the role of Ray Hare, will sing before some of the young boys, recently enlisted, leave for war, much to the dismay of their families. Just what exactly that song is, it remains to be seen, but it does not matter what it is called, so long as it portrays what these people went through with accuracy. As for the soundtrack, to be scored by Laurent Eyquem, he has the task of setting the mood for the entire film, something that is obviously very important. There is a reason why music in war films is generally so popular, with sales through the roof, and that is because most often, the themes are highly memorable. You can go back to The Longest Day using Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to signal that the D-Day invasion was about to begin (or as my one friend jokingly says, the only collaboration between old Ludwig and Paul Anka), or Tora! Tora! Tora!, which combined both American and Japanese instruments and set it to an orchestral sound for the story surrounding Pearl Harbor. People just love music from war movies and wartime—they have collections based entirely on that one specific genre. More recently, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, even among their credits, had soundtracks that flew off the shelves. Reenactor bands and their recordings of original music are also very popular at sutler tents and souvenir stores in battlefield towns. Because there are no battle scenes here, I do not expect Eyquem’s music to be as intense, but it should definitely be as authentic as possible, haunting, and somber, but lively as well. To me, John Frizzel and Randy Edelman got it right with Gods and Generals, because every moment was captured correctly, and there was even some lighthearted tones for the comical “No Photographs” scene, which can be viewed in the extended director’s cut version. These are all aspects which should be taken into account, because even amongst all the sad ballads and stories of longing for home, there was also plenty of humorous songs and minstrel shows played amongst the men in between battles. It shows that no matter what the time period, music will always be there to capture our emotions as well as tell our story.