Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Civil War Reenacting: Music of the 1860s

By Matthew Pizzolato

Amid all of the death and destruction that took place during the Late Unpleasantness that occurred from 1861- 1865, a much overlooked aspect of that War is the role that music played during army life.

Robert E. Lee once remarked, "I don't believe we can have an army without music."

Music was played while on the march, as a way to pass time during boredom of camp life, and even during battle.  Oftentimes during a siege, nightly concerts took place.  Soldiers from both sides of the lines would shout out requests.  Some bands accompanied troops onto the field and played during the fighting.

A lot of the music of the time period was folk music or religious hymns that both sides sang along with other popular music of the day such as "Home Sweet Home", "Lorena", "Aura Lee", "Buffalo Gals", "Oh! Susanna", "Old Rosin the Beau", "Sweet Evelina" and "Camptown Races."  Other songs were specific to one side or the other.

Union Songs

Battle Hymn of the Republic
May God Save the Union
John Brown's Body
Battle Cry of Freedom
Marching Through Georgia

Confederate Songs

Dixie's Land
God Save the South
The Rebel Soldier
Bonnie Blue Flag
Eating Goober Peas

Different Versions

It was not uncommon for either side to borrow songs from the other and change the lyrics.  There was a Southern version of "Battle Cry of Freedom" and there was a Union version of "Dixie's Land" that was called "Union Dixie." 


The song "Taps" was composed during the War and there are a couple of different "legends" as to how it originated, but neither of those are true.

Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, Commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Army Corps, Army of the Potomac is credited with composing it.  It is believed he rearranged an earlier French bugle call known as "Tattoo," which was used to signal the end of the day.

Taps was adopted by both Union and Confederate to honor military dead and is still in use today.

It is believed that more than 10,000 pieces of music were composed by the end of the War.  Printing presses that published sheet music ran around the clock.

For a more comprehensive list of music of the era, try the
Public Domain Music Website -

Music in Reenacting

Music still has a large place during the reenactments. Music of the era is played at the dances held and period dances are performed.

A lot of reenactors bring guitars and fiddles and often times we sit around the campfire playing and singing long into the night.

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He is a member of Western Fictioneers and his work can be found in the Wolf Creek series as well as his own publications, THE WANTED MAN, OUTLAW and TWO OF A KIND. 

He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western. He can be contacted through Twitter @mattpizzolato or via his website:

I'm going to be giving away a Kindle copy of Outlaw to whomever can answer the question below correctly. Just leave your email in a comment along with the correct answer. If more than one correct answer is given, there will be a drawing to determine the winner.

Contest Question:  Which very popular John Wayne movie used the song "Lorena"?  


  1. I was aware that music played a part in peoples lives during that time, but was unaware of the scope. Fascinating. Love performing some of those songs. Doris

  2. There's a new double CD called United and Divided that has some interesting versions of the songs of the Civil War.

  3. Matthew,

    Was it THE HORSE SOLDIERS? John Ford used music in a lot of his films with John Wayne---thus, making them more authentic and memorable.

    The song LORENA, is a beautiful song and probably the most popular of the Civil War. I used the song in a short story, Dead Man's Song, in my anthology Desert Heat, DESERT COLD AND OTHER TALES OF THE WEST.

    Specifically: "The years sleep slowly by, Lorena, the snow is on the grass again; the sun's low down the sky, Lorena, the frost gleams where the flowers have been; but the heart throbs on as lovely now, as when the days were nigh..."

    A lovely, lovely, song , and one of the most popular tunes during the war years. Another favorite was: OH HARD TIMES COME AGAIN NO MORE.

    Matthew, you are so right, the music was incredibly important to the soldiers. At rest times, when marching, and especially at night the music played and the men sang. Songs gave courage and reason for living, and then the battles came---the young men marched forward and died...

    Good that you bring this subject up and I hope in the future this topic comes up again. There NEVER can be enough said about the importance of music during the GREAT CONFLICT.

    Good job, Matt!

    Charlie Steel

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  5. Very interesting, Matt. One can see why singing would help in those awful days. And music has always been used to spur troops on. My great grandfather was a piper (bagpiper) who served with the Argyl Highlanders in Afghanistan at the end of the 19th century and then again in the Great War, when he was wounded during the trench warfare on the Western Front. His duty was to play while the troops advanced, an incredibly dangerous task, since playing the pipes involves both hands, hardly conducive to defending oneself.

  6. I was just researching brass bands last week, and several of the more famous ones started during the CW. Interesting article, Matt!

  7. That is correct, Charlie. The song LORENA was used in THE HORSE SOLDIERS. John Ford used it in several of his films, in fact, the music of the song was playing in THE SEARCHERS, when Ethan arrives home.

    You are the winner of the free Kindle copy of OUTLAW. I hope you enjoy it.

    And many thanks to everyone who has commented. I'm glad you all enjoyed the post.