"Liberty's great auxiliary": music and the American Civil War

Thumbnail Image
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
University of Alabama Libraries

Music was almost omnipresent during the American Civil War. Soldiers, civilians, and slaves listened to and performed popular songs almost constantly. The heightened political and emotional climate of the war created a need for Americans to express themselves in a variety of ways, and music was one of the best. It did not require a high level of literacy and it could be performed in groups to ensure that the ideas embedded in each song immediately reached a large audience. Previous studies of Civil War music have focused on the music itself. Historians and musicologists have examined the types of songs published during the war and considered how they reflected the popular mood of northerners and southerners. This study utilizes the letters, diaries, memoirs, and newspapers of the 1860s to delve deeper and determine what roles music played in Civil War America. This study begins by examining the explosion of professional and amateur music that accompanied the onset of the Civil War. Of the songs produced by this explosion, the most popular and resonant were those that addressed the political causes of the war and were adopted as the rallying cries of northerners and southerners. All classes of Americans used songs in a variety of ways, and this study specifically examines the role of music on the home-front, in the armies, and among African Americans. Music was a quintessential part of how many Americans experienced their Civil War. With music occupying such a prominent place, conflict naturally arose over what different songs meant and how they should be used: Northerners and southerners fought over what the correct content of their music should be; soldiers used songs as weapons during lulls between battles; southerners used music to show their loyalty to the Confederacy and resist northern authority; African Americans defied slavery and defined their new roles in American society through their songs. By exploring these and other uses of music during the Civil War, this study presents a more complete picture of the importance of music in the conflict and the various roles that it played.

Electronic Thesis or Dissertation
History, United States, Music, American studies