The American Civil War: Poetry and Music

The American Civil War was not only a watershed moment in the history and development of the United States. It also marked a key moment in the nation's musical and literary history, with a surprisingly great output of poems and songs coinciding with the war years.

Civil War-era letters are largely associated with the writings of a few of America's most highly celebrated poets: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Whitman's writings between 1861 and 1865 reflect personal and cultural experiences of the wartime years. Likewise, his verses in the following years reflect the war's aftermath. For Dickinson, too, the war years coincided with some of her busiest years of writing, with many of her poems obliquely or directly referring to wartime experiences. Although Dickinson often treats the war, and many other themes, through metaphor, many scholars have identified clear allusions to the Civil War throughout her corpus of poems.

Other poets of the Civil War era included Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Northern writer, and Henry Timrod, the "poet laureate of the Confederacy." At the time, poetry played a far larger role in the lives of ordinary readers, regularly appearing in newspapers and magazines alongside prose writing. Perhaps for this reason, poets such as Whitman, Dickinson, and Longfellow are regularly cited alongside prose writers like Crane, Faulkner, and Bierce as the foremost writers of the era.

Given the outcome of the war as well as the cultural shift that took place with abolition, it may come as little surprise that most Civil War-era poetry that is still read today comes from the North. However, some Southern poets do also continue to appear in compilations of poetry from the era. Some of the most famous poems from the south include "Georgia, My Georgia!" and "Our Glorious Southland," the titles alone a testament to the patriotic themes of most contemporary writing.

In contrast with the largely white and male body of American writers reflected in many takes on the national literary canon, a range of poets were writing during the American Civil War, both black and white, male and female. African-American poets often sent poems to two newspapers, the Anglo-American Standard and the National Anti-Slavery Standard, both published in New York during the war years. Female writers included Julia Ward Howe as well as Anna Ella Carroll. Even Clara Barton, better known for her service as founder of the Red Cross, wrote a rousing poem called "The Women Who Went to the Field."

Among the most famous Civil War-era compositions, many were written by well-known American composers such as Stephen Collins Foster, George Frederick Root, Henry Clay Work, or Charles Carroll Sawyer. On the other hand, many lesser-known composers and lyricists also contributed to the wartime body of musical works, many of which survive today.

Quite possibly the most famous song of the Civil War, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," was written by Julia Ward Howe, and today, from the opening strains, it is immediately synonymous with the Union cause. Other famous songs of the era included "Bonnie Blue Flag" and, of course, "Dixie." While certain melodies now conjure up images of the Civil War, music was also an integral aspect of soldiers' days during the war itself. Most companies had a fiddler or a banjo player, and many of the songs still preserved today are about wartime life around the soldier camp. In fact, historians have found more evidence of popular songs written during the Civil War era than during any other war period in American history.

While much of the music of the Civil War era is military, the full scope of band music from the Civil War era actually spans genres and sensibilities. While all-brass bands had enjoyed great popularity during the mid-19th century in America, the Civil War period also marked a shift in instrumentation, with woodwind instruments increasingly taking part in marching bands, whether military or not.

In general, compositions from the Civil War period marked a transition from the minstrel music of the antebellum years to themes of sentimentality, dating, love, and comedy that marked the music of the age of reconstruction. During the war years, patriotism and the war cause itself marked the main theme of compositions.

Without doubt, the Civil War era marked a sea change in American culture, both in the North and South. These societal shifts and the effects of such a bloody war also manifested in the literary and musical culture of the country. Also, many poems and songs of the war years seemed simply to extol the battle cry or the cause of each side, and the works are still studied both for formal and structural qualities and as historical artifacts.

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