J.D.R. Hawkins

One bullet can make a man a hero… or a casualty.

Archive for the tag “Dixie”

Civil War Songs

I recently had the honor of giving a presentation about Civil War music. This is always fun, as most everyone has heard of at least one song presented. I received the greatest participation when I started singing “Dixie,” (of course!) otherwise known as “Dixie’s Land.”

The list of songs created during the War Between the States is almost endless. As Ken Burns said in his documentary, “it was a singing war.” On many occasions, the Confederates and Yankees would find themselves camped on opposite sides of a river, where they would exchange songs. Inevitably, the bantering led to “Home Sweet Home.” When the song ended, quiet remorse followed.

The Civil War spawned such great songwriters and composers as Stephen Foster, (“Camptown Races,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Genie With the Light Brown Hair,” and “Oh! Susanna,”) as well as Henry Clay Work and Daniel Emmett. Songs ranged from patriotic compositions to marching songs, melodies about political figures to spirituals. Music was an important release for soldiers, who carried along their harmonicas, banjos, drums, jaw harps, guitars, and violins. Many made their own instruments out of bones, cigar boxes, tree branches, or whatever else they could find. Songs were sometimes taken from old traditional melodies, and several variations of a song were frequently invented with new lyrics written for whatever occasion presented itself.

Battle Hymn of Hatred

Music played a significant role in the War Between the States. The South had a battle song, “Dixie,” so the North wanted its own as well. In 1862, a year into the war, Julia Ward Howe came up with new lyrics to a melody that was already familiar, “John Brown’s Body.” Ironically, her husband, Dr. Samuel Howe, was a financial supporter of the raid at Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown was captured and hung for treason. Both he and his wife were staunch abolitionists.

Mrs. Howe was inspired to write “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” after visiting Washington D.C. and witnessing Union soldiers’ campfires flickering on the outskirts of town. At the time, the song was considered inspirational in its religious references.  Mrs. Howe was a member of the Unitarian Church,which is said to be more atheistic in their beliefs. This held true for Mrs. Howe as well. The strong sentiment and symbolic overtones in the lyrics she wrote are indicative of the hatred she apparently felt for Southerners in general; not just toward Confederates.

This song is commonly sung in churches and at patriotic events today. However, the problem arises when one considers the lyrics. They will find that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is hate-filled rhetoric consisting of derogatory implications. It is no wonder that people realize the negative aspects and refuse to sing the anthem. It is interesting to note that the song is performed frequently at Southern churches within the Bible Belt. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” is one example of a symbolic reference – vintage representing the blood of Southern people. When a song becomes controversial, it is generally avoided, and many in the South feel this sentiment. Just as African-Americans have for centuries fought to acquire respect and equality, it seems only fair that any song deemed offensive by any group such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” should be discontinued as well.

Song of the South

No one knows for sure where the word “dixie” originated. Some believe that it was a shortened nickname referring to the Mason-Dixon Line, while others think it came from ten-dollar notes that were widely used and issued from Louisiana (“dix” is French for “ten). By the 1850’s, the term “dixie” was directly associated with the South.

The song “Dixie’s Land” is commonly believed to have been written by Daniel Emmett, although others emerged who contested this. The melody became popular in black face minstrel shows, and after the start of the War Between the States, became the Southern anthem. (The North felt as though it needed an anthem as well, so it adopted the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.) Many variations in the lyrics appeared at this time, as was common practice back then. The song was played at both President Lincoln’s and President Davis’ inaugurations. It was a favorite of Lincoln’s, who also requested that the song be played during the Grand Review after the war was over. And, of course, it was played at Emmett’s funeral.

Unfortunately, during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, “Dixieland” became associated with negative, racist implications, rather than having been considered as an important piece of history, ancestry, and Southern heritage. Recently, it was banned from being played at Ole Miss sporting events. When local school children in Mississippi were asked if they knew the song, none of them recognized it. Personally, I think that’s a shame.

Christmas Good Will

Holiday charity was displayed frequently during the War Between the States. On more than one occasion, troops displayed reciprocity by exchanging coffee for tobacco, northern newspapers for southern ones, and songs. The Rebel bands proudly played “Dixie,” followed by a retaliatory rendition of “Yankee Doodle” from the Federals. Both sides came together as they played “Home Sweet Home,” with nary a dry eye on either side as soldiers reminisced of their home and loved ones.

The Civil War was unique in that both sides held the same basic principles and beliefs, had the same religions, patriots, and histories. The soldiers frequently came together to share stories, and then turned around and killed each other the next morning during battle. It is difficult to fathom such an existence, and indeed, many veterans expressed the same sentiment years later during Civil War reunions.

Sergeant Richard Kirkland was a Confederate soldier who displayed compassion on the battlefield at Fredericksburg, but Union soldiers also felt empathy for their adversaries. On Christmas Day, 1864, ninety soldiers from Michigan and their captain loaded up wagons with food and supplies. They then distributed them to destitute citizens living in the Georgia countryside who had been victimized during Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” The Yankees even went so far as to tie tree branches to the heads of their mules, resembling reindeer.

Nothing expresses the nation’s sentiment better than this excerpt printed in Harper’s Weekly on December 26, 1863: “Even with all the sorrow that hangs, and will forever hang, over so many households; even while war still rages; even while there are serious questions yet to be settled – out it not to be, and is it not, a merry Christmas?”

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