The Sound of Music

Over Thanksgiving break I got the chance to re-watch the first couple episodes of Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Doing so reminded me of certain songs that I associate with the Civil War, and I thought it’d be worth sharing them here. The first is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, the second is “Dixie”, and the third is “Yankee Bayonet” by The Decemberists.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic

This song was written by Julia Ward Howe near the end of 1861. One evening she watched as Union troops marched past, and as they marched they sang “John Brown’s Body”. After going to sleep with that tune stuck in her head, Howe woke the next morning with the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. The song was published in February 1862 and became an anthem for the Union army. Since then it’s gone on to become a well-known American song of patriotism. I have this song on my iPod (and yes I realize this makes me a dork) and I’ve always found the lyrics very moving and inspirational. Fun fact: John Steinbeck got the title for The Grapes of Wrath from the first stanza of the song.


If “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was the anthem for the North, then “Dixie” was the anthem of the South. The song was written during the 1850s as a minstrel song that cast slavery in a positive light, but during the war, Confederates changed the lyrics slightly so that it became more of a fighting song. Nowadays the song is considered at least somewhat controversial because of the message sent by the original lyrics. Interestingly, Bob Dylan has covered this song, and it’s his version I included on the playlist for this post.

Yankee Bayonet

This song was released by The Decemberists in 2006 on their album The Crane Wife. References to the Civil War can be found not only in the title, but also in the fifth stanza which talks about the dead of Manassas. In many ways this song reminds me of the the Sullivan Ballou letter I talked about in my previous post (here). The final lines of the song are: “But oh, my love, though our bodies may be parted/ Though our skin may not touch skin/ Look for me with the sun-bright sparrow/ I will come on the breath of the wind.” To me this is reminiscent of the line in Ballou’s letter: “if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall by my breath …”

If you want to listen to one or all of these songs click here.

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