I attended, while thinking about American Civil War songs, an academic conference on Hindu life. The program included specimens of the millennia-old delicate, even ethereal, music of the Indian people. One could sense that that people could not be reliably understood without taking such highly disciplined music into account.
It was startling, in the course of those proceedings, suddenly to hear a full-blooded rendition of a familiar Western song. The opening lines of Auld Lang Syne crashed in among us:
Shall auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
One could be reminded of the difficulty, if not even the impossibility, for a Westerner who attempts to secure a solid grasp of any truly foreign way of feeling and living.
Even music as familiar as American Civil War songs may require serious efforts if it is to be grasped reliably. The tunes themselves seem, for the most part, to have been adapted in 1861-1865 from long-familiar music. We can be challenged to notice what is distinctive to what was done with such tunes North and South, especially when the deepest passions were invoked in the more familiar songs of that period.
Much was made in Southern songs of individual States. Thus there was provided in The Bonnie Blue Flag an inventory of the eleven States that had embraced Secession. Recognized there are both the lead provided by “gallant South Carolina” and the importance of the eventual collaboration in Secession of “old Virginia—The Old Dominion State.”
It seems to be recognized, in Maryland! My Maryland!, that “the young Confed’racy” (celebrated in The Bonnie Blue Flag) will need the support of the Middle States in order to prevail in the Great Struggle. Marylanders are urged to recall heroes who can be spoken of as legendary: Carroll, Howard, Ringgold, Watson, Lowe, and May. There is far less of such recollections in the Union songs of the Civil War.
Nor are State apt to be singled out in Union songs (with the exception of Georgia, as a State to be marched through). Rather, regions are recognized, as in Three Hundred Thousand More: “from Mississippi’s winding stream and from New England’s shore…” The scope of the Unionists tends to be continental, with hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of ordinary people invoked, not legendary heroes.
Leaders, both North and South, can be referred to. The Southern songs can celebrate Davis, Stephens, and Lee. The Northern songs can celebrate Grant, Sherman and, of course, Lincoln.
Indeed, Lincoln could come to be referred to familiarly, as “Father Abraham,” in more than one song. The Lincoln/Grant/Sherman campaign can remind us of the importance for the history of the United States, and for the outcome of the Civil War, of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (with its anti-slavery provision). We can be reminded as well of the extent to which States subsequent to the original Thirteen were creatures of the Congress of the United States.
The newer the State, the more likely it was to have a “national” perspective. This was especially so when a State was populated by the steady stream of poor immigrants from Europe. Were not such newcomers far more likely to be attracted to a region where manual labor was not associated with slavery?
How slavery was to be spoken of was a delicate question, both North and South. Particularly revealing of Southern sensibilities is how the “band of brothers,” “native to the soil,” deal with the slavery issue. Secessionists can assert, in The Bonnie Blue Flag, that they are fighting for “property. . . gained by honest toil.”
Abolitionism, on the other hand, had to be approached with care by Unionists. It seems that only after massive sacrifices had been made to preserve the Union that Lincoln could venture to use large-scale emancipation as a military measure. Of course, his pronouncement could be made much of in the Marching Song of the First Arkansas Colored Regiment.
Even The Battle Hymn of the Republic, perhaps the most powerful Northern anthem during the Civil War, was cautious in how it dealt with the Slavery issue, as may be seen in its closing stanza:
In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
In striking contrast is another powerful Northern anthem, John Brown’s Body, at the heart of which is an endorsement of the recollection, “John Brown died that the slave might be free.” This understanding of things seems to be endorsed as well in The Battle-City of Freedom, which includes the stanza,
We will welcome to our numbers the loyal, true, and brave,
Shouting the battle-cry of freedom,
And although they may be poor, not a man shall be a slave,
Shouting the battle-cry of freedom.
Southern sensibilities with respect to slavery must have been challenged as well when Northern measures were assessed. The language used in Maryland! My Maryland! includes “The despot’s heel,” “the tyrant’s chain,” “the Vandal toll,” and even “the Northern scum.” Dedicated Southerners, on the other hand, are seen as “Marching with Liberty along.”
Arguments about “the Positive Good” of slavery for enslaved Africans had had to be made by spokesmen (such as John C. Calhoun and Alexander H. Stephens) when it became apparent that American slavery was no longer (if it had ever been) “in the course of ultimate extinction.” Otherwise, would it not have been difficult, if not impossible, to deal with the suspicion that what had routinely been done to slaves for generations was far more despotic and tyrannical than anything that any “Northern scum” were now proposing to do as abolitionists? Southern tensions here are reflected in the desperate efforts made from time to time, down to our day, to insist that the Southern Cause had not been grounded in the defense of Slavery.
There is included, in the exhortations of Maryland! My Maryland!, an invocation of Sic semper [tyrannis], still another insistence that the awful tyranny of the day was to be found in Northern efforts, not in Southern institutions. It was this invocation, echoing the blows for liberty struck by Julius Caesar’s assassins, that John Wilkes Booth could resort to for a remarkably unheroic deed that was at once repudiated by most Southerners. Should not this have even made the more thoughtful among them wonder what their understanding of the Good had long been?
Northern songs, with and without endorsements of emancipation, made much of freedom for everyone. But this did not include, for Northern patriots, authority for anyone to break up the National Union. That effort could be condemned, again and again, as treason.
Thus, in Three Hundred Thousand More, there must be wrenched “from foul treason’s savage grasp . . . the murderous blade . . .” Thus, also, in The Battle-Cry of Freedom, it is urged,
Down with the traitor, up with the star,
While we rally round the flag, boys, rally once and again,
Shouting the battle-cry of freedom.
Thus, as well, Marching Through Georgia concludes with the stanza,
So we made a thoroughfare for freedom and her train,
Sixty miles in latitude, three hundred to the main;
Treason fled before us, for resistance was in vain,
While we were marching through Georgia.
Perhaps one of the more “human” of our Civil War songs is the Marching Song of the First Arkansas Colored Regiment, the anthem of which made much of the Emancipation Proclamation. Union and law are also made much of, as in its first two stanzas,
Oh, we’re the bully soldiers of the “First of Arkansas,”
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law,
We can hit a Rebel further than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on.
See, there above the center, where the flag is waving bright,
We are going out of slavery, we’re bound for freedom’s light;
We mean to show Jeff Davis how the Africans can fight,
As we go marching on!
Most “human” of all may be what is said by these ex-slaves who identify themselves as the Rebels’ “colored kith and kin,” deeply questioning thereby any argument for the natural eligibility for slavery of those held in bondage by their would-be masters.
“Human” as well is what is accepted in these songs as the reality of the great war in which both Unionists and Secessionists are engaged. Many die, some of them without enduring personal recognition. It can be very much a matter of chance not only who survives but also even whose death is duly recorded.
It is said of All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight that “no poem written during the war had a wider appeal [North and South, it seems] than this.” Its opening stanzas report,
“All quiet along the Potomac,” they say,
“Except here and there a stray picket
Is shot as he walks on the beat, to and fro,
By a rifleman hid in the thicket.
‘Tis nothing—a private or two now and then
Will not count in the news of the battle,
Not an officer lost, only one of the men
Moaning out all alone the death rattle.”
And its final stanza closes with these lines:
“All quiet along the Potomac to-night,”
No sound save the rush of the river;
While soft falls the dew on the face of the dead,
The picket’s off duty forever.
Another song eventually sung (it is said) by everybody by 1864─“by soldiers on both sides, and by the folks at home”─was Tenting on the Old Camp Ground. Its concluding chorus lamented,
Many are the hearts that are weary tonight
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts looking for the right,
To see the dawn of peace,
Dying tonight, dying tonight,
Dying on the old camp ground.
When “hearts” on both sides could “look . . . for the right,” and say they do so in a common language, there is telling evidence of a deep unity, North and South, that undermined the Secessionists’ desperate rhetoric.
We have recalled the two opening stanzas of the Marching Song of the First Arkansas Colored Regiment. The song concludes (after invoking the Emancipation Proclamation, “From the first of January, eighteen hundred sixty-three”),
Father Abraham has spoken and the message has been sent,
The prison doors he opened, and out the prisoners went,
To join the sable army of the “African descent,”
As we go marching on.
Then fall in, colored brethren, you’d better do it soon,
Don’t you hear the drum a-beating the Yankee Doodle tune?
We are with you now this morning, we’ll be far away at noon,
As we go marching on.
One can be reminded of the Civil Rights movement after the Second World War.
One can be reminded as well of what happened to Japanese-Americans in this Country during the Second World War. They, too, were permitted to serve honorably in the armed forces of the Country that needed an opportunity to begin to redeem itself for its fear-driven mistreatment of a vulnerable minority. Among these soldiers was an amiable law school classmate of mine who eventually served as a Justice of his State Supreme Court
Particularly remarkable, among redemptions associated with the Civil War, is the virtual canonization of John Brown. The dubiousness of his Harpers Ferry enterprise is recognized in the reservations that a politically-sensitive Abraham Lincoln considered himself obliged to express about Brown’s career on the day he was executed in Decembers 1859. John Wilkes Booth, on the other hand, has yet to be rehabilitated.
Even the song Dixie has been rehabilitated. That is, Abraham Lincoln is said to have claimed it as a lawful prize of war, asking that it be played when he was serenaded as the four-year-old struggle drew to an end. The tune, at least, he found quite engaging.
The dialect-laden version of this song was popular throughout the war in the North as well as in the South. To what extent was this dialect influenced by the language and domestic interests of slaves? Certainly, it is not the language of the cultivated Southerner, language that was used throughout “an improved [but far less popular] version, eliminating the dialect and the ‘vulgarisms.’”
The efforts made by fastidious Southerners to “elevate” the language of Dixie may testify to the risks of any sustained reliance upon slavery on a large scale. Are not the tastes and the inevitable limitations of an exploited people likely eventually to reshape the language and interests, of any determined exploiters in intimate contact with them? “Enslavement,” in short, may be a two-way street, not least in the songs by which peoples are captivated.
These remarks were prepared for a Constitutional Law Seminar, Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, November 7, 2011. They should be included as an essay in George Anastaplo’s Reflections on War, Peace, and the Constitution (the sixth in a contemplated ten-volume series of Reflections). The first three volumes of Reflections have been published by the University Press of Kentucky. The fourth and fifth volumes are to be published by Lexington Books.
The complete texts of the songs drawn in these remarks may be found in George Anastaplo, ed., Liberty, Equality & Modern Constitutionalism: A Source Book (Focus Publishing. R. Pullins Company, 1999), Vol. Two, pp. 90-98 or in The Annals of America (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1976), vol. 9.