Editor: Tom Brzezicki
The Civil War Round Table of Greater Kingston assembled on the evening of November 7, 2019 for an encore performance of songs from the Civil War, featuring Gary McCabe on guitar and Gord Sly on the banjo. In a few prefatory remarks, Gord noted that this evening's concert could be considered a follow-up to last month's presentation by Dr. Michelle Clarabut on Civil War Propaganda. The words to Civil War songs often had a propaganda value in the way they boosted moral on the home front and emboldened courage on the battlefront by celebrating the valour and martial deeds of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb.
Many other songs, however, had a mournful and sentimental tone. These songs described beaus and belles from North and South, grieving over the loss of loved ones in the war or through illness at home. Other songs told of the melancholy yearning felt by lovers and family members whose sweethearts and loved ones had been torn from their arms by the harsh demands of war and the hazards of the battlefield. Gord said that the bittersweet tone of such songs was enormously appealing to soldiers, but had the effect of increasing their desire to desert and return home. For this reason, officers sometimes tried to discourage or prevent campfire concerts and singalongs, but to little effect. The popularity of many of these Civil War era songs has endured to the present day.
Gary and Gord's first song was entitled "Green Grow the Lilacs". This song originated as an Irish folk song and became popular in mid-19th century America. The lyrics tell of a sad young man who has been rejected in love by a young woman who "loves another one better than me." According to Gord, Mexicans often heard American soldiers singing this song during the Mexican War of 1846-48. The phrase "Green grow the lilacs" from the chorus eventually led to Mexicans referring to Americans as "gringos".
The next song presented by Gord and Gary was from Abraham Lincoln's presidential campaign of 1860 and was called "The Liberty Ball". The song was written by Jesse Hutchinson Jr. of a famous musical group of the time called The Hutchinson Family Singers. The Hutchinsons were well known for espousing temperance, women's rights, and abolition in their musical offerings and it was natural that they should compose a song promoting Lincoln as the Republican candidate for the 1860 election.
"Shiloh's Hill" was a poem written by a Confederate soldier named M.G. Smith. The poem was put to music and, as performed by Gord and Gary, provided a somber picture of the two-day Battle of Shiloh fought on April 6-7, 1862. There are no heroics depicted in the song nor praise for the Southern cause. Instead, the lyrics focus on "the horrors of the field" and lamentations for the "ten thousand men" who were killed.
Gary and Gord then presented "The Faded Coat of Blue" written by John H. McNaughton. This is a mournful song describing the anguish of the mother of a Union soldier killed in battle, lying "in a lonely grave unknown". The mother mourns her absent son but takes some comfort that she will meet him in the hereafter where he will have exchanged his "faded coat of blue" for "a robe of white".
The song "Goober Peas" refers to peanuts, which became a staple item in the diets of Confederate soldiers as the war went on and other ration supplies became scarce. "Goober Peas" was a traditional folk song that became popular in the South during the war and remained so afterwards. When the song was first put into print in New Orleans in 1866, the publisher ascribed the composition to the writing team of "P. Nutt Esq." and "A. Pindar Esq." Pindar--or pinder--was another Southern term for peanuts.
"Always Stand on the Union Side" was written by M.C. Bisbee in 1863. It was a patriotic song that encouraged Northerners to "keep their powder dry ... to see secession die", and of course, "stand on the Union side."
According to some sources, the song that was most popular with Civil War soldiers was "Lorena", written by the Reverend Henry D.L. Webster in 1856. Although largely forgotten today, the song's lyrics describing a soldier's longing for his distant sweetheart held universal appeal for the troops North and South. In fact, Gord said that "Lorena" was one of the songs that some officers forbade their men from singing or performing lest they be induced to slip away in the night and head for home.
Gary and Gord's next selection was "Wildwood Flower" written by composer Joseph Webster in 1860. The song tells the plight of a young woman in love with a handsome young man, only to have him leave her with "no word of farewell". This is another sentimental song of longing and lost love typical of the Civil War era and popular among soldiers and civilians alike.
"Aura Lea" was written by W.W. Fosdick and was published shortly before the Civil War began and soon became popular in both the North and the South. The song tells of a young man longing for his Aura Lea--"Maid with golden hair"--and invokes the appeals to nature so popular in this song genre--singing blackbirds, "swallows in the air", willow trees, roses and mistletoe. Gary reminded us that the tune was set to different words and became "Love Me Tender", a number one hit song by Elvis Presley released in 1956.
Gord and Gary's next selection was "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" which was one of Lincoln's campaign songs in the 1864 Presidential election. The music derived from another song of the folk hymn tradition, "John Brown's Body". The abolitionist writer Julia Ward Howe wrote new lyrics to the John Brown tune which were published in the Atlantic magazine in February 1862. As Gord noted, Howe's lyrics were an attempt to unite the original Northern war aim of restoring the Union with the abolitionists' moral crusade of ending slavery. The "Battle Hymn" immediately became popular and has remained so ever since.
Gary and Gord then sang "John Brown's Body" which was the inspiration for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". The original song, "John Brown's Body", was based upon an old religious camp meeting song from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The verses referring to the abolitionist John Brown and his body "a-moldering in the ground" were written by Union soldiers at the start of the Civil War but were considered to be vulgar and indelicate by polite society. The music, however, was thought to be too good to waste and hence, the new lyrics provided by Julia Ward Howe as described above.
Gord and Gary next offered a song by Northern composer, George Frederick Root. This was "The Vacant Chair" based on a poem by Henry S. Washburn. The song was popular in the North and describes the mournful feelings of family and friends as they gather to lament the loss of their "noble Willie" fallen on the field of battle.
The next selection offered by Gary and Gord was "Listen to the Mockingbird" by Septimus Winner. Gord said that this popular mid-19th century song was a favourite of President Lincoln. The song tells the familiar story of a young man mourning his "sweet Hallie" who lies in her grave in the valley while the mockingbird sings in the weeping willows. The song's tune has a jaunty and upbeat mood, somewhat at odds with the lachrymose lyrics.
Stephen Foster was a popular American composer of the 19th century and "Beautiful Dreamer", sung by Gary and Gord, remains one of his most well-known and recognizable songs.
If any Civil War song evokes the Confederacy and the Old South in general, it is "Dixie". Unlike the obscure origins of some of the other songs played by Gord and Gary, the words and music to "Dixie" can safely be attributed to Daniel Decatur Emmett, who was actually an Ohio-born composer who made a career of writing songs for minstrel shows before the war. "Dixie" was popular with Northern audiences as well and Gord mentioned that Lincoln asked his Marine band to play it after hearing the news of Lee's surrender at Appomattox. In addition to the traditional version of the song, Gary and Gord sang a Northern variation beginning, "Away down south in the land of traitors".
"The Fall of Charleston" was a song written to celebrate the capture of Charleston, South Carolina in February 1865. Union troops took special pleasure in capturing the city where the Civil War began and the song lyrics include the soldiers' boast that, "We'll squash poor Jeff's Confederacy".
For their final number, Gary and Gord sang "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", written by the Canadian singer and composer Robbie Robertson in 1969 when he was a member of The Band. While not strictly a Civil War era song, the lyrics describe the thoughts and feelings of a young Southern man as he copes with despair and defeat after the fall of Richmond and the collapse of the Confederacy in the spring of 1865.
All in all, it was an enjoyable musical evening for our members and guests and we thank Gord and Gary for their performance.
The Civil War community lost one of its 3 top historians, in my view: Dr. James (Bud) Robertson Jr. He was 89. He has been writing and teaching since the late 1950s and first broke onto the National Civil War scene as the Executive Director of the United States Civil War Centennial Commission, overseeing the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of many significant events over those four years. He has written over 20 books, bringing to life the stories and humanity of the soldiers. He is known to some of us however for his two epic biographies: AP Hill and Stonewall Jackson (762 pages, 25 pages of bibliography, 135 pages of notes). It will be several decades before anyone else will seriously challenge either of these two biographies. His last book, 2018, was called "Robert E. Lee: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works". His soft voice with its thick southern accent is one I will never forget.
I first met 'Bud' in the 1970s when he was invited to speak to the Civil War Round Table in Toronto, which met at Seneca College, Mississauga in those days. He was an impressive storyteller for sure. I subsequently ran into him at seminars that I attended, mostly in Virginia, but I remember in particular a seminar to which I took my tour, held in Fredericksburg. In that talk, he asserted that the United States had never lost a war. This kinda stuck in the throats of us Canadians sitting in the audience and so, in the Q&A following, Terry Hicks verbalized our problem: "And how would you consider the War of 1812?" Without missing a beat, a wry smile came across his face and I remember his retort: "Oh, that wasn't a war; that was just a minor diplomatic difference of opinion!"
The last occasion of my meeting 'Bud' was on the tour I hosted for our 6 on the Mississippi River in August, 2012, joining the American Queen Civil War tour from Memphis to Chattanooga. 'Bud' was one of the two Civil War experts leading the tour and gave talks daily as well as leading onshore tours. But sitting across the isle from him on our bus one day, he told me this story.
Following the murder of President John F. Kennedy, Jackie conveyed that her husband had expressed the wish that his funeral service be modelled as closely as possible to that of President Abraham Lincoln. The call for help was directed to 'Bud' who immediately met authorities in the National Archives. Here he worked all night and, about 6 a.m. the next morning, he presented the order of service for JFK's funeral.
Sometime after the service, he received a letter of appreciation from the president's wife, which he of course has kept.