Music & Rebels

In 1862, a reporter for the New York Herald (a great newspaper during this era) observed, “All history proves that music is as indispensable to warfare as money….” That was a popular sentiment. Confederate General Robert E. Lee once said that without music, there would be no army.

Both were clearly overstatements; but, as Irwin Silber in Songs of the Civil War (1960) observed, the Civil War was the “catalyst of the development of our music.” No war before – or after – has produced such a variety or quantity of songs

Timing may have been a part of this.

During the antebellum period, Americans had a seemingly insatiable appetite for music. There were singing schools and musical societies, brass band concerts and music in the home. The sheet music industry was blossoming, so middle-class Americans could purchase popular parlor music.

Given this enthusiasm for music, it was little wonder that songs could be heard throughout the Civil War – around the campfire, while soldiers marched into battle, or in the home as families attempted to keep up spirits.

Music was also vital to the documentary, “Rebels on Lake Erie.”

Over the past six months, we’ve been working on locating sheet music that would capture the many moods of our story. As much as possible, we wanted to use the musical scores of the Civil War period.

Luckily in this time of the internet, this proved to be relatively easy.

So for those of you musical purists, who want REAL Civil War music, here’s some sources that we found especially helpful during the preparation of “Rebels on Lake Erie.”

By far the most helpful of all the websites was Duke University’s Historical American Sheet Music Collection. I’m really partial to this collection because I first found the song “The Prisoner’s Lament” there. That song had been written and composed by two Confederate officers imprisoned on Johnson’s Island. Although I’d seen the lyrics in a private collection, I had never seen the score before. Popular Ohio folksinger Chuck Keiper — accompanied by Vicenzo Volpe on the Irish tin whistle – used the original score when they recorded the song for the documentary. I cannot say with absolute certainty – but I think this may be the first time this song has ever been broadcast — and it’s probably been decades since it’s been performed.

The 3,042 pieces on the Duke University website are fully searchable. According to the website, “The collection is particularly strong in antebellum Southern music, Confederate imprints, and Civil War songs.” And, having browsed the collection, we can attest to the strength of the holdings.

One of the benefits of just “browsing” is seeing the extraordinary illustrations used in the sheet music of the day. There’s humor; there’s patriotism; there’s racism; there’s sexism.
The illustrations alone reflect American culture during the Civil War.

Of course, there are other websites that offer sheet music from the Civil War. The Library of Congress offers more than 2500 pieces (again all searchable) in its Civil War Sheet Music Collection – and many of them cite Duke’s collection.

One of the popular musical genres of the Civil War, of course, was band music. And the Library of Congress offers an online collection drawn from its own Music Division and from the Walter Dignam Collection of the Manchester Historic Association in New Hampshire. What’s interesting about this collection is that it provides – in addition to the 700-plus musical compositions – photos of brass bands and recordings.

The Library of Congress also offers access to more than 1,300 pieces of African-American music from antebellum days, the Civil War, the Gilded Age and early 20th century. There are 1,305 (fully searchable) pieces in the collection, which is from Brown University. As is the case with the band music, the Library of Congress includes photographs as part of the website.

The Library of Congress has also started its National Jukebox initiative. You can browse through some nice historical recordings – and photographs. For our project, however, we preferred the (searchable) Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project from the University of California, Santa Barbara. It specializes in cylinder recordings, obviously, from the late 19th and early 20th century, which is a slightly earlier period than what the Jukebox initiative covers. The version of “Battle Cry of Freedom” is from the Santa Barbara cylinder collection.

If you don’t care to use the original sheet music, there are a number of songbooks that cover the time period. The ones we’re citing are all available – full text – from the National Archives website: S. Brainards’ Sons, Our War Songs North and South (1887); Wilson Smith, Grand Army War Songs (1886); George F. Root, Charles Carroll Sawyer and Henry C. Work,
Our National War Songs (1892).

If you are interested in Civil War music, check back to the blog this week because you’ll learn more about the special issues associated with Civil War music and integrating music into a documentary.

If you’d like to hear a fuller array of the Civil War music we used in Rebels on Lake Erie, you may want to swing by the public premiere of the documentary, 6:30 p.m. April 19 at the historic Quaker Square Inn, 135 S. Broadway, Akron. If you want more details, email

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