Music and the Civil War

Music was integral to the Civil War.

When the Union and Confederate soldiers marched off to war, they took with them a love of music. Music sustained the soldiers after battle, eased the pain of being away from home — and ameliorated the boredom that marked prisoner-of-war life.

As Confederate General Robert E. Lee once observed, “I don’t believe we can have an army without music.”

Music is also integral to the documentary, “Rebels on Lake Erie.” More than a dozen Civil War songs are used in the film.

“The Rebel Soldier” serves as the documentary’s theme song. The history of the song is difficult to trace. One source dates it to a British song of the Seven Years War of the 18th century. Another source traces the melody to a Southern Appalachian folk song. The musical arrangement used in this documentary (with permission) is by Jerry Silverman.

The song is performed by popular Ohio folksinger/composer Chuck Keiper, accompanied by Vincenzo Volpe of Akron on the Irish tin whistle.

Other musicians performing the song during the documentary are: Katrina DeFord on viola, Joseph Shackleford on violin, Celeste Wagner on trumpet, Fred Endres on guitar and banjo, and Brad Wagner on flute and piccolo.

The prisoners on Johnson’s Island also composed their own music. “The Prisoner’s Lament,” which is performed as the documentary’s credits roll, was written by two Johnson’s Island prisoners, Dr. O. Becker and W.D. Clarkson. Becker, a surgeon who was captured in Nashville, composed the music. Joseph Barbiere, another Johnson’s Island prisoner, described Becker as “a gentleman of versatile accomplishments, a fine musician and composer, and a man of science. Dr. Becker, although a foreigner, is enthusiastic in the support of the Confederate cause.” W.D. Clarkson, who wrote the lyrics, was probably a captain in the 6th Missouri. The sheet music was eventually published in Georgia in 1863. It was dedicated to Miss Anna Ford of Woodstock, Ga. Keiper and Volpe used the original 1863 arrangement when recording the song.

Johnson’s island prisoners also sang their own version of Goober Peas, a popular Confederate song of the day.

Other music featured in the documentary includes: “Battle Cry of Freedom” (1862 — Words & Music by George F. Root); “Listen to the Mocking Bird” (1855 –Words by Alice Hawthorne & Music by Richard Milburn); “The Southern Soldier Boy” (1863 — Words By Capt. George W. Alexander); “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground” (1863 — Words & Music by Walter Kittredge); “The Vacant Chair” (1861 — Words by Henry S. Washburn & Music by George F. Root); “Yellow Rose of Texas (1858 — Words & Music by J.K.). All are performed in their original arrangements. The musical arrangements for “Just Before the Battle Mother” (1864 — Words & Music By George F. Root) and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (1863 — Words & Music by Patrick S. Gilmore) are by Katrina DeFord.

Many libraries hold historic Civil War American sheet music. Among the best are the Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University Libraries and Civil War Sheet Music Collection, Library of Congress.

Katrina DeFord also serves as musical consultant for the documentary. Musicians performing in the documentary are: John Tenney (Rhythm Bones); Steve Johnston and Vincenzo Volpe (Irish Tin Whistle); Fred Endres (Guitar & Banjo); Katrina DeFord (Viola); Joseph Shackelford (Violin); Brad Wagner (Flute & Piccolo), and Celeste Wagner (Trumpet).

For additional information about the music of “Rebels on Lake Erie,” contact Kathleen Endres (