Union Songs of the Civil War

Music played an important role during the American Civil War. On the battlefield, musical signals controlled the movements and actions of large groups of men. Sometimes, marching bands played during battle to enhance morale. On the march, men sung to keep there spirits high. Songs could also serve as means of communication and propaganda.

Probably the most famous Union song was ‘John Brown’s Body’. Time and again, we read of soldiers singing it on the march. Sherman mentions that when his troops moved out of Atlanta on their journey to the sea, they spontaneously intoned the tune:

“Some band, by accident, struck up the anthem of ‘John Brown’s Body,’ the men caught up the strain, and never before or since have I heard the chorus of ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah!’ done with more spirit, or in better harmony of time and place.”

The song tells the story of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and thereby places the Union soldier’s struggle firmly in the tradition of the radical abolitionist. The tune later got a new text and became the nowadays much more famous ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’.

A more humorous tune is ‘I Goes To Fight Mit Sigel’. It gently pokes fun at German immigrant’s zeal to enlist in the Union army under General Franz Sigel, a refugee from the German revolution of 1848 who built up a mixed career during the Civil War. The text is written in a mock German accent, but it does show respect for the fighting spirit of the volunteers.

In a similar vein, ‘Kingdom Come’ is written in a mock African-American accent. It is told from the perspective of slaves taking over a plantation after their master has fled from approaching Union gunboats. It was not written by a slave (neither was the Sigel song written by a German immigrant), so it can be said to be part of the minstrel tradition and blamed of reinforcing stereotypes. However, it gives voice to an experience that certainly had been made by many African-Americans and it does ascribe some agency to the slaves.

The last song I want to present is the blatantly triumphant ‘The Fall of Charleston’. Written in 1865, it celebrates the evacuation of Charleston by the Confederate troops. But the song does much more: Confident that the war will soon be over, it pours scorn over the last remains of Confederate resistance: “How are you, Southern chivalry? Your race is nearly run!”

If you want more, have a look at the two-CD-set Divided & United, a great collection of Civil War songs (Union as well as Confederate).

Essex marching band

If listening is not enough and you want to have musicians on the gaming table, there are as far as I know only two options. In 28mm, Dixon Miniatures offers a 20-men marching band in standing as well as marching poses (those might be closer to 25mm though). In 15mm, Essex produce a fife and drum band as well as a brass marching band.


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