On The March Through Some Civil War Lyrics

A quick survey of the music and lyrics in Irwin Silber’s book Songs of the Civil War reveals some interesting details about “marching” in Civil War culture. The following notes are not intended to be a comprehensive study, but rather a reflection of the attitudes and sentiments around marching as reflected in the lyrics of popular Civil War songs.

One of the first notable things is the lack of the word “march” or “marching” in popular Confederate music. There are plenty of themes about going to war and going to battle, but the lyrics are generally not explicitly describing how the soldier got there. There are a few comic songs that poke fun at officers or cavalrymen for riding, suggesting that the “common” infantryman had a more arduous journey, but in this collection of popular music, “march” is not a popular word in Southern lyrics. Perhaps the song writers embraced the “chivalric” ideas of riding into battle or simply the more idealistic themes that would be more universally interesting and inspiring to the white soldiers and civilians.

Stonewall Jackson’s Way sheet music (Library of Congress)

Two exceptions are Stonewall Jackson’s Way and The Southern Soldier. The first implies marching infantry as it begins “Come, stack arms, men, pile on the rails, Stir up the campfire bright; No matter if the canteen fails, We’ll make a roaring night.” As the narrator in the lyrics recounts the 1862 Valley Campaign in song, there is a line “What matter if our shoes are worn? What matter if our feet are torn? Quick-step! We’re with him before dawn! That’s Stonewall Jackson’s way” that clearly describes infantry marching, but doesn’t use the actual word. In contrast The Southern Soldier does use the word: “I’ll place my knapsack on my back, My rifle on my shoulder, I’ll march away to the firing line, And kill that Yankee soldier…” Violent patriotic propaganda at its best (or worst).

Popular Northern songs reference a lot of marching along with their own versions of propaganda and patriotic gore. Some of the most well-known tunes and lyrics of the entire Civil War also have a religious theme tied to the marching. John Brown’s Body regularly refers to “His soul goes marching on” as a reminder of the execution of the radical abolitionist and that his inspiration to bring freedom lived on in the Civil War struggle. When Julia Ward Howe penned her lyrics to The Battle Hymn of the Republic (which uses the same tune as John Brown’s Body), she removed the martyred Brown and instead envisioned God leading Union armies to victory, ending each stanza and chorus with a variation of “While God is marching on.” The religious elements in both of these marching songs reflected the sentiments of the abolitionist segment of northern society and how they viewed going to war.

In other songs, marching took on a loyalty aspect to a Union leader. Marching Along hailed General George B. McClellan AND united him to that religious and national cause, saying: “Marching along, we are marching along, Gird on the armor and be marching along; McClellan’s our leader, he’s gallant and strong; For God and for country we are marching along.”

Marching Through Georgia sheet music from 1865 (Library of Congress)

Several prominent Union songs deal with freedom in the practical (not religiously inspired) sense. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp expresses the sentiments of prisoners of war and looked forward to exchange or liberation: “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching, Cheer up comrades, they will come, And beneath the starry flag We shall breathe the air again Of the free land in our own beloved home.” Marching Through Georgia deals with several versions of liberation as it recounts a version of Sherman’s March to the Sea against a rousing melody. African Americans (a different racial word was used in the lyrics) “shouted when they heard the joyful sound” of Union soldiers arriving and Southern Unionists “wept with joyful tears, when they saw the honored flag they had not seen for years.” The song writer interpreted the march from Atlanta to Savannah as creating a “thoroughfare for Freedom and her train.”

Confederate Sheet music “The Captain with his Whiskers” (Library of Congress)

Songs from both sides also had some fun at the girls’ expense, describing civilian reactions to soldiers marching through a community. The second verse of Johnny is My Darling reads: “As he came marching up the street, The bands played loud and clear; And everyone came out to greet, The Union Volunteer.” The narrator in the lyrics predictably falls in love with this certain volunteer and promises to be lonely until the soldier “returns to me again as Cupid’s Volunteer.” The Captain With His Whiskers seems to predate the Civil War but was sung in the period. (This piece is not in Silber’s collection, but is noteworthy.) This comic song also has lyrics with a female narrator, starting with: “As they marched through the town with their banners so gay, I ran to the window just to hear the band play, I peeped through the blinds very cautiously then Lest the neighbors should say I was looking at the men…” Of course, The-Captain-With-The-Whiskers sees the girl and takes a “sly glance.” The lyrics ramble on for several funny stanzas as the girl and the captain meet at a ball, fall in love, and he eventually returns from the war to marry her. While approaching military/civilian interactions with humor, these songs do reflect reality of a regiment marching through a friendly community and “enlisting the hearts.”

In camp, the soldiers began singing about marching home for furloughs, regiment disbandment, or at the of the war. The chorus of I’ll Be A Sergeant anticipated the civilian welcome: “For the girls, they must love and adore us, Who fight for the country that bore us, And happy shall we be, If they kiss you and me, When we come marching home, Marching home, marching home, marching home — Marching home to the roll of the drum When peace shall call us back from the camp and bivouac, And the drum taps, “Marching home.” And, of course, the classic song When Johnny Comes Marching Home also envisioned a joyous reunion with family and loved ones as the soldier returned from home — ideally victorious and unscathed.

One of my personal favorite examples of marching in song lyrics is in We Are Coming Father Abraham. Similar to Stonewall Jackson’s Way, the writer does not actually use the word “march” but the poetic word choice paints a vivid image of a regiment marching through the countryside:

If you look across the hilltops

That meet the northern sky,

Long moving lines of rising dust

Your vision may descry;

And now the wind, an instant,

Tears the cloudy veil aside,

And floats aloft our spangled flag

In glory and in pride;

And bayonets in the sunlight gleam,

And bands brave music pour.

We are coming, Father Abr’am,

Three hundred thousand more!

Thousands of soldiers marched to war with bands playing or their own voices singing the popular and patriotic songs of their era. Taking a closer look at some of these lyrics offers a mirror to the attitudes and experiences of their cultures, societies, and war morale. The image of the marching soldier through song reflects attitudes toward “common man” or “common soldier” — sometimes, his own hopes or beliefs and how bystanders viewed him or his cause.

There are certainly other Civil War songs that specifically talk about marching that are not in Silber’s collection. Do you have a favorite? I’d love to read about it in the comments and maybe add it to my weekend playlist.

5 Responses to On The March Through Some Civil War Lyrics

  1. For many years, as part of the Round Table summer picnic the evening before a two day reenactment every August at a regional park on the banks of the Hudson River on the border between the City of Watervliet and the Village of Menands in the Town of Colonie, we ended the event with a community sing. Though there tended to be more reenactors in gray than blue, more of the songs that were sung tended to have a Yankee tone. We sang about John Brown’s Body, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Tramped Tramped Tramped with enthusiasm, celebrated Goober Peas, marched with Sherman through Georgia, and usually ended with the wonderfully sentimental When Johnny Comes Marching Home. In those years I believe everyone went home with the sense of satisfaction and good will that a community sing inspires.

  2. The title of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” suggests a poignancy, with the returning hero described in the singular, not the plural. In that imaginary town to which this particular “Johnny” marches, were there other Johnnys who did not return with him?

  3. Now I have “Johnny is My Darling” stuck in my head. All wonderful songs and poignant to the series theme. I recently acquired Silber’s book and hope to learn how to play a few on the piano – whenever I find the time.

  4. Since I perform a lot of Civil War era songs, this is a great resource. Thanks so much.

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