“Home! Sweet Home!”

The 19th Century was an era of utter sentimentality. Songsmiths capitalized on the public’s longing for songs which tugged at the heartstrings. It was an unsuccessful performer who failed to reduce his audience to tears. The Civil War provided songwriters with the opportunity for sharpening their craft of creating sentimental ballads. It is not surprising that the all-time favorite song of soldiers on both sides who missed love ones and were far from home was “Home! Sweet Home!” This song was first produced on May 8, 1823 and over 180 years later is still remembered by our military personnel now fighting in the Middle East. Our warriors all agree that “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”

When General Robert E. Lee said, “I don’t believe we can have an army without music,” he wasn’t just “whistling Dixie.” For soldiers in both armies, music played a vital role in uplifting morale, rallying patriotism, banishing loneliness, fighting homesickness and raising spirits. Music followed Civil War soldiers everywhere, the first call on the bugle, riveted into step by drums and fifes, serenaded in camp by banjos, fiddles and harmonicas, and even put to sleep by a lone bugler. But although instrumental music was linked to almost every step the soldier made, it was the songs that matter most. A Civil War song that isn’t as well known today but was one of the great one’s for the armies on both sides was “
Just before the Battle, Mother.” In the dullness of camp life the following song expressed what many soldiers felt about the war and home:

“Just before the battle, Mother, I am thinking most of you,
While upon the field we’re watching, with the enemy in view.
Hark! I hear the bugles sounding, ‘tis the signal for the fight,
Now, may God protect us, Mother, as He ever does the right.”

By far the most common musical outlet for the Civil War soldier was singing. Soldiers sang, whistled, and hummed on marches, behind earthworks, while waiting for orders, in camp and even on the eve of battle, with their muskets primed and ready. They sang solos, in duets, trios, and they often formed glee clubs. Sometimes entire regiments, Generals and all sang on marches. To many soldiers, the favorite place to sing was in the evening around the campfire. For both armies, the best-loved songs were often the old favorites which had been nationally popular long before the war. Publishers produced small pocket songbooks known as “songsters.” Printed without music, they contained only the words to the best known songs, often without attributing the songs to a particular composer. Besides the Bible, these pocket songsters were the books most carried by both the North and South. One Confederate soldier wrote in his diary, “We kept song books with us and passed much of our leisure time singing. I carried my book even through prison and brought it home with me.”

In early December 1862, the Union and Confederate armies gathered on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia to do battle. One evening a Confederate band came forward and played “Dixie.” From across the river, a Union band responded with “John Brown’s Body.” The Confederates “retaliated” with “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and music ceased and silence descended over the battle arena. Then a lone Union bugler played the haunting melody of “Home! Sweet Home!” A New Hampshire soldier later wrote in his diary that “as the sweet sound rose and fell on the evening air…all listened intently, and I don’t believe there was a dry eye in all those assembled thousands.”

This article was taken in part from a pocket size book written by Wayne Erbsen entitled “Rousing Songs and True Tales
of the Civil War” published in 1999 by Native Ground Music, Inc. of Asheville, NC 28805 Order No. NGB-950