Songs of the Civil War: Causes and soldiers’ experience

In the first lesson, students will examine popular patriotic songs of the Civil War era to identify the reasons that both the North and South gave for fighting the Civil War. They will then have to compare these reasons with previous or future analysis of other lessons in which they examined documents relating to secession and the buildup to the war.

In the second lesson, students will examine popular songs sung in the army to identify the common foot soldier’s actual experiences and attitudes in fighting the War.

Historical Background

Music played an important role during the Civil War, both on the war front and the homefront. Many songs were used to recruit soldiers or to keep morale and support for the war high, while in camp many soldiers brought musical instruments from home to pass the time, or played songs to inspire the men before a battle campaign. In addition, both the Union and Confederate armies had organized brass bands assigned to companies and regiments of the army. Their main duty was to help cheer the men before and after battles, although they were sometimes used to give signals and commands in the actual battle. When they were not playing, the musicians were often called into service in the hospitals and to help with the wounded during and after battles.

Many of these songs are still popular today, demonstrating their place in our military heritage and as part of our national beliefs and values about what it means to be “American.” One thing these songs can tell us is what both sides believed, or were told to believe, what they were fighting for. In many cases one side would respond, revise or parody the other side’s songs to criticize the politics and causes of the war. Both sides would often use the same tune, but change the words of the other side to suit their purpose, or to mock the other side. An example would be ‘Maryland, My Maryland’ and ‘Michigan, My Michigan,’ or the dueling versions of ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ and the ‘Bonnie Blue Flag.’

Musical duels between the two sides were common, as they heard each other as the music traveled across the countryside before or during a battle. The Union band started playing Northern patriotic tunes; a Southern band responded by playing Southern patriotic tunes. On some occasions the bands of both armies would often combine to play songs which were neutral about the war but shared a common sentiment of soldiers, such as ‘Home Sweet Home.’

These songs can also tell us about what the daily life of a soldier would be, as well as the thoughts that would cross their mind as they experienced the trials and thrills of war, or they thought about the people they left behind at home.

There are many other lessons where Civil War songs could be used to engage students, including:

  • ‘Song of the First of Arkansas’ connected to the Emancipation Proclamation and free black soldiers
  • ‘Maryland, My Maryland’ to demonstrate the tensions in Maryland and the other border states in the Civil War
  • ‘John Brown’s Body’ when talking about events leading up to the war and the abolitionist movement
  • ‘TRAMP! TRAMP! TRAMP! The Prisoner's Hope” could be used in a lesson on prisoners of war.
  • ‘Marching Through Georgia’ would supplement a lesson on Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to analyze popular songs of the Civil War to identify how people of the Civil War era defined the purpose of the war for the North and the South by completing an exit card.

Students will be able to use popular songs of the Civil War to describe the views and lives of Civil War soldiers by writing a song or some lines to a song.



  1. Lesson 1:This lesson should build off a previous lesson in which students examined the secession documents of selected southern states such as Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina and Lincoln’s 1st Inaugural Address to determine what the political leadership of each side said was the true cause of the Civil War.
  2. Warmup/Activator (5 minutes): What’s your favorite song you play to pump yourself up before you play a game, take a run, etc? Discuss how music’s lyrics and tune can inspire or affect your mood.
  3. Transition (5 minutes): Show selected photographs of Civil War brass bands, and explain that music and bands played a big role in the US Civil War. Have students brainstorm ideas of how music could be used by the army, government, and soldiers to help fight a war. (possible answers – to pass the time at camp, for recruitment, to inspire before a battle, to be sung after funerals, to be used as commands during battle, to keep soldiers committed to the cause, for marching in time) Be sure to discuss how music is sometimes used as a form of propaganda to promote a cause or patriotism, particularly in time of war, and explain that students will be analyzing Civil War examples of musical propaganda – two musical tunes that had both a Union and Confederate version for lyrics.
  4. Document Analysis (10 minutes): Students will analyze some popular songs of the Civil War to determine what each side says is the cause of the Civil War. Assign students into groups of 4, giving each a letter to identify which specific song they are going to analyze. Give out the Song Analysis handout to each student to complete the front side. Play a sample version of each for about 30 seconds so students can get a sense of the tune.
  5. Corroboration (10 minutes): After they complete analyzing their individually assigned songs, students will share the key ideas and perspectives of all the songs to their group members for corroboration. Students will look for similarities and discrepancies between each side’s claims in the four songs. They also should reflect back on previous lessons and identify if there are any discrepancies between the causes listed in the secession documents versus the claims listed in these popular songs of the Civil War.
  6. Assessment (5 minutes): After going through the corroboration process in their groups, students should be able to answer all three of these questions on an exit card: What did the Union say was the purpose of the war in their marching songs? What did the Confederacy say was the purpose of the war through songs? What do you think was/were the most important cause(s) of the war for both the Union and the Confederacy?
  7. Lesson 1 Extensions: Based on previous studies of the southern states’ declarations of secession or Lincoln’s 1st Inaugural Address, you could have students write a song on what they think each side was truly fighting for in the Civil War. An alternative extension, dependent on how much you study current events with your students, could ask students to make a war song about the US involvement in Afghanistan and fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, giving students a choice to be pro- or anti-war or just identifying what they identify as the reasons for the US military being in Afghanistan.
  8. Lesson 2:
  9. Activator/Warmup (5 minutes) – Play a version of “Home Sweet Home” while students read the brief reading about the “Home Sweet Home” serenade before the Battle of Stone’s River. Ask students how this song’s tune and lyrics are different than the marching songs from the previous lesson. (more slow, sentimental, not warlike, only talking about how someone wants to go home and not fight)
  10. Transition (5 minutes)- Discuss the difference between the political reasons a government uses to explain why a war should be fought and the reasons why a soldier fights in a war. Besides political reasons, why might a soldier choose to fight in a war (for glory, honor, to win the heart of a girl, because their friends joined up, because they don’t want to be a coward)
  11. Document Analysis (15 minutes)- Play the tunes to the selected songs, and group students into 5 groups, so they can analyze their assigned song for different aspects of soldiers’ experiences and feelings. (If you have enough time, or would like to stretch the lesson out over a few days, you could assign each group the task of performing their song as well).
  12. Corroboration (15 minutes) You could choose to have the 5 groups perform and present their analysis to the class, and corroborate as a class, or you could jigsaw them into new groups where they had to teach each other about their songs.
  13. Assessment/Homework – Give students the Sullivan Ballou letter, or similar letter from a soldier. After reading it, they should try to make their own song of at least 12 lines capturing the feelings of Sullivan Ballou and/or an imaginary reply from his wife.
  14. Other Extension opportunities – Students will have the option to either: (a) Turn a Civil War letter, photograph, or painting into a song. (b) Draw a picture depicting events or feelings described in a Civil War letter or Song. (c) Write an imaginary reply letter from home in response to a soldier’s Civil War letter. (d) Write a song from the perspective of a loved one on the homefront to a soldier.


(1) Break songs into smaller sections or only one verse for ESOL and SPED students.

(2) Modify the handouts to provide definitions for difficult or archaic vocabulary in the lyrics.


Silber, Irwin, and Jerry Silverman. Songs of the Civil War. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1995.

Walters, Ronald and Spitzer, John. “Making Sense of American Popular Song,” History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web,, June 2003. (accessed 3/12/12).

“America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets.” Library of Congress. (accessed 3/12/12).

“The Union Approach”. Stones River National Battlefield, National Park Service: (accessed 3/12/12).

Hanc, John. “The Sentimental Ballad of the Civil War.” Smithsonian Magazine, November 30, 2011.

“The Civil War Bands.” Library of Congress. (accessed 3/12/12).

Civil War Sheet Music Collection, Library of Congress. (accessed 3/12/12).

Selected Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress. (accessed 3/12/12).

“Picture of a military Brass Band – 114th Pennsylvania infantry, 1864.” From Library of Congress. (accessed 3/12/12).

“Band of the 8th New York State Militia. Arlington, Va., June, 1861.” Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8184-4545. Call Number: LOT 4190E. From Library of Congress. (accessed 3/12/12).

“17th Maine Inf. Vols.” (taken May 3, 1864) Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8184-10602. Call Number: LOT 4190F. From Library of Congress. (accessed 3/12/12).

“8th U.S. Infantry At Head Quarters, Army of Potomac near Fairfax, Court House, Va., June, 1863.” Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: — Call Number: LOT 4190F. From Library of Congress. (accessed 3/12/12).

“The Post Band, Fort Monroe, Va., December 1864.” Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-7421. Call Number: LOT 4190F. From Library of Congress. (accessed 3/12/12).

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