“Under the fascinating charm of the clear bugle notes” – Medicinal Civil War Music
According to Robert E. Lee, you could not “have an army without music.”
Often appearing in studies of the America Civil War’s plethora of songs and music, it is an apt quote explaining the importance of hearing and playing tunes and ballads in times of conflict. Songs about battles, Union and Confederate figures, soldiers’ views of the war and its politics, home-front attitudes, experiences of fighting, mournful laments – Civil War ballads touched on every theme. Yet music also had a powerful impact on listeners beyond moving lyrical sentiments. The medicinal-like role of music and song are so ubiquitous that, like the very practice of performing and listening to them, their importance as soothing, reassuring and calming tonics is often overlooked. During the conflict, as at any time of strife, soldiers and civilians alike turned to music not just as distraction, but also for comforting reassurance.
The importance of music as a soothing balm is made clear in a passage of a wartime account by one of the Union Army’s chaplains, Father William Corby, who served with the Irish Brigade. After his unit fought at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Corby detailed the mood of the soldiers under his spiritual care. They were re-grouping after severe fighting at Antietam where many of the Irish Brigade fought along the battlefield’s infamous sunken road, dubbed the ‘Bloody Lane’ after the carnage. Corby, who witnessed the attack, later described the battle as “a terrible one in more than one sense.” It was a fitting, if understated, description for the war’s single bloodiest day. Following the engagement, the Irish Brigade moved to camp round the peaceful surroundings of the Shenandoah Valley and the “justly celebrated…romantic beauty” of Harpers Ferry. The scenery had a restorative impression on the soldiers, but Corby went further to explain how the visual landscape scene blended with the aural impact camp music had on the resting soldiers.
Corby described hearing a bugler playing one night. His performance “delighted us by sounding clear notes which reverberated through the gulches of the mountains for miles and brought back echoes of the most perfect we had ever heard.” The chaplain then proceeded to illustrate the effect this music had on its battle-weary listeners:
While we listened, late in the calm evening, seated around our camp fires, a pathetic feeling crept over us, each dwelling on his own thoughts, which, for the time, were all the company he desired. First came flashing through our minds the poor dead companions we had left behind in their cold graves at Antietam. Then, as the scene of the late terrible conflict faded from our minds, while still under the fascinating charm of the clear bugle notes, we found ourselves wandering back, year by year, to our very childhood … All the vicissitudes of life passed in review before our minds, and occasionally, as the bugle tunes died softly in the distant hollows of the mountains, we naturally dwelt on the unknown but sublime scenes of the future…Late into the into the night, by an unspoken, common consent, we retired, with hearts full of emotion, and brains somewhat tired from too much thinking.
Corby acknowledged that this particular army camp music moment was still effective when he recalled the moment twenty years on: “vividly do these reflections and dreams recur to me. They left a deep impression on my mind,” he noted. The bugle music was still reverberating amongst his war memories. It was a recollection that showed the calming nature of music after battle. It also recalled popular wartime imagery of soldiers gathered around camp-fires listening to music, in silent conversation and seemingly far away from the more horrific fighting elements of the war.
Campfire scenes such of these were a familiar lyrical depiction in Union and Confederate Civil War ballads. Songs were produced specifically about such quieter moments, and ballads also contained lyrical reference to these scenes. For example, the 1862 Union songbook The Camp Fire Songster had a decorative cover illustrating a scene of soldiers around a campfire, similar to the one Corby had previously described.
Doctors also observed the medicinal role music could play, particularly mentally, on soldiers during the conflict. Accounts of field hospitals and memoirs often refer to singing and instrumental performances put on for the injured. Some of these were pre-arranged and some impromptu, a part of the general cacophony of war music in the Union and Confederacy. Lee’s statement about an army needing music was correct: it had a power of healing, however momentary, that meant a great deal to listeners and performers. One such instance was recalled in September 1862 by army surgeon Jonathan Lewis Whittaker in Pennsylvania. He wrote about having “another nice concert” at the hospital where he was based, and that more were planned in the near future. In a letter to his wife, he commented that
To see the good [a music concert] does the soldiers, the crippled and infirm and sick, some on crutches, some with canes, some with head bound up in muslin, some with arms in slings and splints and every one all crowding in and densely filling the room…cheering and stomping whenever any thing pleases them particularly.
In Whittaker’s view such performances were important for the general well being and spirit of his injured patients. He noted further how “the soldiers here would never tire of singing good songs.”
The mental medicinal purpose of song singing, composition and music playing – the idea and practice that “some singing might boost morale in camp” – was addressed recently in the SNL sketch remaking a New York regimental ballad. For all the comedy, the question that sets off the sketch is pertinent to the understanding of music’s therapeutic importance during the American Civil War: “How about a song, something to lift our spirits?” Lee, Corby and Whittaker would no doubt approve of this particular modern musical observation.
 William Corby, Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years Chaplain in the Famous Irish Brigade, Army of the Potomac (Chicago: La Monte, O’Donnell & Co, 1883), 114.
 Ibid., 117.
 Ibid., 118.
About the Author
Catherine Bateson is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, researching the sentiments and expressions of Irish American Civil War songs and music. She is also the co-founder of the War Through Other Stuff Society and social media secretary for the Scottish Association for the Study of America. You can follow her on Twitter @catbateson.Tags: Catherine Bateson, Civil War, Civil War Medicine, civil war music, Jonathan Lewis Whittaker, Robert E. Lee, William Corby Posted in: Uncategorized