Singing the Songs of Zion
Soldiers' Hymn Collections and Hymn Singing
in the American Civil War

Mark D. Rhoads

"Every night the holy songs of Zion go up on this balmy spring air, a sweet incense, I think,
to the throne of the Eternal.
" Rev. William Hauser, chaplain of the 48th Georgia

Home | Soldier's Hymn Collections
Reenactor's Hymn & Tune Book | About the Author

Page 1 2 3

Page 2: The Reenactors Hymn and Tune Book, Preface

How Hymns Were Sung

Singing hymns the way soldiers sang them is as challenging as choosing appropriate tunes. Descriptions of actual practice are not set down in any manual on hymn singing. Some experts on church music give their opinion. Lowell Mason, one of the leading church music reformers of the early 19th century, writes extensively on ideal practice in the preface to The National Psalmist (Mason, 1848), but his remarks probably don't fully represent what was really happening in churches across the country. More instructive may be his criticisms of current "incorrect" practice in the areas of vocal quality, tempo, tune choice, and other aspects of hymn singing. These criticisms of practice along with Mason's suggestions for amelioration may hint at how people actually sang hymns. Like today, people in the mid-19th century did as they pleased and often ignored the experts. In the end actual practice as it worked itself out in a given locale, can only be gleaned from tidbits of information found in soldier's diaries, newspapers of the era, and other period literature. The descriptions of practice and the suggestions I have made have basis in one or more pieces of information from such sources.

Denominational and Regional Differences

From the start an important question arises: Did soldiers from different parts of the country and different denominations have different expectations regarding what hymns would be sung to what tunes? I think they did, at least as they marched fresh from their homes. A regiment from Boston, for instance, made up of Congregationalists and Presbyterians was probably used to singing tunes of the reformers and older tunes with modernized harmonies, tunes thought to be "correct" according to the science of music. A Georgia regiment made up of Baptists and Methodists probably sang from tunes books like Southern Harmony (Walker, 1854)--folk hymn tunes and fuging tunes from late 18th century New England. But purity of style and tune choice does not exist at either end of the spectrum. There is a lot of cross pollination.

There appears to be much less variation in the hymns (the words) across regions or denominations. At the core of most hymnals used anywhere, North and South, was a considerable number of hymns by Isaac Watts. The Psalms and hymns of Isaac Watts form a common thread that runs through almost every denomination, even in Methodist hymnals where Charles Wesley's hymns dominate. Other English evangelical hymn writers are also well represented in most hymnals of the day including John Newton, William Cowper, Philip Doddridge, Charles Wesley, James Montgomery, and Anne Steele. There were, however, some specific variations. Episcopalian and Unitarian hymnals often had a large selection from the "New Version" of the Psalms by Brady and Tate. Scottish Presbyterians sang from the Scottish Psalter, metrical versions of the Psalms.

Evidence seems to point to the fact that as soldiers of various religious persuasions and walks of life mixed and found common ground in death, they put aside any denominational or regional preferences regarding hymnody. It is also well known that chaplains from all of the protestant denominations agreed to put aside doctrinal and liturgical differences in the effort to give spiritual comfort and bring God's Word to soldiers. For example, a southern minister visiting a southern soldier's service reported that "We had a Presbyterian sermon, introduced by Baptist services, under the direction of a Methodist chaplain, in an Episcopal church." (Wiley, 1943, p. 187) Protestant ecumenism even embraced Catholics and Jews (Faust, 2008, p. 7-8) This kind of interdenominational practice, no doubt, also had the effect of washing out denominational hymn and tune preferences. Soldiers did complain about doctrinal differences heard in sermons (Wiley, 1943, p. 187), but to date I have not seen evidence of arguments over hymns or musical taste regarding the tunes in any soldiers diaries or other descriptions of soldier's lives. These arguments were carried on mostly by some clergy and the musical experts.

The soldier's hymn collections cataloged on this website give us a good representation of the hymn repertoire sung across all denominations and regions, North and South, in the mid-19th century. Also, the tunes I have recommended represent those used by a wide variety of Christians. I would, therefore, recommend that the hymns and tunes seen here form the core hymnody for reenactors no mater the Christian denominational influences on persona. Trying to be denominationally correct with regard to hymnody adds an unnecessary complication and in the end may be more incorrect in the world of the soldier.

I will claim some ignorance regarding hymn singing among Catholics and those of the Jewish faith. Both armies had Catholic chaplains and a Jewish chaplaincy was authorized by congress in the North in 1862. Catholic hymnals of the day include service music and hymns in Latin and English but do not contain the vast repertoire of Protestant hymnals. Jewish services were probably limited to Hebrew chants. I can imagine that both Catholics and Jews sang Protestant hymns in informal and recreational settings as described in the next section.

I have not included the singing of hymns among black soldiers but I want to do so with care in the near future. The difficulty is that white officers who tried to describe the singing of black soldiers seemed to be at a loss for accurate terminology because what they heard was not anything like the singing of white soldiers, and black soldiers were not likely to write about their experience whether singing or otherwise.

Where and When

There is evidence that soldiers in both armies sang hymns not only in organized camp church services, prayer meeting, and in personal devotion, but also in recreational and leisure-time settings, sometimes mixed in with secular songs. They even sang hymns as they marched.

In letters to father and sister written by Minnesota soldiers William and Thomas Christie one of them mentions that they were hungry for copies of any kind of music "Sacred, or mirthful, for our singing is about equally divided between the two, with a specimen of Sentimental thrown in once in a while." (Smith, 2011, p. 106) In another letter Thomas writes that while "writing to you my Dear Sister," his bunk mate O'Hara was "turning over the leaves of a music book, and singing sacred hymns to well known tunes. . . ." (Smith, 2011, p. 111) A Confederate soldier reported that the great variety of songs he and his fellow soldiers sang included "patriotic songs, romantic and love songs, sarcastic comic and wars songs, pirates’ glees, plantation melodies, lullabies, good old  hymn tunes, anthems, Sunday school songs, and everything but vulgar and obscene songs—these were scarcely every heard, and were nowhere in the army well received or encouraged.” (Able, 2000, p. 179) And in another case a Union soldier said that he and his fellow soldiers sang the hymn "There is a happy land" while on the march. (Wiley, 1951, p. 167) I have included this hymn in the Reenactor's Hymn and Tune Book. The tune HAPPY LAND to which this hymn was often sung is indeed a good tune for marching.

21st century Americans assume a separation between the sacred and the secular where hymns are sung only in church or perhaps privately, but there was no such separation in the mid-19th century. Hymns where sung any time in a variety of settings by both the religious and irreligious. They were simply a part of the cultural fabric.

Leading and Accompanying

The fashionable accompanying instrument for church hymn singing in 1861 was the organ. Except for Episcopalians (Anglicans) the use of organ in church was a long-fought battle and a fascinating story in itself. But by then the organ was well established, especially in large churches in coastal cities. Some churches, especially in rural setting could not afford an organ and a few churches were still suspicious of anything but unaccompanied singing.

If an organ was available in a commandeered church building and if a skilled player was available, it was often used to accompany singing. For example, a private in the First Minnesota Regiment recorded in his diary that he went to services conducted by the chaplain in the Presbyterian Church of Charlestown, Maryland, a rebel building taken over for soldier use. "‘The fine organ discoursed sweet music,’ he wrote. ‘The church is a fine brick building with gallery…. The Min. 1st run the whole institution, organ and all.'" (Wiley, 1851, p. 271)

We get a clue to the process of leading a hymn when no organ was available in a scene from a Presbyterian church service in Chattanooga in August of 1863. On this given Sunday the organist was absent; "'. . . and I will be thankful,' [said] the minister, 'if some one in the congregation will raise the tune.'--The tune was raised; the whole congregation joined in singing, as in days gone by; the sacred notes rose in humble melody from the house of God, swelling their holy tribute to His glory." To "raise the tune," an old fashioned practice for this 1863 congregation, meant that a designated person led out with the first few words or the first line at a singable pitch, with the congregation joining in. In an example that gives some indication of a failure of leadership, partly in establishing a singable pitch in "raising the tune," an Ohio soldier tells of stumbling on a service at the Cayuga Baptist Church in Mississippi during the Vicksburg siege. "The audience started up a hymn, but no go. Some too high and others too fast, and so they failed. But they succeeded at last. We had a very pleasant meeting notwithstanding.” (Wiley, 1951, p. 271)

Another distinct possibility for pitching and leading a tune was the use of "lining out" which was old fashioned in most quarters and often decried by church music reformers of the mid-19 century. The reformers notwithstanding, lining out was still in use, especially among Baptists and Methodists. In lining out the leader sings phrases of the tune or speaks on a single pitch each line of the hymn with the congregation singing the hymn a phrase at a time in response. The YouTube video of modern Primitive Baptists singing "O Sing to me of heaven," one of the hymns sung by soldiers and included here, may illustrate how lining out sounded. The use of lining out is mentioned a number of times by soldiers and chaplains. An article in The New York Times describes a scene where the well-known pastor of the Plymouth Church of Brooklyn, Ward Beecher, presided and where lining out was used.

At the roll of the drums the regiment, nine hundred stalwart men, was formed in a hollow square . . . . At the desk sat Mr. Beecher, by his side Sat Prof. Raymond. . . . The benches were filled with ladies -- mothers, wives, sweethearts and sisters of the soldiers. The reporters, with fear and trembling, sat upon and before the mass of slivers . . ., and the drums ceased to roll. Mr. Beecher -- All ready, Colonel? Col. Cross -- All ready, Sir. Mr. Beecher -- Prof. Raymond will line out to you, my friends, the glorious words of The Army Hymn by Prof. Holmes and we will all sing it, line by line, to the tune of "Old Hundred." Whereupon Prof. Raymond, in a clear, loud voice, having first read, with all his power of elocution, the entire hymn, lined it out a la Baptist Deacon, and the whole regiment, led by their officers, sang with wonderful effect. . . .  (New York Times, June 24, 1861)

In another setting a Confederate chaplain mentions the lining out of a hymn ("while lining a hymn") in such a way to make it sound quite normal, an everyday practice. (Bennett, 1877, p. 20). My sense is that lining out was considered unusual in the New York service where Mr. Raymond "lined it out a la Baptist Deacon," and may have been used because "The Army Hymn" was not available to the participants in written form.

Page 1 2 3



A charge to keep I have
All hail the power of Jesus' name
Am I a soldier of the cross
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
Come thou fount of every blessing
Come we that love the Lord
Gently Lord O gently lead us
Guide me O thou great Jehovah
How firm a foundation
I would not live always
I'm a pilgrim and I'm a stranger
Jesus lover of my soul
Just as I am without one plea
Mid scenes of confusion
My days are gliding swiftly by
Nearer my God to thee
O happy day that fixed my choice
O sing to me of heaven
Rock of ages cleft for me
Say brothers will you meet us
There is a happy land
There is a fountain filled with blood
There is land of pure delight
When I can read my title clear
When I survey the wondrous cross
Why should we start and fear to die