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

Welcome

Civil War soldiers were singers, and they sang a wide variety of songs. You don't have to read very far in soldiers letters or even The New York Times to discover that Christian hymns had a significant presence in the repertoire of what soldiers sang. But hymns and hymn singing by soldiers are seldom mentioned in discussions of soldier's music. Many soldiers carried hymn collections specifically assembled for and distributed to Civil War soldiers for devotional use or in a wide-spread evangelistic effort seen in both armies. This website is devoted to the cataloging of these hymn collections and a general discussion of hymn singing by Civil War soldiers.

On This Page

An introduction to the importance of religion in the Northern and Southern Armies and hymn singing among the soldiers both in church and as pastime.

Soldier's Hymn Collections

A Catalog of hymn collections compiled specifically for soldier's in both armies by various agencies.

Reenactor's Hymn & Tune Book

26 hymns selected on the basis of popularity among soldiers of both armies. Download and print each hymn with musical scores of suggested tunes

Your Comments

I lauched this site in May, 2012. Over the next few months I hope to add more period anecdotes related to both the hymn collections and the hymn and tune book. As a long term project I want to add sound recordings of the selected hymn tunes in the Reenactor's Hymn and Tune Book as well as a tutorial on how to choose your own hymns and tunes.

Your comments about this site would be appreciated. You'll find my contact information on the About the Author page.

© 2012 Mark D. Rhoads

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Page 3: Hymns in the Lives of Civil War Soldiers

That the Christian is a sojourner on earth looking ultimately toward a heavenly home is spoken of in this popular hymn

I’m a pilgrim, and I’m a stranger,
I can tarry, I can tarry but a night.
Do not detain me, for I am going
To where the fountains are ever flowing.

Chorus
I’m a pilgrim, and I’m a stranger,
I can tarry, I can tarry but a night.

There’s the city to which I journey;
My Redeemer, My Redeemer is its light!
There is no sorrow, nor any sighing,
Nor any sin there, nor any dying!
(“I’m a Pilgrim”)
 
or in this text adapted to the tune of the wildly popular song, “Home, Sweet Home:”
 
While here in the valley of conflict we stay,
O give us submission, and strength as the day;
Soon, free from afflictions, to Thee we shall come,
For aye dwell with Thee in that glorious home.

We wait, blessed Lord, in Thy beauties to shine,
To see Thee in glory --- the glory divine;
With all Thy redeemed, from the earth, from the tomb,
To join in Thy praise, blessed Saviour, at home.
(“’Mid scenes of confusion and creature complaints”)
 
And finally, two “sojourner” hymns stand out as potentially comforting to soldiers facing the prospect of death in battle:
 
My days are gliding swiftly by;
And I, a pilgrim stranger,
Would not detain them as they fly,
Those hours of toil and danger.
 
Refrain
For, oh! we stand on Jordan’s strand;
Our friends are passing over;
And, just before, the shining shore
We may almost discover.
 
We’ll gird our loins, my brethren dear,
Our distant home discerning:
Our waiting Lord has left us word,
Let ev’ry lamp be burning.
 
Should coming days be cold and dark,
We need not cease our singing:
That perfect rest naught can molest,
Where golden harps are ringing.
 
Let sorrow’s rudest tempest blow,
Each cord on earth to sever:
Our King says, “Come,” and there’s our home,
Forever, oh! forever.
(“My days are gliding swiftly by”)
 
and this hymn written by Thomas Hastings:
 
Gently Lord, O gently lead us,
Through this lonely vale of tears,
Through the changes thou'st decreed us,
Till our last great change appears.

When temptation’s darts assail us,
When in devious paths we stray,
Let Thy goodness never fail us,
Lead us in Thy perfect way.
 
In the hour of pain and anguish,
In the hour when death draws near,
Suffer not our hearts to languish,
Suffer not our souls to fear;

When this mortal life is ended,
Bid us in Thine arms to rest,
Till, by angel bands attended,
We awake among the blest.
 (“Gently Lord O gently lead us”)
 
One hymn, “O sing to me of heaven” contains in one place the elements of the Good Death such as the singers consciousness of his fate and a willingness to accept it (“O, sing to me of heav'n,/When I am called to die”); that he had shown signs of belief in God and his salvation (When the last moment comes,/O, watch my dying face,/And catch the bright, seraphic gleam/Which on each feature plays.”); and the deathbed scene that was so important to mid-19th century Americans but was often not possible as men were sometimes killed instantly in battle (Then round my senseless clay/Assemble those I love,/And sing of heav'n, delightful heav'n,/My glorious home above).
 
Descriptions of deathbed scenes often mirror bereavement letters in their inclusion of elements of “the Good Death” and often included the singing or reciting of hymns that specifically reflect essential Christian tenets and support deathbed rituals. Perhaps this is because, as Rev. A. E. Dickenson suggested, hymns were “as familiar as household words” to the these American soldiers. Southern chaplain William Bennett, for example, tells of a letter from a woman serving in the hospital at Culpeper Courthouse who had lost four patients. She pointed out that three of them “died rejoicing in Jesus.” She said that “They were intelligent, noble, godly young men.” One of them said to her as he was dying, “’Sing me a hymn,’” so she sang “’Jesus, lover of my soul’” after which he remarked, “’Where else but in Jesus can a poor sinner trust?'” He looked up and said as he was passing away, “'Heaven is so sweet to me;'” and “to the presence of Jesus he went.” Another soldier from South Carolina “seemed very happy, and sung with great delight, 'Happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away.'” She relates that he “was resigned, and even rejoiced at the near prospect of death” and sang at the end “'How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord.' She reported that “his end was peace.” (Bennett 1877, p. 60)

Hymns served as a compendium of Christian doctrine in support of a “prevailing Christian narrative” that was generally accepted in the era of the Civil War and that profoundly affected pubic and private morals. The compact, salient Christian doctrine regarding salvation and heaven contained in them came to mind first in time of need. A true conception of the Civil War era must include an acknowledgement of the place and purpose of hymns within the larger context of prevailing religious belief and practice. Without singing in general and hymn singing in particular, a gap exists in a full picture of soldiers’ lives.

Bibliography

Bennett, William Wallace. A Narrative of the Great Revival Which Prevailed in the Southern Armies. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, 1877.
 
de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America (originally pub. 1834, 1840). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
 
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
 
Finney, Charles. The Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney. New York: Fleming H. Revell, Co., 1876

            The Golden Book of Favorite Songs. Minneapolis: Schmitt, Hall, & McCreary Co., 1946.

            
I Hear American Singing. Boston: C.C. Birchard & Co., 1917,
 
Jones, Rev. J. William. Christ in the Camp or Religion in Lee’s Army. Richmond, VA: B. F. Johnson & Co., 1887.
 
Mathes, Silas H.H. Letters to Hester Ann Rogers. Bedford, IN: Lawrence County Museum of History, forthcoming.
 
Moss, Rev. Lemuel. Annals of the United States Christian Commission. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1868.
 
           The New York Times, 1860-1865.
 
Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, eds., Religion and the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
 
Rhodes, James Ford. A History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the Final Restoration of Home Rule at the South in 1877, Vol. V, 1864-1864. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1906.
 
Rose, Ann C. Victorian America and the Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Smith, Rev. Edward P. Incidents of the United States Christian Commission. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott & Co., 1869.
 
Smith, Hampton, ed. Brother of Mine: The Civil War Letters of Thomas and William Christie. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 2011.
 
           The Soldiers’ Hymn Book with Tunes. Boston: Young Men's Christian Association (printed by The American Tract Association, N.Y), 1863.
 
Read, Thomas Buchanan, The Soldiers’ Friend. Philadelphia: The United States Sanitary Commission, 1865.
 
Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Billy Yank. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1952.
 
Woodworth, Steven E. While God is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

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