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 song repertoire of these men. Many soldiers carried hymn collections specifically assembled for and distributed to them 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 article about the place of hymns in the lives of Civil War soldiers and in the boarder context of American culture.
Soldiers' Hymn Collections
A catalog of hymn collections compiled specifically for soldier's in both armies
by various agencies.
Civil War 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
I would appreciate your comments about this site. You'll find my contact information on the About the Author page.
© 2012 Mark D. Rhoads
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Hymns in the Lives of Civil War Soldiers
After extensive perusal of Civil War soldiers’ writings Bell Irvin Wiley concluded that “The men who wore the blue, and the butternut Rebs who opposed them, more than American fighters of any period, deserve to be called singing soldiers.” Of Union soldiers he wrote that they “sang individually as they puttered about camp. They sang in duets, trios, quartets and glee clubs; and sometimes the countryside at night was made to reverberate with thousands of voices uniting in strain of some cherished melody.” (Wiley, 1952, p. 157-159)
Many of the songs soldiers in both armies sang were Christian hymns. Reports of hymn singing in religious services or private Christian devotion is to be expected, and there are many, but reports of hymn singing as recreational pastime are laced throughout soldiers’ diaries, regimental histories and other post-war reports, even in period newspapers like The New York Times or The Richmond Daily Dispatch. In letters home, for example, 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) The Christies’ cite many hymns by name in their letters. A reporter following the New-Hampshire Third Regiment observed that the men amused themselves on board the streamer Atlantic with the singing of hymns. "The number of hymns they know is wonderful--all Methodist. . . . . They have good voices, and make music enough at night to set off some of their duty of the day." (The New York Times, October 21, 1861)
Religion in America
How is it that Christian hymns were a significant part of the song repertoire of Civil War soldiers? To begin it is important to understand Christian faith and practice in antebellum culture. Significant study of the place and influence of religion in the American Civil War began with the 1998 book Religion and the American Civil War. Since then, authors such as Drew Gilpin Faust and Steven Woodworth have expanded our understanding of this most important and pervasive aspect of mid-19th century life in America.
One thing is clear: antebellum culture was heavily influenced by Protestant Christianity, an influence still in effect from America’s founding generation which “brought with them into the New World,” as Alexis de Tocqueville (1994) suggests, “a form of Christianity which I cannot better describe than by styling it as a democratic and republican religion.” Writing in the 1830s, de Tocqueville says that “there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America;” (p. 304) He recognized that while many sects existed, they fell under “the great unity of Christianity,” and that all sects “preached the same moral law in the name of the same God.” He concludes that this moral law directed “the customs of the community,” (p. 303) and “by regulating the domestic life, [this moral law] regulates the state.” (p. 304)
In the years leading up to the Civil War Protestant Christianity had taken on a form remade from the old clothe of Puritanism by the evangelical ferment of the Second Great Awakening that swept the nation in the first decades of the 19th century. By mid century some of the fervor and the purity of Protestant faith had been watered down. Many questions about their parents’ faith had arisen in the minds of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War and some had abandoned Christianity or had a least grown cold toward it. But in spite of this drift these young men and their leaders had been "brought up in a culture where family, church, and school reinforced Christian lessons." (Rose, 1992, p. 38) And although adherence varied, the tenets of Protestant Christianity permeated society. These tenets, taken from the Bible which “still served as an essential point of reference for understanding their world,” (Rose, 1992, p. 17) were the standard from which much of societal behavior was derived and by which it was measured.
In 1857 a significant movement began that would have a strong impact on the religious disposition of Americans. Corresponding to the financial panic of that year, what became known as the Prayer Meeting Revival or the Businessmen's Revival began in New York and spread to every part of the country and across all major Protestant denominations. Charles Finney, the most noted antebellum evangelist declared that
This winter of 1857-58 will be remembered as the time when a great revival prevailed throughout all the Northern states. It swept over the land with such power, that for a time it was estimated that not less than fifty thousand conversions occurred in a single week. (Finney, 1876, p. 442)
Revival, in fact, spread to the South as well where thousands joined churches (Woodworth, 2001, p. 25). Though it peaked in 1858, the renewal of faith and the emphasis on prayer meetings, evangelism, and cooperation between denominations set the stage for widespread Christian influence and revival in both armies during he war.
The war brought a soldier’s belief and behavior into clear focus. The presence of unrelenting death and terror had a way of forcing a stand on core issues of Christian faith. A Union chaplain observed that “one campaign is an ordinary life-time. In such circumstances character, good or bad, matures with wonderful rapidity.” He summed up the state of the Union army through the lens of Christian faith by saying that
. . . strange contrasts are seen in the army, of gaming and psalm-singing, of prevailing sin and abounding grace, of prayer and profaneness,— such profaneness as we never hear at home, such prayer as the churches know nothing of. In the army there is such faithful, fearless piety, as we can scarcely find in the world beside. The truth is, virtue there has its hot-bed as well as vice. (Moss 1868, p. 201)
Some, like Henry Mathes, chose not to question their faith and commitment in the soldier’s world that offered freedom and temptation to deviate. In a letter to his friend Annie, Mathes says that the preacher that day had preached from “first Timothy 4th chapter and 8th verse” and “encouraged us to live a life of godliness, although we were soldiers. For my part I am determined to do nothing while I am gone that I would not do at home.” (Mathes, Camp Morton, No. 3, Indianapolis, Indiana April 28, 1861) Those who had grown cold toward or chose to rebel against Christian tenets did so with a knowledge of deviance. This is seen in the story of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., retold by Drew Gilpin Faust. As Holmes lay severely wounded at Balls Bluff, he wondered if his religious skepticism would
put him “en route for Hell.” A “deathbed recantation,” he believed, would be “but cowardly giving way to fear.” With willful profanity he declared, “I’ll be G-d’d if know were I’m going.”
Faust suggests that “Holmes’s worried acknowledgment of his failure to conform to the expected belief and behavior ironically affirms the cultural power of the prevailing Christian narrative.” (Faust, 2008, p. 24) Both Mathes and Holmes made choices in light of well-understood Christian tenets.
Hymns in American Life
It is in this context that hymns and hymn singing played an important role. Remembering the tenets of faith through the singing of hymns has been a pillar of Christianity from the time of the apostles, as those who followed Christ were instructed in Scripture to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16 KJV) Hymn singing as practiced in mid-19th century America stemmed from the Protestant Reformation and was naturally and firmly planted in America from its founding. Consequently, hymns were omnipresent in the lives of the young men who would become soldiers, whether they took a serious interest in religion or not. The Reverend A. E. Dickenson went so fare as to suggest that the hymns in the Confederate soldiers’ hymnal Hymns for the Camp would be “as familiar as household words everywhere.” (The Richmond Daily Dispatch, September 27, 1861) Hymn singing was a major part of the ubiquitous campmeeting revivals popular in all quarters of America; hymns were included in public school music books; hymns were typically the largest, usually the only genre in the instruction books used in singing school, a popular pastime in American culture dating from the mid-18th century; hymn books were present in the home as individuals owned their own hymn books and took them to church. In fact hymns as a staple in the song repertory of Americans persisted well into the World War I era where "O God our help in ages past" sits next to "Old Black Joe" in the index of the popular sing-along book I Hear American Singing (1917); and even as late as the 1940s "Holy, Holy, Holy" is just above "Home, Sweet Home" in the index of The Golden Book of Favorite Songs (1946).
The fact that soldiers, from the indifferent to the most ardent believer, sang hymns while marching, or back to back with minstrel songs, helps explain the place and presence of hymns in American culture. And it was this natural practice of hymn singing that prompted Christian organizations to publish small collections of hymns for soldiers. To date I have identified nineteen soldiers’ hymn collections published for the Union army and twelve published for the Confederate army. While the United States Sanitary Commission broadly commended the large selection of hymns in their practical The Soldier’s Friend “to the soldier with the hope that they may be the means of elevating the thoughts and cheering his heart amid the conflicts and privations to which he exposed,” (Read, 1865, preface), Christians denominations, North and South, and Northern aid organizations like the YMCA and the United States Christian Commission published and distributed thousands of small collections of hymns to assist in the unprecedented cooperative evangelistic effort that resulted in widespread Christian revival in both armies. Sometimes the purpose of pondering the words of the hymns is stated in specific evangelistic terms. The preface to The Soldiers’ Hymn Book with Tunes (1863) suggests that in times of peril “you need. . .a greater friend,” one that is “always near.” “Such a friend is Jesus.” After listing the benefits the soldier is asked “Could you ask for more? Then believe on Christ, and accept him, and all these things are yours.” Christian workers, called “colporteurs” in some circles, distributed tracts and other Christian literature along with these hymn collections.
The drift from personal faith as it played out in mid-19th century life was evident to Christian pastors and lay leaders. The need was clear as was the opportunity, sharpened by death and the despair of war, to rebuild fervor and personal commitment to faith in Christ among soldiers in both armies; not that these soldiers were unaware of the Gospel, but that they needed to be “reminded of their upbringing.” (Rhodes 1906, p. 260) There was no better aid in this effort than the singing of hymns that could remind the believer of his faith and the hope of heaven, promote Christian behavior, prompt courage in hard times, and give warning to the unbeliever.
Hymns and the Prevailing Christian Narrative
In his comprehensive and well documented book While God is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers, Steven Woodworth points out that the core of Protestant religious thought as seen in the writings of Civil War soldiers centered on four tenets derived from Scripture: 1) that God is sovereign, 2) that there is a life to come, 3) that Christ is the way of salvation, and 4) that the Bible says something about the way a Christian should live. (Woodworth, 2001) It is hard for 21st century Americans to fully comprehend the influence of these tenets on the lives of mid-19th century Americans, perhaps projecting modern notions that religious faith is peripheral. Much of the study so far has focused on a tangled web of belief that both justified and resisted slavery and was used to prop up the fury on both sides of the conflict. The link between God and nation can be seen, for instance, in the inscription on the cover of the Union hymn collection Hymn Book for the Army and Navy:
For right is right, since God is God;
And right the day must win;
To doubt would be disloyalty,
To falter would be sin.
(Frederick William Faber, 1849)
But there is also strong evidence that the four tenets identified by Woodworth formed a foundation that greatly influenced individual belief and behavior, a “prevailing Christian narrative” (Faust, 2008, p. 24) that prompted, as I’ve already pointed out, a choice to either follow or turn away.
The power of the prevailing Christian narrative is clearly seen in letters to the bereaved upon the death of a soldier: The soldier was in God's hands—it was his time, he was prepared for heaven, and his life proved it. There is striking similarity here to the tenets of Christianity outlined by Woodworth. Drew Gilpin Faust has carefully and thoroughly studied these letters and concludes that
Letters describing soldiers’ last moments on Earth are so similar, it is as if their authors had a checklist in mind. In fact, letter writers understood the elements of the Good Death so explicitly that they could anticipate the information the bereaved would have sought had they been present at the hour of death:  the deceased had been conscious of his fate,  had demonstrated willingness to accept it,  had shown signs of belief in God and in his own salvation, and  had left messages and instructive exhortations for those who should have been at his side. Each of these details was a kind of shorthand, conveying to the reader at home a broader set of implications about the dying man’s spiritual state and embodying the assumptions most Americans shared about life and death. (Faust, p. 17)
Faust illustrates aspects of the prevailing Christian narrative as seen in the “Good Death” with a typical letter, sent by Frank Batchelor to his wife informing her of her brother George’s death. Faust states that Batchelor
. . . worked hard to transform the deceased into a plausible candidate for salvation. Batchelor admitted that George ‘did not belong to the visible body of Christ’s Church,’ but cited his ‘charity,’ ‘his strong belief in the Bible,’ and his rejection of the sins of envy hatred and malice’ to offer his wife hope for her brother’s fate. Batchelor confirmed himself ‘satisfied’ that George was ‘a man of prayer’ and had no doubt at last ‘found the Savior precious to his sole’ before he died. ‘This being so,’ Batchelor happily concluded, his wife could comfort herself with the knowledge she would meet her brother again ‘in the green fields of Eden. (Faust, 2008, p. 23)
The hymns soldiers sang supported every aspect of the tenets of Christianity as outlined by Woodworth and seen in the related elements of the “Good Death.”
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