Concerning Civil War-era music, familiarity breeds memory.
Civil War buffs can sing “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “We’ll Rally Round the Flag” with ease because such tunes are part of Civil War lore.
But few people — even renowned historians — know the tunes and words of “Fort Washington” or “The Cumberland’s Crew” or “The Last Charge at Fredericksburg.” These three songs and thousands of others appeared during the war and all but vanished after Appomattox Court House.
Fortunately, Civil War songs unheard since the late 1860s are reaching modern ears, thanks to the dedicated research of folk musician and history buff Julia Lane. She and her husband, Fred Gosbee, live in Bristol. They perform folk music as the duo Castlebay, with Julia playing the Celtic harp and Fred the guitar and fiddle.
Julia grew up in a home where folk music was played. “I realized as I got older [that] these songs contained stories,” she said. “Around age 10, I was aware these stories were from people’s lives. Fred learned songs from his grandfather who worked in the logging camps in the woods.”
Although Americans associate folk music either with the Appalachians or the folk genre flowering in the 1950s and 1960s, New England has its own music, with its traditions based in the British Isles and Ireland. Julia has extensively researched the historical roots of New England folk music.
She is also interested in the music associated with the Civil War, which generated countless songs. Many were based on the words set down by soldiers and poets; among such songs was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the words of which awakened Julia Ward Howe from her sleep at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 18, 1861.
As war-related poetry and verses appeared, musicians adapted the words to existing tunes or set them to newly composed songs. Julia researches poems and verses published in Civil War-era books, journals, and newspapers. She sometimes discovers that a reference cites the tune to which the words have been set.
If not, she will review the music popular at the time to find an appropriate vehicle for the words.
Specific battles or incidents sparked poetic license; when the ironclad CSS Virginia rammed and sank the USS Cumberland at Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “The Cumberland” to honor that frigate’s heroic crew.
Julia has found another poem, “The Cumberland’s Crew,” that was set to music no later than 1865. The author is unknown; because he wrote the poem from a crew member’s viewpoint, he may have served on the USS Cumberland during the battle.
Verse 1 of “The Cumberland’s Crew opens:
“Oh, comrades, come listen, and join in my ditty
Of a terrible battle that happened of late.
May each Union tar shed a sad tear of pity
When they think of the once gallant Cumberland’s fate.
For the eighth day of March told a terrible story:
The most of our seamen to the swells made acclaim;
Our flag it was wrapt in a mantle of glory
By the heroic deeds of the Cumberland crew.”
Taking its listeners through the Cumberland-Virginia battle, the song extolled the brave Union sailors, whose “voices on earth will never be heard more.”
Written by Civil War veteran Ames Staples of Maine, “Fort Washington” details the exploits of “a company of Coast Guards raised … from the State of Maine” and stationed “at old Fort Washington” on the Potomac River. One night, 32 men from the company raided a sutler’s shop; “Warback led the company as they crept along the wall … between Post two and three,” and “the night was dark and dreary and the sentinels couldn’t see.”
The Maine men “cleaned the sutler out” and “’twas then for our quarters we all did march again,” but a comrade betrayed them the next day to their irate captain. “A corporal from Belfast, I did not mention his name, but he’s noted as the meanest man that ever came from Maine,” Ames Staples described the Judas.
Unlike many war-related songs, “The Last Charge at Fredericksburg” was set to modern music. Pearle Crory of Portage in Aroostook County sent the ballad to folk-music researcher Fannie Hardy Eckstorm of Brewer in January 1934.
The ballad followed two soldiers: “one had blue eyes and curly hair,” and “the other was tall, dark, stern, and grave.” Harper’s Weekly published the ballad as “At Fredericksburg” in February 1863.
During the 1960s, The Grateful Dead utilized the last half of the 19-verse poem for the song “Blue Eyed Boston Boy”; the modern version has also appeared as “Two Soldiers.”
Julia particularly “connects” with the “The Last Charge at Fredericksburg.” It identifies the blue-eyed soldier as “Charlie,” age 19. Among her Maine ancestors were brothers Charles “Charley” (age 18) and Monroe Lyford (age 17), who charged with the 16th Maine Infantry during the December 1862 battle of Fredericksburg.
Charley died on the muddy fields south of the town; Monroe carried his body off the battlefield.
Julia has compiled many Civil War poems and songs from different sources. Among the titles are “Maine Battle Flags,” written by Moses Owen of Bath in 1866; “Company K,” published in the Boothbay Register in January 1877; and “The Cumberland Crew,” published by Roland Palmer Gray in his 1924 “Songs & Ballads Of The Maine Lumberjacks.”
Other poems and songs await discovery.
“It really touches people, the Civil War,” Julia said. “The songs provide a window into the emotional life of the people and connects us with them in an intimate way. My goal is to make this material accessible.”
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.