The Enduring Might of Melody and Verse- Sentimental Songs of Gettysburg

Confederate commander Robert E. Lee has often been quoted as stating: “I don’t believe we can have an army without music.”  If he were to issue that statement again today, he might change it to: “I don’t think we can have a teenager without an iPod.”  Music utterly permeates our culture.  Individuals worldwide have access to the medium of music through mp3 downloads, internet streaming, and CD’s.  Music is used to express pleasure, pain, and everything in-between.  Different styles of music have told these tales throughout the decades: various varieties of pop, rock and roll, and jazz…yet even before these more modern genres the Civil War soldier used music as well.  Music gave soldiers a way to fight boredom, both in camp and on the march.  Music not only helped give orders in battle, but also sometimes assisted in rallying men.  Soldiers and civilians across both North and South expressed political opinions through music; they also took inspiration and solace in song, just as they do today.  Furthermore, song can be used to commemorate major world events.  The most famous American example of this might be our own national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the verses of which were inspired by the British attack on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.  Even so, there are other examples…and nothing seems to capture the American imagination quite like the Battle of Gettysburg.  The events surrounding the Battle of Gettysburg, fought for three days on July 1, 2, and 3 of 1863, leave a plethora of incidents to inspire song and verse.  Indeed, there will be several songs composed during the Civil War in the wake of America’s bloodiest battle, about America’s bloodiest battle.  The information and sheet music images for the following songs in this series of blog posts are drawn mostly from the Library of Congress; the information and image for the Pickett’s Charge March comes from the University of Virginia library.

The Children of the Battlefield

Children of the Battlefield

(Library of Congress)

Many are familiar with the story of Sergeant Amos Humiston, the soldier from the 154th New York who fell near the Brickyard on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.  Upon being mortally wounded, Humiston produced a small photograph…a picture of his three small children.

Humiston

Amos Humiston, 154th New York. (Library of Congress)

Humiston passed from this world into the next whilst clutching the photo, and was STILL clutching the photo days later, when his corpse was discovered.  This romantic story of a devoted father caused something of a sensation, and indeed, the photograph led to Humiston’s body being identified.  In addition, money was raised for a new orphanage in Gettysburg through the sale of copies of the picture Humiston gazed at as he died.  More money was raised through the sale of the following song…a tribute to fallen fathers during the war, and the family they left behind at home.  Also note, the death figure of 10,000 in the song is absolutely correct.  In modern times (such as in the two songs that will be at the end of this blog series) the incorrect death toll of 50,000 is often given.  50,000 men were casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg: killed, mortally wounded, wounded, missing, or captured.  Only 10,000 men actually died here.  The populace certainly knew that during the war itself, as expressed in the lyrics of The Children of the Battlefield, composed by J.G. Clark in 1864.

 

  1. Upon the field of Gettysburg

The summer sun was high,

When freedom met her haughty foe,

Beneath a northern sky;

Among the heroes of the North,

Who swelled her grand array,

And rushed like mountain eagles forth

From happy homes away.

There stood a man of humble fame,

A sire of children three,

And gazed within a little frame,

Their pictured form to see.

And blame him not, if in the strife,

He breathed a soldier’s prayer:

 

CHORUS:

O FATHER, shield the soldier’s wife,

And for his children care,

And for his children care.

 

2. Upon the field of Gettysburg

When morning shone again,

The crimson cloud of battle burst

In streams of fiery rain;

Our legions quelled the awful flood

Of shot, and steel, and shell,

While banners, marked with ball and blood,

Around them rose and fell;

And none more nobly won the name

Of Champion of the Free,

Than he who pressed the little frame

That held his children three;

And none were braver in the strife

Than he who breathed the prayer:

CHORUS

 

3. Upon the Field of Gettysburg

The full moon slowly rose,

She looked, and saw ten thousand brows

All pale in death’s repose,

And down beside a silver stream,

From other forms away,

Calm as a warrior in a dream,

Our fallen comrade lay;

His limbs were cold, his sightless eyes

Were fixed upon the three

Sweet stars that rose in mem’ry’s skies

To light him o’er death’s sea.

Then honored be the soldier’s life,

And hallowed be his prayer,

CHORUS

 

Jenny Wade:  The Heroine of Gettysburg           

Jennie Wade, Heroine of Gettysburg

(Library of Congress)

Jenny Wade was the only civilian killed at the Battle of Gettysburg; she was killed after a stray bullet passed through her body while baking bread at her sister’s house.  The following song was composed by Albert G. Anderson and Rudolph Wittig in 1864 to honor her tragic death at Gettysburg, as well as beseech a monument for the young lady.

  1. Raise high the monumental pile

Of marble pure and white!

A life which gladden’d earth erewhile

Has pass’d to realms of light.

Raise high the monumental pile

To one who hated wrong;

And tearful bards her fame the while,

Perpetuate in song.

 

CHORUS:

In the quiet churchyard sleeping

With the bravest fitly laid,

Moans the wind, through willows weeping,

O’er the grave of Jenny wade.

 

  1. When man has done some gallant deed

We yield a wild acclaim,

And booming cannon speak the meed

Bestow’d upon his name.

If death on battle-field he braved,

And served his country well,

We wrap him in the flag that waved

Above him when he fell.

CHORUS

 

  1. When to the north wind rebels threw

Their noisome traitor rag,

The courage of a woman true

Upheld our dear old flag:

Where’er that starry flag shall wave,

Mid clouds or on the plain,

Remember’d be thy hallow’d grave –

For home and country slain.

 

CHORUS

  1. Thy bright example still shall nerve

Our soldiers in the fight,

Tho’ dead, thy spirit yet shall serve

Free men defending right;

They death a nation long shall mourn,

Thy deeds embellish arts,

Thy name on breeze and billow borne,

Thy mem’ry in our hearts.

 

FINAL CHORUS:

Fare thee well, brave spirit! never

Shall thy wreath of laurel fade:

Fragrant flowers shall bloom forever

O’er the grave of Jenny Wade.

 

-Nathaniel Hess
Park Guide, Gettysburg National Military Park

 

About The Staff

Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
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One Response to The Enduring Might of Melody and Verse- Sentimental Songs of Gettysburg

  1. wildninja says:

    What a fantastic topic. This adds such depth to stories I was already familiar with.

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