About the Civil War Ballads

About the Civil War Ballads

The Civil War and Slavery Collection includes more than 700 ballads issued during the war. Ballads had long been used to circulate accounts of maritime disasters, earthquakes, fires, executions and other events of public interest. According to E.L. Rudolph, author of Confederate Broadside Verse, in 1861 printers both north and south exploited the street ballad to the utmost as a means of propaganda and profit. Ballads were written and sung by Confederate and Union soldiers, their families, civilians, slaves and freemen. They were sung for the sheer joy of making music as well as a way to combat homesickness, to lift tortured spirits, and to relieve boredom and distract weariness.

Author and librarian Edwin Wolf (American Song Sheets) notes that by 1850, a fad in American life produced a shower of song sheets, slip ballads, and poetical broadsides. Songs of topical interest began to appear with greater frequency. Their popularity peaked during the Civil War and inspired poetry, verse and doggerel. The war stimulated an already active music industry and sheets flowed from the presses. Northern publishers A.W. Auner and J.H. Johnson, of Philadelphia, J. Andrews, his successor H. De Marsan, Charles Magnus and J. Wrigley of New York, and H. Partridge, of Boston took the lead in the growing business of ballad publishing and distribution.

Ballads were just as important in the Confederate States even though most were issued without any imprint and without the benefit of the commercial appeals made by Gay, Johnson, Magnus and Wrigley. The Confederacy simply did not have the printing houses, the paper or the publishers the Union had. Rebel soldiers more often relied on memory, handwritten copes of the words, or broadside song sheets. A list of Confederate song publications does not reveal the relative popularity of the tunes.

Although an exact number does not exist, Irwin Silber has allegedly gone through some 10,000 songs through library and personal manuscript collections, aged songster, old newspapers, folk song collections, and regimental histories. The ballads presented here represent a small collection of published material and provide but a fraction of the number of songs that were sung by Americans in the Civil War.

“Songs, however imperfect, either as literature or popular poetry, are the most genuine expression of feelings and thoughts which have filled…hearts and minds, and have a genuineness which inform the rude or inadequate words, and are a most important illustration of the history of that tremendous conflict.” Former editor of the Providence Journal and Civil War veteran Alfred M. Williams.

Bibliography

Civil War Ballads Gallery

Complete List of Ballads in Collection

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