Two Civil-War Tunes Go Marching On

The United States was at war with itself 150 years ago

The United States was at war with itself 150 years ago.

As the US commemorates the somber landmarks of the Civil War, its citizens might want to give some thought, too, to the music it occasioned: the music the fighting men marched to, or that which simply portioned off their daily routine.

John Brown’s Body comes to mind at once of course. Here is a link to Pete Seegar’s classic version. And here is a link to a list of songs associated with Seegar.

The tune might already have been decades old when the war began. It was used in the tents of revival meetings under the title: “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us”. Well, that was the polite version. It has also been transcribed as “Say, Bummers, Will You Meet Us”!

This became the song whose words would seem familiar to us when it was sung early in the war by soldiers of a Union regiment that happened to have a “John Brown” in their midst, and the allusions were jokily to him, with the idea that he was a lazy fellow who might as well be a-mouldering in the grave for all the good he was doing. Of course at the same time they were referring to the famous John Brown, the abolitionist who did a good deal to bring the war about with his raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.

Eventually the following words came to be regarded as the words to the song, though early on there were many variations:

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave (3X)

His soul is marching on….


Glory, Glory Hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah!

Glory, glory hallelujah! His soul is marching on.

He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord (3x)

His soul is marching on….

There are several further verses, but we need to do our own expository marching on.

Other Lyrics, Other Purposes

This song in time came to the attention of Julia Ward Howe. She knew nothing of the practical joke being played on the militia member named John Brown, so she naturally took the words as an unambiguous and somber reference to the John Brown. She had been of ardent abolitionist sentiment for many years, ardent enough to have seen Brown not as a lunatic (a widespread opinion then and now, north as well as south) but as a martyr to the holy cause.

It was Howe who turned the words of that song into the words of another, the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword,

His truth is marching on….


Glory, Glory Hallelujah! Glory Glory Hallelujah!

Glory, Glory hallelujah, His truth is marching on….

Decades later, the Industrial Workers of the World, also known shortly as the IWW or more dismissively as the Wobblies, a revolutionary labor organization, adopted the same tune, adapted it to new lyrics and purposes, creating “Solidarity Forever.” Here is a sample lyric:

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,

But without our brain and muscles not a single wheel will turn.

We can break their haughty power; gain our freedom when we learn

That the Union makes us strong.

Solidarity Forever, [3X]

For the union makes us strong.

These words were the work of Ralph Hosea Chaplin, a member of the strike committee during an especially bloody strike of West Virginia’s coal miners in 1912-13.

Back to the Civil War

From the cause of labor unions back let’s go to the cause of the USA as a Union. I want to say something about another of the songs that arose out of the Civil War, and out of the Union’s side of that war, one that is still very much with us. I mean … Taps. This is a simple yet haunting bugle call, used also by obvious analogy, at military funerals.

The real facts behind it are straightforward, and a brief pamphlet on the subject, Twenty-Four Notes that Tap Deep Emotions, is readily available. Taps was created during the Peninsular Campaign of the Civil War, in the late spring and early summer of 1862. This was some of the toughest fighting of the war. The Union forces under McClellan had inched their way from Yorktown to the gates of Richmond before Davis made the inspired move of putting Robert E. Lee in charge of the army that stood in McClellan’s way. Lee immediately took the offensive, within days driving the Army of the Potomac back to its boats.

During that period, one of the generals under McClellan (Brig. Gen’l Daniel Butterfield) decided that his men could use a “lights out” signal, so he asked his bugler to work up a call. That bugler was Oliver W. Norton. He apparently devised the now-famous melody by revising an older call, one with the odd name of Scott Tattoo. Taps was soon adopted by the rest of the army and, indeed, quickly crossed the lines as Confederate buglers picked up on it. The funereal use came later.

The Legend

These plain facts are insufficiently colorful so they are often embellished by a legend. It is said that a Union captain named Ellicombe discovered his son dying on the field at the end of a day of battle. He wasn’t aware his son had even enlisted. What was more shocking — his son was wearing the grey uniform of the Confederacy.

The dying child was musically gifted (he had left his family shortly before the war broke out to study music in Richmond) and there was one final composition in his uniform pocket as he passed away. That was Taps.

Okay, that isn’t true. There isn’t even any record of the existence of a Captain Ellicombe. But it’s a fine story, often tripped out in a variety of further sentimental detail, and it does no harm so long as history and mythology are kept distinct.

Irrelevant Ending

Finally, let us end with something upbeat and fun, but with something that proceeds naturally from the quite grave subject matter we have reviewed. That can only be: the Andrews Sisters, and “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” (1941). This up-tempo look at military music first shows up in the Abbott and Costello movie, Buck Privates.


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