Christian McWhirter: Musical Theft in the Civil War

We welcome a guest post today from Christian McWhirter, author of Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. In the book, McWhirter shows that music was everywhere during the Civil War. With literacy still limited, music was an important vehicle for communicating ideas about the war, and it had a lasting impact in the decades that followed. In the following guest post, McWhirter explores the use of music in political campaigns throughout American history.

[This article is crossposted at]

~ ~ ~

It seems every election cycle a musician threatens a politician for using music without permission. The most famous such incident was Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of “Born in the USA” and Bruce Springsteen’s subsequent protest. More recently, Tom Petty sent a cease-and-desist-order to Michele Bachmann for using his song “American Girl,” and members of the power rock band Survivor threatened to sue Newt Gingrich for using their most popular song, “Eye of the Tiger.”

Like the often-lamented vicious political rhetoric of modern politics, the phenomenon of using popular songs for political gain is nothing new. During the Civil War, politicians, military officials, and civilians frequently appropriated and revised popular songs for their own purposes. The primary difference is that today’s legal system is robust enough for songwriters and musicians to oppose such usage. Some restrictions existed in the 1860s, but they were largely unenforceable. What’s more, the Union and the Confederacy refused to acknowledge each other’s copyright laws, thus creating the most rampant period of musical appropriation and theft in America’s history.

Almost the entire history of “Dixie” is one of unintended usage. Originally written as a minstrel ditty, it became one of the most prominent and controversial political songs of the war. Although it would eventually become the Confederacy’s unofficial anthem, one of the first people to use “Dixie” for political ends was Abraham Lincoln. A fan of minstrelsy, Lincoln liked the song and incorporated it into his 1860 presidential campaign. At the end of the war, he reclaimed “Dixie” as a national tune, hoping to shift its meaning from one of southern nationalism to one of reconciliation.

The Confederacy’s other popular patriotic anthem, “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” was also put to various political uses. Written to commemorate Mississippi’s secession, the state government immediately appropriated the tune and printed 1,000 copies. Like “Dixie,” it was played repeatedly at Confederate patriotic functions and in the armies. Before long, Union songwriters lifted the tune and wrote their own versions. The most popular of these was “The Bonnie Flag with the Stripes and Stars.” Reportedly written by a Union soldier, it converted the original’s strong endorsement of secession to one of Union and “equal rights.” Northern Democrats even mobilized their own versions as part of their 1864 presidential campaign.

Indeed, no Civil War event saw as much rampant usage and revision of pre-existing songs as the 1864 race between Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan. Both sides incorporated a huge swath of popular tunes to their respective causes. Democrats surely did not help their public image by using Confederate anthems in their literature, but other appropriations were effective, such as their versions of “We Are Coming Father Abraham, 300,000 More.” Originally written to support Lincoln’s 1862 call for 300,000 additional volunteers, Democrats twisted it into a condemnation of the President’s perceived war-mongering. One revision had 300,000 dead soldiers haunting Lincoln to remind him of the bloodshed caused by the continuation of the war.

Republicans had less need for such appropriations because many of the North’s popular patriotic songs supported the war and, to some degree, emancipation. Indeed, George Frederick Root’s “The Battle Cry of Freedom” and Henry Clay Work’s “Kingdom Coming” were frequently heard at Republican rallies. One Republican publication made heavy use of “John Brown’s Body” (but altered its lyrics to better suit the campaign in versions announcing Lincoln’s re-election) and another titled “Hurrah for Lincoln and Johnson.”

Such borrowing and revision seems underhanded or corrupt to our 21st-century sensibilities, but it was common and, to some degree, socially acceptable in the 19th century. Popular songs, once released, were essentially unfinished and open to reinterpretation. One could not republish a song—even with different lyrics—without risking a lawsuit today, but our current royalty standards did not apply back then. Music was constantly in flux and both performers and audiences could use songs for whatever purposes they chose. This was one of the primary reasons why it was such a strong cultural tool during the conflict. Current politicians may find themselves in trouble when they enter the realm of popular music, but such was not the case 150 years ago. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

~ ~ ~

Christian McWhirter is assistant editor for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and author of Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War (click to read a sample at the book page). Keep up with the author and learn more on Facebook.