Christian McWhirter: Did They Get It Right?: Civil War Music in Popular Film

We welcome a guest post today from Christian McWhirter, author of Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. In this post, he discusses the music presented in popular films about the Civil War.

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One question I am frequently asked is: “Did a particular Civil War movie or TV show get the music right?” Surprisingly, my answer is usually, “yes.” I think, because Hollywood is typically more concerned with profit than product, most people assume historical shortcuts are the norm. I generally agree with this sentiment, but producers, directors, and screenwriters usually do a pretty good job of accurately incorporating Civil War music.

The film most frequently under scrutiny is Ken Burns’s PBS documentary, The Civil War. Eager to find flaws in such a highly regarded film, people tend to appear a little voracious when they ask me about it. Unfortunately, I have to tell them Burns’s song selections and the way they are presented are, for the most part, in line with the historical evidence. He hits all the highlights: “Dixie,” “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Marching through Georgia,” “All Quiet along the Potomac, Tonight,” and even the popular minstrel tune “Kingdom Coming.”

The attention he gives to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is somewhat problematic because I would argue the song was not nearly as popular as its progenitor, “John Brown’s Body,” but I am admittedly in the minority on this matter. The tidbit I can impart is that the documentary’s ubiquitous theme, “Ashokan Farewell,” is not a Civil War tune. It was written by Jay Unger, who plays fiddle on the soundtrack, and Burns liked it so much that he made it the film’s central piece. This, however, is not a criticism. Burns has never denied the piece’s twentieth-century origin.

Gettysburg and Glory also hold up well. Neither of them incorporate large amounts of period music (other than bugle calls and drum rolls) but, when they do use historical music, they mostly do it well. Both of the Confederacy’s major anthems are clearly audible in Gettysburg. “Dixie” is included as part of the soundtrack and “The Bonnie Blue Flag” is played by a Confederate band as Robert E. Lee makes his way to the eponymous battlefield. Both are good choices, as both were extremely popular among the soldiers and both would have been played on the march and in battle.

More critical to the narrative is “Kathleen Mavourneen.” In an episode taken directly from the film’s source material, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Confederate General Lewis Armistead reflects on the shared humanity of Northerners and Southerners after hearing the song. He recalls how he sang it with his good friend, Union General Winfield Scott Hancock, before the two separated to fight for different sides. The piece is a good choice not only for its plaintive melody but because it was well-known before and during the war—thus making it plausible that Armistead could sing it before Fort Sumter but still hear it in camp two years later.

Glory is noteworthy as one of the few popular representations of the war to include African American music. The Civil War had a tremendous impact on black music but the songs created and sung by African Americans are rarely included in books and films. Although Burns makes use of black spirituals, even he does not incorporate those that were actually most popular among slaves, freedpeople, and USCTs. Neither does Glory, but the movie captures two of the central traits of mid-nineteenth-century black music, its communal nature and its spontaneity. The night before the attack on Fort Wagner, members of the 54th Massachusetts gather for what contemporary observers would have called a “shout.”

The result is a loose performance with strong religious elements in which a lone singer or speaker improvises each verse but the whole group sings the chorus. The soldiers use this as a form of prayer and a way to communicate their shared ideals as they brace themselves for the next day’s combat. The film could have achieved the same narrative goals in a variety of ways but the “shout” used in the film was both effective and accurate.

Two other musical incidents in Glory merit attention. Another accurate use of music comes in an earlier scene when a group of freed African American schoolchildren sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” for some Union officers. This performance was likely drawn from Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment, a major source for the screenplay, in which a group of freedpeople perform the same song for a white audience to celebrate their emancipation.

The film’s other usage of Civil War music is a little more confusing. While on the march, the 54th Massachusetts passes a Union military band playing the Confederate anthem, “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” Such a performance was not impossible—there was a somewhat popular Northern version of the song—but it is an odd choice since “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “John Brown’s Body,” or even “The Star Spangled Banner” would have been much more historically and thematically appropriate.

I could go on, but these are the three films I’m most often asked about. It seems improbable that The Civil War, Gettysburg, and Glory would each receive high grades for their usage of Civil War music but perhaps this success is due to the preeminent place this music still holds in our culture. Few Americans—indeed, few people anywhere—would be unable to identify the war’s most enduring songs, “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Perhaps this familiarity lends itself to accurate re-creation, so Hollywood and we the viewers all benefit.

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. Learn more and stay connected through the book’s Facebook page.