Excerpt: Battle Hymns, by Christian McWhirter

[This article is crossposted at uncpresscivilwar150.com.]

Music was everywhere during the Civil War. Tunes could be heard ringing out from parlor pianos, thundering at political rallies, and setting the rhythms of military and domestic life. 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 Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War Christian McWhirter analyzes the myriad ways music influenced popular culture in the years surrounding the war and discusses its deep resonance for the North and South.

In the following excerpt, McWhirter demonstrates the power of music during the war by describing the intense controversy that arose after a particular performance by a traveling family band. (pp. 8-11):


On January 17, 1862, the Hutchinson family performed for a large crowd of Union soldiers at Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia. The concert was originally intended for the First New Jersey Regiment, but members of other outfits squeezed into the local seminary to see the show. The Hutchinsons had been performing since the 1840s and often used their music to promote evangelical reform movements, such as temperance, women’s rights, and abolitionism. As they entered the camps of the Army of the Potomac, John W. Hutchinson and his family were similarly motivated. By singing to the soldiers, they hoped not only to deter them from sinful behavior but also to influence their political ideology. The ensuing performance and the controversy it created dramatically demonstrated the power of music during the Civil War.[1]

John recalled that the beginning of the concert “went off splendidly,” and the crowd was “enthusiastic and largely sympathetic.” The family’s political activism became apparent during its musical rendition of John Greenleaf Whittier’s abolitionist poem, “We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast.” Members of the crowd turned on the singers during the following two verses:

What gives the wheat-field blades of steel?
What points the rebel cannon?
What sets the roaring rabble’s heel
On the old star-spangled pennon?

What breaks the oath
Of the men o’ the South?
What whets the knife
For the Union’s life?
Hark to the answer: SLAVERY!

Then waste no blows on lesser foes
In strife unworthy freemen.
God lifts to-day the veil and shows
The features of the demon!
O North and South
Its victims both,
Can ye not cry,
“Let slavery die!”
And union find in freedom?[2]

Whittier had written these lines in response to Army of the Potomac commander George B. McClellan’s conciliatory policies toward the Confederates—especially his refusal to interfere with slavery. The Hutchinsons understood the significance of expressing such sentiments in this setting. “Of course, we were aware that the army of the Union did not entirely consist of Abolitionists,” John later recalled; they “had yet to learn . . . that the backbone of secession must be broken by the system it was inaugurated to sustain.” He added, “It might have saved us trouble to omit [the song], but it was not a characteristic of the Hutchinsons to forbear when a message was put to their lips.”[3]

Thus, it probably did not surprise the family when a clearly audible hiss emerged from the crowd at the end of the piece. The primary culprit was Second New Jersey surgeon Lewis W. Oakley, who later reported that he had expected “national and patriotic airs” but instead heard the sounds of abolitionist “fanatics.” In response to the hissing, Major David Hatfield rose from his seat and threatened to eject anyone who further disturbed the performance. Outraged, Oakley shouted back, that Hatfield “may as well begin with me.” The major stood his ground and swore that if he could not remove Oakley, he had a regiment that would. At that point, several members of the crowd stood in support of the family, many shouting “Put him out!” In order to assert some control over the situation, Lieutenant Colonel Robert McAllister ordered everyone to sit down. The Hutchinsons then eased the tension by singing, “No Tear in Heaven” while the chaplain-at-large, James B. Merwin, helped pacify the crowd.[4]

The entire division continued to discuss the Hutchinsons’ performance well into the night. General William Birney narrowly escaped fighting a duel because he had sided with the singers and later visited them with a group of soldiers to show his support. Oakley took matters into his own hands by meeting with the commander of the brigade, General Philip Kearny. The general responded by placing both Oakley and Hatfield under arrest and ordered Chaplain Robert B. Yard, who had brought the Hutchinsons into the army, to meet with him the next morning.[5]

Kearny sided with Oakley and punished Yard by taking his keys to the local church. The general then requested a second meeting, but this time the Hutchinsons were asked to attend. He informed them that a program should have been submitted before the performance and forbade the family from holding further concerts. John pleaded that he had been given a pass by Secretary of War Simon Cameron and added that, however the officers felt about the performance, most of the soldiers enjoyed it. His patience taxed, Kearny proclaimed, “I reign supreme here,—you are abolitionists,—I think as much of a rebel as I do of an abolitionist” and dismissed them. Shortly, the Hutchinsons received official notification from Kearny forbidding them to perform for the army.[6]

That same day, the divisional commander, General William B. Franklin, ordered Hatfield to have the Hutchinsons transcribe all of their lyrics for him. When Yard arrived at Franklin’s office with the transcriptions, he was asked to indicate the objectionable song. Yard showed him the words to “We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast,” and Franklin declared, “I pronounce them incendiary . . . If these people are allowed to go on, they will demoralize the army.” After consulting with McClellan, Franklin endorsed Kearny’s order forbidding the Hutchinsons from performing and revoked their pass. He ordered them to leave the camp as soon as possible, but they received permission to stay one more day because of bad weather “if they behave themselves properly.”[7]

They did not. Instead, the Hutchinsons secretly gave two other performances during religious services the next day—finally leaving Fairfax Courthouse on January 19. John rushed back to Washington and met with Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, a longtime friend and family supporter. Chase had John transcribe the lyrics of “We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast,” and the secretary read them at a cabinet meeting later that day. In response, the cabinet unanimously endorsed Cameron’s pass, and Chase informed John that President Abraham Lincoln “expressed himself very warmly in his favor.”[8]

This encouragement from the president and cabinet helped publicize the Fairfax incident. In effect, it transformed the Hutchinson family into the standard-bearers of abolitionism and opposition to McClellan. As John recalled, the “expulsion caused a great commotion among the people of the North. All the Washington correspondents referred to it (and) a great deal of good resulted from the discussions which it provoked.” His daughter Viola added, “After it became noised about what we had been expelled from the camps . . . we were simply idolized, and so much adoration was expressed towards us that it was embarrassing.” She further reflected that many of the family’s admirers “seemed to look upon us as martyrs to the cause of freedom.”[9]

In subsequent performances, soldiers and civilians applauded or requested “We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast,” and the family was happy to oblige. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison noted that, while the Hutchinsons were singing the song at a Washington concert in February, “a few hisses were heard from some one . . . but in an instant such an overwhelming outburst of applause arose as to completely drown all manners of disapprobation.” For Garrison, such behavior demonstrated nothing less than “the conflict in this city between freedom and slavery.” Increasing demand for “We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast” led to its publication as sheet music. The effect of the incident was so great that one Union soldier later argued—with obvious exaggeration—that the Hutchinson’s expulsion from the army began the public discussion over whether or not emancipation would be one of the North’s war aims.[10]

McClellan’s treatment of the Hutchinson family and disregard from Cameron’s authority also raised doubts about the general. A congressional committee had already been formed in December to investigate McClellan, and John Hutchinson believed the Fairfax incident marked “the beginning of the end for that officer.” Indiana congressman and committee member George Washington Julian agreed, recalling that McClellan’s “order expelling the Hutchinson Family from the army . . . was conclusive evidence against him.” In February, Frederick Douglass’s periodical cited the incident as evidence of McClellan’s favoritism toward the Confederates. The next month, another abolitionist paper, the National Principia, speculated that McClellan’s actions exposed a government conspiracy to protect slaveholders. Later, Whittier joked about the incident’s effect on McClellan’s reputation. “Whatever General McClellan may do with my rhymes,” he told the Hutchinsons, “I am thankful that Congress is putting it out of his power to ‘send back’ fugitive slaves as well as singers.” After McClellan’s failed Peninsula campaign, one congressman quipped that, although McClellan could drive the Hutchinsons out of Virginia, he could not drive out the Confederates.[11]


From Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War, by Christian McWhirter. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Christian McWhirter is assistant editor for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Read his previous guest posts, “Did They Get It Right?: Civil War Music in Popular Film” and “Musical Theft in the Civil War.” Stay connected and learn more by becoming a fan of the book on Facebook.

  1. [1]McMurtry, “Lincoln and the Hutchinson Family,” 18; John Hutchinson, Book of Brothers, 10-11, 18; Crawford, America’s Musical Life, 253-55; Jordan, Singin’ Yankees, 231. The group originally comprised John, his three brothers, and one sister. By the 1860s, they had split up and started their own families, some of which continued to tour as the Hutchinson Family Singers. It was John’s family who traveled to the Army of the Potomac. For a good analysis of the Hutchinsons’ participation in antebellum reform movements, see Gac, Singing for Freedom.
  2. [2]John Hutchinson and Mann, Story of the Hutchinsons, 382; John Hutchinson, Book of Brothers, 12-13. “We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast” was a recasting of the Lutheran hymn, “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott.”
  3. [3]McMurtry, “Lincoln and the Hutchinson Family,” 19; John Hutchinson and Mann, Story of the Hutchinsons, 382, 384.
  4. [4]John Hutchinson, Book of Brothers, 14, 17; W. Myers, Study in Personality, 237-39 (n. 5); Snell, First to Last, 82; McAllister, Civil War Letters, 115-16; John Hutchinson and Mann, Story of the Hutchinsons, 385, 395; McMurtry, “Lincoln and the Hutchinson Family,” 19. Some soldiers punished Merwin for siding with the Hutchinsons by refusing to mess with him. John Hutchinson and Mann, Story of the Hutchinsons, 385.
  5. [5]John Hutchinson and Mann, Story of the Hutchinsons, 386, 395; John Hutchinson, Book of Brothers, 17. McAllister met with Kearny separately and was reprimanded for not arresting Hatfield and Oakley immediately after the incident. McAllister, Civil War Letters, 116.
  6. [6]John Hutchinson, Book of Brothers, 10,17; Liberator, February 14, 1862. McAllister believed that nine-tenths of the officers in the division sympathized with the Hutchinsons, while Oakley asserted that nine-tenths of the brigade supported those who objected. McAllister, Civil War Letters, 116; W. Myers Study in Personality, 239 (n.5). The actual wording of Cameron’s pass was “Permit ‘The Hutchinson Family’ to pass over bridges and ferries, and within the Army of the Potomac. They will be allowed to sing to the soldiers, and this permit shall continue good until 1st February, 1862.” John Hutchinson, Book of Brothers, 10.
  7. [7]John Hutchinson, Book of Brothers18-19; John Hutchinson and Mann, Story of the Hutchinsons, 389; William Franklin to S. Williams, January 18, 1862, McClellan Papers, reel 15, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; W. Myers, Study in Personality, 238 (n.5); Snell, First to Last, 82; McAllister, Civil War Letters, 116.
  8. [8]John Hutchinson, Book of Brothers, 10, 19-20; John Hutchinson and Mann, Story of the Hutchinsons, 389-91; McMurtry, “Lincoln and the Hutchinson Family,” 17. Cameron was not present at the cabinet meeting because he had been replaced as secretary of war by Edwin M. Stanton.
  9. [9]John Hutchinson and Mann, Story of the Hutchinsons, 294; Snell, First to Last, 83; Campbell, Busy Life, 38.
  10. [10]John Hutchinson, Book of Brothers, 21-22; John Hutchinson and Mann, Story of the Hutchinsons, 393, 398, 405, 411; Brink, Harps in the Wind, 211; New York Times, February 14, 1862; Liberator, February 28, March 28, 1862; Whittier and Perkins, “We Wait Beneath the Furnace Blast”; Coffin, Boys of ’61, 40-43.
  11. [11]Leech, Reveille in Washington, 126; John Hutchinson and Mann, Story of the Hutchinsons, 391, 397; Julian, Political Recollections, 209-10; “The State of the War,” Douglass’ Monthly, 593; “Significant Facts to be Pondered,” Douglass’ Monthly, 623; Brink, Harps in the Wind, 211.