Civil War songs, part I

Two songs encapsulated Yankee and Confederate sentiment during our Civil War. For the Union, it was "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic." For the rebels, it was "Dixie." Between the two songs lay the Valley of Death, marked by 600,000 tombstones when the madness ended after four long, bloody years.

"The Battle Hymn Of The Republic" was written by Julia Ward Howe, who saw the war as a sacred crusade against slavery. She had attended a review of the Union army in Washington. The sight of thousands of young men, marching off to unknown fates, drove her to write the words: "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." Her hymn inspired the nation.

The jaunty, raucous tune the Confederates adopted has a different history.

First, it was composed by a Yankee from Ohio, Daniel Decatur Emmett. Second, it was written for a blackface minstrel show in New York City. Finally, the lyrics lampooned a foolish Southern Belle with white actors made up as black Americans singing in dialect.

Why did "Dixie" sweep the south? Probably because the rebels identified with the chorus: "Den I wish I was in Dixie; Hooray, hooray; In Dixie Land I'll take my stan'; To lib and die in Dixie; Away, away, away down south in Dixie."

The story begins in New York on a cold Friday night in April 1859. Emmett was both an actor and composer for the Bryant Ministrel Troupe. Their normal schedule was to play in the south during the winter, then return to New York in the spring. Jerry Bryant had just told Emmett he wanted a new "walkabout" song for Monday's show. A "walkabout" is a tune that serves as the backdrop for a comic routine.

The composer looked out at the cold, windswept streets of New York and longed for the warm weather they had enjoyed down south. "I wish I was in Dixie," he thought. That line became the cornerstone of his new song. Two hours later, he had completed "Dixie." It premiered in Bryant's Ministrel Show on Monday, April 4, 1859. It was a hit. Bryant was a gifted showman. Seeing the public's reaction to "Dixie," he moved it to the last act just before the final curtain. The cardinal rule in show business is to save the best for the last so the audience will buy tickets for the next show.

Another ministrel troupe brought the song to New Orleans in March 1860. Despite the fact that the tune ridiculed a white plantation lady, the audience demanded seven encores. They responded to the chauvinistic line "to live and die in Dixie." It swept the south, being played after each vote when South Carolina decided to secede from the Union in December 1860.

"Dixie" was played repeatedly when Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President of the Confederated States of America on February 8, 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama. Seven states had left the Union at that time. Four others followed. When Davis moved his government to Virginia, a band playing "Dixie" met him at the station.

Davis was not the only presidential candidate who liked the catchy, raucous ballad. Abe Lincoln used it when he campaigned and had "Dixie" played at his inauguration on 4 March 1861. When news of Lee's surrender at Appomattox reached Washington, a crowd gathered outside the White House to pay homage to the man who had saved the Union. Lincoln asked the bank to play "Dixie." The crowd objected to the rebel tune. Lincoln patiently reminded them that we were one country, again, and "Dixie" belong to all Americans.

The conclusion will be given next week.

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