The Songs of the War

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The Songs of the War
Winslow Homer
published by Harper's Weekly November 23, 1861
Wood engraving on paper
13 3/4 x 20 1/16 in. (image); 15 3/4 x 21 3/4 in. (sheet)
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Arthur and Hilda Wenig

Pictures aren’t the only way to say something about an event as overpowering as war. Music also plays an important role in stirring emotions and rousing patriotic feelings. People on the homefront bought sheet music of their favorite songs, and in the military, songs were sung and played to boost spirits during parades, on the march, and around campfires. The larger combat units had brass bands, and drummers on both sides delivered marching orders with the rhythms they played on their drums. In this picture, Winslow Homer used a variety of images the public would have recognized to illustrate some of the more popular Union war songs. This print was published in Harper’s Weekly in November of 1861, when it was still believed the Union would win a quick victory.

Seven songs are depicted in the image, each reflecting different aspects of the war. The drummer boy in the upper left image encourages the troops in battle in “The Bold Soldier Boy,” while the rows of soldiers below are shown marching to and singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (Glory Hallelujah). To remind the public of one of the reasons for the war, the elimination of slavery, Homer included “Dixie” on the bottom right. Dixie was the rallying cry of the South, yet remained a popular song in the North as well, and is illustrated by an African American sitting on a barrel marked “contraband” to indicate his status as an ex-slave. Next to the drummer boy, the man on horseback is General George McClellan—appointed General in Chief of the Union Armies in the same month this image was published—and he is linked to the song “Hail to the Chief.” Next to McClellan are two scenes that show the rowdier side of camp life: a soldier takes a swig from his canteen as a fistfight breaks out behind him in the spirit of the song, “Well Be Free and Easy Still.” The consequences of the drunken behavior are revealed to the right as the offenders are escorted out of camp to the tune of the “Rogue’s March.” The only woman in the image is “The Girl I Left Behind,” reminding Harper’s readers that every soldier had loved ones they left to fight for their cause.

1. Select one or more of the songs from this image. Read the lyrics (words) to each song and explain how Homer’s image illustrates it.

Further reading:
Simpson, Marc. Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1988.

Tatham, David. Winslow Homer and the Pictorial Press. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003.

Erbson, Wayne. Rousing Songs and True Tales of the Civil War. Asheville, NC: Native Ground Music, 1999.

U.S. Library of Congress. “Civil War Ban Music: A Concert for Brass Band, Voice, and Piano.” Accessed February 29, 2012.

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