- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007

Only a fool would suggest that war is a laughing matter, for all wars are terrible. Civil wars are particularly so because of deep-rooted and seemingly unresolvable disagreements causing two dissenting factions to take up arms against each other.

In the case of the War Between the States, pro-Union and pro-Confederacy families sometimes had bitterly hostile members. It was dreadful for womenfolk when brother fought brother, or father fought son, on the battlefield.

Why then are there so many songs that can only be described as comic? One good reason, perhaps, is that if people (especially soldiers) brooded too much over the evils and uncertainties that beset them, they stood a good chance of going crazy. Man has always been able to see the funny side of life, and laughter has always been a wonderful tonic for misery.

Some of the humor found in Civil War songs is wry; at other times broad or mocking. Sometimes the lyrics were entirely original, but frequently parodies. Polished lyrics were mostly penned by professional songwriters, although occasionally even their verses could lack style.

Henry Clay Work (a master of his craft) wrote “Grafted Into the Army,” recounting the malapropisms of an indignant “lone widder” whose surviving son had just been called up: “Drest in his unicorn, poor little chap.” Broad humor is to be found, too, in Work’s “Kingdom Coming,” in which a Southern planter is caricatured: “He’s six foot one way, two foot t’udder, / An’ he weigh two hundred pound. / His coat so big he couldn’t pay de tailor, / An’ it won’t go halfway round.”

Of unknown origin, “The Valiant Conscript” pokes fun at a loudmouthed and boastful recruit, seeking to impress his fellows: “How are you, boys? I’m just from camp / And feel as brave as Caesar.” He is sure promotion will be swift, once he shows his mettle, and is not lacking in imagination. Eventually, “I’ll then begin to wear the stars, / And then the wreaths of glory, / Until the army I command.” Alas for him, he hears the sound of gunfire and stands revealed as like the legendary barber’s cat: “Oh! gallant soldiers, beat them back, / I’d join you in the frolic, / But I’ve got a chill from head to foot / And symptoms of the colic.”

George F. Root, supreme among Union songwriters, must have been unamused by the treatment “Just Before the Battle, Mother” received. A timid soldier had survival on his mind: “I hear the bugle sounding, Mother: My soul is eager for the fray; / I guess I’ll hide behind some cover, and then I shall be okay.”

“ ’Twas at the Siege of Vicksburg” must have been penned during the siege that ended on July 4, 1863. Utilizing Septimus Winner’s tune for “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” it refers to two kinds of projectile in its choruses: “Listen to the Parrot shells! Listen to the Parrot shells!” and “Listen to the Minie balls! Listen to the Minie balls!” The Parrot gun was invented by Robert Parker Parrot (1804-1877), and the Minie bullet by Captain Claude Etienne Minie, a French army officer. There is wry humor in this song: Both projectiles were deadly.

The Vicksburg siege also inspired “A Life on the Vicksburg Bluff,” based on Henry Russell’s “A Life on the Ocean Wave.” This army song comments on the trials of those besieged: “A life on the Vicksburg Bluff, / A home in the trenches deep, / Where we dodge Yank shells enough, / And our old pea bread won’t keep.”

Sometimes the Southern humor could be downright insulting, President Lincoln being a favored target: “Jeff Davis was a gentleman; / Abe Lincoln was a fool. / Jeff Davis rode a dappled grey; / Abe Lincoln rode a mule.”

Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, disliked by his own troops and detested by Southerners, came in for his share of musical satire, and well deserved it. Supposedly expressing a Union soldier’s opinion of his commanding officer, but probably originating in the South, “General Butler” includes the mocking couplet: “To say that Butler will not fight is certainly no scandal; / For not a trophy has he gained, except an old pot handle.” The tune for this shaft of wit is “Yankee Doodle.”

These are but a few of the songs the tired soldiers sang at the close of a weary day, to keep their minds off the grim uncertainties of tomorrow. Few are well-known now, although “Goober Peas” has become something of a classic. Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, not always deadly foes, had much in common, and one thing in particular. They wanted the long and terrible war to end, and Will S. Hays’ optimistic little song “The War Will Soon Be Over, John,” spoke for every man, whatever the color of his uniform.

“Ah! Peace will be declared, John, our nation will rejoice; / In shouting for our victories we’ll lend a helping voice; / And you’ll go home to Mary Ann, and I’ll go home to Jane; / The war will soon be over, John; we’ll all go home again.” Of course, Billy Yank should go home to prosperity, whereas Johnny Reb would more likely face utter desolation.

There had been more death and suffering, destruction and fear of the future than many could bear throughout the long struggle, and little cause for laughter. Even so, the humorous songs of the time provided a temporary relief from battle horrors. Peace, though, just could not come soon enough: “The men will cheer, the boys will shout, / The ladies they will all turn out, / And we’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.”

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.


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