The Battle Cry of Freedom: Perspectives through Music

Being a musician, I often look at how history affects and shapes music. Music is not only an art form. It is a language and a tool that can be used to rally groups of people to feel emotion and unite under a common cause. For example, after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, many patriotic songs rose to Number 1 on radio and media stations, from several different versions of The Star Spangled Banner to classic hits like God Bless the USA by Lee Greenwood. [1] Why? To remind Americans that the country was united under these ideas of patriotism and national pride.

During the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy used music as a way to unite people under an idea. For the Confederacy, that idea was that the South was strong, independent, and ready to come together to defend states’ rights. For the Union, the music reminded people that the country was founded with the idea that it would be ONE nation, unified by common ideas and goals. [2] Both the North and the South could use the same tune two present two completely different ideas. Such is the case with the popular civil war song, The Battle Cry of Freedom. While both songs have the same upbeat, instrumental background that grabs a listener’s attention, they were altered to fit both a Pro-Confederacy and Pro-Union platform. These lyrics can be found here.

The Union’s The Battle Cry of Freedom Verse 3 and Chorus:
We will welcome to our numbers the loyal, true and brave,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
And although he may be poor, he shall never be a slave,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor, up with the star;
While we rally round the flag, boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

The song gives the idea of the union’s opinion of succession, (down with the traitor, and up with the star) as well as throwing in a hint of abolitionist ideology and their willingness to allow slaves to join their ranks, (We welcome the loyal, true and brave. . . Although he may be poor, he shall never be a slave.)

The Confederacy’s The Battle Cry of Freedom Verse 3 and Chorus:

They have laid down their lives on the bloody battle field.
Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!
Their motto is resistance –“To tyrants we’ll not yield!”
Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!–

Our Dixie forever! She’s never at a loss!
Down with the eagle and up with the cross!
We’ll rally ‘round the bonny flag, we’ll rally once again,
Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!

The South used the same melody but changed the lyrics to give their opinion of succession, (down with the eagle and up with the cross) as well as their views of states’ rights (to tyrants we’ll not yield.)

This is of course just one of the dozens of song examples to choose from, but it does give interesting insight into some of the motivational music of the time period, as well as being a interesting primary source for history enthusiasts today.

Works Cited

Videos and song lyrics can be found through the in-text links above.

[1] https://www.leegreenwood.com/biography

[2] http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/on-the-homefront/culture/music/music.html

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12 thoughts on “The Battle Cry of Freedom: Perspectives through Music

  1. jacobaloweryuca says:

    I’m glad that you chose to discuss the Confederate and Union perspectives through the analysis of a song. In my Old South class, we studied the social and political implications of the John Henry work song and traced it through the 19th and 20th centuries during reconstruction and industrialization. It is incredibly interesting to analyze the lyrics of songs and uncover particular ideologies or motives through lyrical content. Was it common for both the Union and Confederacy to adapt the song’s lyrical content to their particular ideologies? If so, what other songs did this occur in? I enjoyed this post, and look forward to seeing what others have to say!

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  2. Music does have a way to rally people, even those with varying views, around a central cause. It is interesting here how each side selected certain ideas that appealed to the values of each region. I wonder about the history of each song. Who wrote them? When did they compose the lyrics? Was there any specific event that inspired the composition? Also, are there messages in the musicality of the particular arrangement and could that help us understand the emotions prompting the composers?

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  3. This is probably the most unique blog post I’ve seen this year. Music can provide one of the best insights to a time period of all evidence available, yet it it also one of the most overlooked aspects of research. Whereas any written history is usually from the standpoint of whoever won the war, the ruler of the country, or whoever else’s elite bias, music comes from every walk of life. We can learn so much more about the peasants and slaves throughout history if we study their songs.

    In this particular instance, one can learn what each side thought about the opposing side and even get a glimpse of why soldiers were fighting for each side. Great post!

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  4. dberry20 says:

    I found this post to be very interesting. I had never really given much thought to music being a way to rally troops to fight for their cause. I can imagine this music really added some deep passion to the troops and made them feel like they were important and had a purpose. I also really liked the songs you decided to post because it showed the differing views and reasoning for each side fighting. Great post!

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  5. mpratt2 says:

    I love this post because it, to me, almost shows a tie to how Civil War Americans and present day Americans both have something in common. I too have a love for music and it still amazes me how different songs can provoke a different emotion just by hearing the tune in some cases. I am curious of course, what different musical things of the time were used for. For example, during the civil war, were there songs that the women and children at home would sing to lift their spirits while their husbands and sons were away fighting, and did these also help to lessen the worry they were of course having to go through with the war. I know today most would say that certain songs can relax them so I wonder if they had some that could do the same thing. I’m very curious on that!

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  6. megans24 says:

    I think this post is interesting. The fact that the same song was sung in both north and south but with different lyrics and meanings behind it is very interesting to what was going on through the minds and hearts of people. I also like the part where you show the hidden message in each section of the song that both sides are trying to show. Is there more songs like this one where it is played in north and south but hold different meanings? I think it’s a very interesting idea that you have here.

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  7. ngarrison123 says:

    This is very interesting because it seems that changing the lyrics to particular anthems happens a lot in order to rally people toward a particular cause. For instance I know that America the Beautiful was originally a British anthem. I wonder how many other national anthems are rewordings of opposing nations’ anthems. I know that other songs that became very popular to the south during this time were Dixie and Swanee River, but I didn’t realize the battle cry of freedom was as important as it was.

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  8. jmccloud1993 says:

    This is such a great post because it is so relatable to the way people are today. Like you talked about in your blog post, people will rally to certain songs or music styles based on what is going on at that time. In 1861-1865, the Civil War was what most, if not all, people were worried about in America. For each side, these songs motivated them and constantly reminded them what they were truly fighting for. One thing I would like to know is when would they usually sing these songs? Did they ever sing them right before a battle to get the soldiers motivated? Another thing I found interesting was how the lyrics described what the two sides were fighting for. In the lyrics you posted, the Confederates were singing about states’ rights. Did they ever sing songs specifically about slavery? Please let me know. Good post, Terra.

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  9. Terra Lain Votaw says:

    Thanks for all of your comments! Some more examples that you all can look at are “John Brown’s Body/The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie” (Union Vs. Confederate versions). Not all songs had transposed lyrics between the north and south, and while researching I have found more from the Confederate perspective – some interesting one’s to listen to are “Eatin Goober Peas” which is merely just the Confederate troops venting about the tough time they are having, and “The Bonnie Blue Flag”, one of the most common and popular Confederate songs, even today. For a slave song, look up “Follow the Drinkin Gourd.” It was a secret code in a song to teach slaves how to escape from the south, giving details about the time of year they needed to leave, where to stop and rest, and what landmarks to follow to stay on the right path. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw6N_eTZP2U). More information about all of these songs is in the second link of my blog post at the bottom.

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    • K. Epps says:

      Your post came at the perfect time, because we are actually going to talk about “Eatin’ Goober Peas” in class tomorrow 🙂

      Also, the author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Julia Ward Howe, was married to an abolitionist who actually helped finance John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Her husband Samuel did not approve of women doing anything outside the domestic sphere, so her great intellect was often stifled, although he sometimes called on her to help him with things such as publishing his newspaper (he wanted her skills when it suited him, but not when it was for her own personal fulfillment). Her publication of the song in 1861 made her one of the most famous women in the U.S., and it strikes me as a little bit of vindication that few people today remember her husband, but she is still famous! I think she would’ve liked that, given that they didn’t have a happy marriage.

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  10. I have always had an interest in the music from the Civil War era. However, I had no clue that the lyrics of one song played in one army could be changed around to fit the beliefs of the opposing army. I guess if you truly admire the melody, you can change the lyrics so the song completely matches up with you beliefs and motivate those around you.

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