Article Peace Songs of the Civil War

Sheet Music: Stonewall Wilson
"Let Us Have Peace," by Will S. Hayes, 1861, a song calling for peace at the outbreak of the Civil War. Select the link to view the sheet music.

Until the twentieth century, peace songs and other expressions of pacifisim during wartime or during a period leading up to a war were extremely unusual. There were songs that protested particular incidents during a war. An example is the ballad "James Bird," which expressed horror of what the public thought to be an overly hasty military execution of a decorated seaman for desertion during the War of 1812. There were songs anticipating the end of war, such as "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." But during Civil War, when Americans fought each other, songs calling for peace or expressing a general dismay at the horror of war appeared while the war was going on. Some of these are thought to be the beginnings of what we know today as peace songs used to protest warfare. The song "Let Us Have Peace," composed by Will S. Hayes at the outset of the Civil War in 1861, approaches the issue by asserting that brothers should not fight brothers (sheet music). As a song with a Southern sentiment, it protested that the South could not be subjugated by force as well as generally calling for reconciliation."A Hymn to Peace," published in 1863, may reflect the issue of speaking of peace in wartime in that the lyricist's name is given only as "A lady of New Orleans." The lyricist may also have been attempting to deflect criticism by presenting this protest of the war as a prayer. Some songs pled for peace indirectly by telling stories that shed light on of the senselessness of war. The ballad "The Last Fierce Charge" (also known as "The Battle of Fredericksburg"), sung by Warde Ford tells of two Union soldiers who each promise to get word back to the family and sweetheart of the other should he die, but both die, so that there is no one to tell of their deaths (field recording). Both "Angel Mother, I'm Coming Home" and "Be My Mother Till I Die," are examples of songs meant to be the dying words of a soldiers on the battlefield, in these cases at Gettysburg, and so give fictional first person accounts of the consequences of war for the young men who fought on the front lines (sheet music).

After the Civil War, there were many songs of reconciliation, such as "The Dawn of Peace," by Samuel Jordan (1866) and "Hail! All Hail the Reign of Peace," by George Street and George Pearson (sheet music, 1865). The song "Garlands of Peace," by Samuel M. Loretz, Jr., composed in 1880, is an example of a song for an emerging holiday, "Decoration Day," when the graves of Civil War soldiers were decorated with flowers in the spring (sheet music). "Garlands of Peace" directs mourners to cover both the blue uniforms of the Union and gray uniforms of the Confederacy with flowers so that they cannot be distinguished from each other. By 1890, every state had a day designated as "Decoration Day" or "Memorial Day" honoring deceased veterans (the Federal holiday was designated in 1968). [1]

Peace songs during and in aid of recovery from a civil war were one thing, peace songs and other expressions of pacifism during a foreign war might be seen as sedition. Mark Twain wrote his pacificist narrative poem "The War Prayer" in about 1904, in response to the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. [2] Although the poem was written after the war, it tells of a speaker preaching to a crowd at the onset of a war, satirizing religous prayers for battle. Twain asked for it to be published after he had died, saying, "...only dead men can tell the truth in this world." He feared that what happened to the speaker in the poem would happen to him, that he would be seen as fanatical or insane. His family also had misgivings about the publication of this work. Although Twain died in 1910, "The War Prayer" was not published until 1916, as the United States entered a period of popular pacifisim at the beginning of the first World War. [3]


  • 1. See the webcast and event flyer essay for the book talk Decoration Day in the Mountains, presented by Alan Jabbour and Karen Jabbour, for more on contemporary customs related to Decoration Day in the southern United States, where a general "Decoration Day" for cleaning and decorating graves has emerged along with Memorial Day for honoring veterans. Botkin Lecture Series, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, July 7, 2011. The book of the same title was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2010. [back to article]
  • 2. Mark Twain, "The War Prayer." First published in Harper's Monthy Magazine, November 1916. Subsequently published as a book with illustrations by John Groth by several publishers and also available in anthologies. [back to article]
  • 3. See the article on "Songs of the Peace Movement of World War I" for examples. [back to article]


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