12 Civil War Songs to Check Out After You’ve Seen Lincoln

The Carter Family

Nominations for the 85th annual Academy Awards will be announced Thursday (Jan. 10). If seven Golden Globe nominations for the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln are any indication, there’s going to be a huge upsurge of interest in Civil War history — just as there was following Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary on the subject aired on PBS.

Many songs inspired by or connected with the war continue to be sung in concerts, at folk and bluegrass festivals and around campfires nearly 150 years after the last shot of the last battle was fired.

Each song listed here, in no particular order, has been recorded by a variety of artists in an array of different musical formats. These particular versions are among the most popular and are all accessible on the Internet.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” The Band — Written by The Band’s Robbie Robertson, this song focuses on the fall in 1865 of Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederacy, and on the deprivations survivors suffered after the war was over.

“Two Little Boys,” the Country Gentlemen — Written in 1902 as a sentimental music hall tune, this story of two brothers fighting on opposite sides in the Civil War had become a bluegrass standard by the 1970s. The devotion between the brothers, even in the heat of battle, will bring a tear to the sternest eye.

“Last Letter Home,” the Amazing Rhythm Aces — “I joined the Southern cavalry for fun,” says this dying soldier whose wounds are so grievous that “the morphine seems to do no good at all.” It is a chilling statement about the heartbreaking bravado of youth and the impulse that ensures nations an endless supply of cannon fodder.

“Shiloh’s Hill,” Jimmy Driftwood — Sometimes titled “On Top of Shiloh’s Hill,” this is a vivid first-person chronicle of the 1862 battle in western Tennessee in which more than 24,000 soldiers were killed or wounded within the space of two days. In this account, a son fighting for the Union realizes he has just killed his own father.

“Bonnie Blue Flag,” Tennessee Ernie Ford — This rousing marching song salutes by name each of the 11 states that seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy. It was written during the first year of the war when hopes were high that the South would have an easy victory.

“The Vacant Chair,” Kathy Mattea — The death in battle of a soldier from Massachusetts inspired a poem that was soon set to music. It visualizes what family gatherings will be like with one chair at the table forever vacant.

“Marching Through Georgia,” Jay Ungar — A jubilant account of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s scorched-earth march from Atlanta to Savannah in late 1864. It effectively broke the back of the Confederacy.

“The Faded Coat of Blue,” the Carter Family — This weeper memorializes the death of a “brave lad” who now lies in an unmarked grave in his “faded coat of blue.” The lyrics suggest he may have starved to death.

“The Legend of the Rebel Soldier,” Charlie Moore — Here a rebel soldier lies dying “in a dreary Yankee prison.” Attended by a preacher, the soldier asks again and again, “Will my soul pass through the Southland?” Now a bluegrass classic, the song is a variation of “Shall My Soul Pass Through Old Ireland,” a tribute to Irish patriot Terence MacSwiney, who died in a British prison in 1920 after a 74-day hunger strike.

“Aura Lee,” Jim Reeves — The melody to this Civil War-era song about a “maid with golden hair” became famous as the melody for Elvis Presley‘s 1956 hit, “Love Me Tender.” In the movie of that title, Presley plays the youngest of four brothers — and the one who stays home while the other three are off fighting for the Confederacy.

“Lorena,” John Hartford — Although this song was published five years before the war started, it remained to become a sentimental favorite with homesick troops on both sides. Indeed, some commanders said it was so emotionally powerful it inspired a few soldiers to desert.

“When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” Mitch Miller Chorus — Depending on the lyrics, which are many and diverse, this is either a celebration or a repudiation of war. Johnny returns either triumphant or hopelessly crippled. Generally, it was the former, and that’s how it’s sung in this version.

The fertility of the Civil War as a source for songs is evident in the two multi-artist albums issued so far in The 1861 Project. These are some of the best-crafted and most-thoughtful takes on the war currently available.