On Saturday, February 9, 2013 the Music Division presents an exploration of Music in the Lincoln White House, featuring a panel discussion with leading Civil War music scholars and a performance by The Presidents Own United States Marine Band under the baton of Colonel Michael J. Colburn. This event is presented in conjunction with the library-wide exhibition “The Civil War in America.”
President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) proved to be a major artistic force in Washington, DC during the Civil War era. He was an avid opera-buff and facilitated the increased profile of The Presidents Own United States Marine Band at White House functions. His bandmaster was Francis Maria Scala, an Italian immigrant who was the first musician designated leader of the White Houses resident ensemble. Under President Lincoln and Scala, the Marine Band became integral to the mission of the Executive Office as it navigated the perils of a fractured nation.
I recently interviewed scholar Christian McWhirter about his interests in music of the Civil War. Christian is a featured panelist in our program, author of Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War and assistant editor of the The Lincoln Papers at the National Archives. He will sign copies of his book following the panel.
NAB: Given that you are a historian and not a traditional musicologist, what interested you in studying music of the Civil War?
CM: Entering grad school, my primary academic interest was the Civil War and my main personal interest was music. I’d like to say that I immediately came up with the idea of combining the two for my dissertation but it actually took me about three years of flirting with both subjects separately before realizing that I could put them together. Once I did, it was just a matter of realizing that no historian had looked at the subject in depth and I was off and running.
NAB: How does a historian’s perspective differ from a musicologist’s when looking at this music?
CM: As a historian, my focus was on music’s place in American society rather than the songs themselves. I didn’t have to spend a lot of time analyzing the music itself because musicologists had already done that for many of the war’s most prominent songs. Instead, I approached the subject as a social and cultural historian, by looking at letters, diaries, memoirs, and media from the war to determine what people actually said and did with these songs. This allowed for all sorts of new insights (such as more accurately determining the popularity of different pieces) and revealed how central music was to how 19th century Americans experienced the Civil War.
NAB: In your opinion, why is music of the Civil War an important topic for modern scholarship and public awareness?
CM: Historians have recognized the value of studying popular culture but Civil War scholars have been slower in this regard. Part of my motivation for writing the book was to show how thoroughly embedded music was in the culture and the variety of ways it influenced and was influenced by the broader conflict. Non-academics and the general public have seemingly been aware of this for some time. Movies and documentaries about the war always feature its most popular songs (like “The Battle Cry of Freedom” in Lincoln) and reenactors frequently portray the regimental bands and campfire singing that were central to army life. Integrating music more thoroughly into our overall conception of the war is important not just because it provides new historical insights but because it adds a human dimension to a subject that is often described only through troop movements and political maneuvers.
NAB: What different perspectives towards music of the Civil War exist between geographical areas in contemporary America?
CM: I don’t think scholars approach the subject differently in the North or South but the music remains part of the way Americans memorialize the war and that often differs regionally. “Dixie” stands out as the best example, as performers have been unable or unwilling to disassociate it from its historical links to slavery and the Confederacy. I talked a little about Ole Miss in the book and how some members of the audience at football games there stand up and put their hands over their hearts when the song is played. You wouldn’t see that in the North for any song other than the National Anthem. Of course, that’s part of what makes these songs so interesting. No matter what we do, we can’t separate “Dixie” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” from the Civil War. Those songs are frozen in 1865 for us and we generally interpret them the same way people did back then because they became so ingrained in the culture.
NAB: What challenges did you face in writing Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War?
CM: Ironically, my biggest problem was finding sources. I call this ironic because my bibliography ended up being quite large but many of those sources were difficult to track down initially because music is rarely indexed or included in finding aids. The recent proliferation of online research databases and resources like Google Books were vital to my research because they allowed me to search multiple sources for references to my topic without physically skimming hundreds of volumes and thousands of newspapers and magazines. I can still remember my stock search terms: music, song, sang, sing, and band.
NAB: What archives and research facilities did you find particularly valuable for your research?
CM: I visited a few archives while preparing the book and each fleshed out different aspects of the book. The most influential were probably the Filson Historical Society and the Virginia Historical Society because it was during my fellowships at those places that I realized that the history of Civil War music did not end at Appomattox. This became the foundation for my final chapter on music and memory. The Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan was critical for its vast collection of soldiers’ papers and the sheet music collection at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library was particularly helpful, since I was living in southern Ontario during the final stages of the project. The Performing Arts Reading Room at the Library of Congress was also critical because it held an almost complete run of The Song Messenger of the Northwest. This rare wartime periodical was published by the Chicago songwriting firm, Root & Cady, and proved to be an exceptionally valuable primary source.
NAB: What are your current and future research interests?
CM: I’m moving in a couple of directions right now – building on either things I found in the book or applying a similar methodology to other topics. I’m currently writing an article for Civil War Monitor that expands on some of my ideas about songs written by soldiers. My work with the Papers of Abraham Lincoln has also drawn me into an examination of Lincoln’s relationship with music or popular culture in general. Although this was an important part of his public persona, it has not attracted a lot of direct attention from historians and I think I could build an article or maybe even a book out of the topic.
View the event program here (pdf).
Music in the Lincoln White House: Francis M. Scala and “The President’s Own”
Saturday, February 9, 2013
Panel Discussion & Book-Signing, 1:00 pm – Whittall Pavilion
Elise K. Kirk, White House Historical Association
Christian McWhirter, Assistant Editor, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, National Archives
MGySgt D. Michael Ressler, Historian, “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band
Loras John Schissel, Senior Music Specialist, Music Division, Library of Congress
Free and open to the public. No reservations required.
Presented in cooperation with the White House Historical Association
Concert: “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, 3:00 pm – Coolidge Auditorium
“Will the leader of the Marine Band please call and see Mrs. L. today?”
Colonel Michael J. Colburn, Director
Free. Reservations required and may be obtained by contacting email@example.com or (202)707-5502.
The Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First Street, SE, Washington, DC 20540
Visit loc.gov/concerts for more information.