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The Civil War in Songs and Song Sheets

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As part of the continuing commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, the Library of Congress just opened an exhibition The Civil War in America, displaying more than 200 items from the Library’s unmatched collections. Students may look at maps, letters, diaries, or photographs to learn about the experiences of those who fought in the war and those who were left behind to tend the homestead. While these sources are excellent, include music as a way to help students learn about life during the Civil War, too.

First, have your students think about the purpose of music and why it can be important to study the music created during historical events or during important times in history. They might start with familiar recent events.

The Battle of Fort Donelson

Then have your students look at a piece of sheet music and analyze the song using the analysis tool.  Ask them to look at the cover and predict what the song is going to be about. Then have them look at the music and lyrics to see what other information is provided. They should consider why the song was written and why it is important. Review the Teacher’s Guide for Analyzing Sheet Music and Song Sheets for additional prompts and activity suggestions.

The Nation is Weeping

Next provide copies of other sheet music and have the students work in groups to explore different song sheets and sheet music. Ask them to consider why each piece might have been composed, and who the audience might have been. What themes do they see? Use music from different points of view and different kinds of songs such as recruitment songs, songs about emancipation, military heroes, or funeral dirges for Lincoln.  Ask them to think about the types of songs that were created during the Civil War and the messages the songs communicated to people around the country.

Want to find more sheet music? Explore Lyrical Legacy, the Primary Source Set on Civil War Music , the Performing Arts Reading room presentation on American Civil War Music , America Singing: 19th Century Song Sheets , and the sheet music found in the Alfred Whital Stern collection of  Lincolniana

How will you incorporate music into your lessons about the Civil War?



  1. After the students analyze a variety of songs from the Civil War, have them try to determine if the song was written in the North or in the South. Students will need to make distinctions from the evidence provided in the songs to determine the origin. I have also had students place the songs on a timeline of the Civil War- again- using the evidence within the lyrics to determine the location on the timeline.

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