Music And The Confederacy: The Emergence of a Southern Identity

It is interesting to see that at the outbreak of the Civil War, the Confederacy was not the unified nation that it needed to be.  With soldiers signing up with their friends and neighbors and their own commanders, the South lacked the togetherness needed to find success.  It is important to realize how pop culture, specifically music, helped to create a lasting identity as a people for all time.  Like it or not, the American South will always be characterized by the Civil War.  Whether it’s a house on the side of the road flying a Confederate battle flag or a truck with a “Dixie” horn, the Confederacy can be seen all over today.  Just from observation, I find that no matter what state someone is from, in the south people can identify with each other as Southerners.  This ultimately stems from a rift created by Northern minstrel shows depicting the plantation lifestyle which included slavery and the idea of a Southern culture.  When the war broke out, the popularity of the music of these minstrel shows was then adopted by Confederate songwriters who were able to make iconic music which would bring together the seceding states and even in defeat, allow for a lasting distinctiveness.

Below, I have included a link to a page with some quick facts which help to show just how desperately the South needed unification.

It is songs such as “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” and “Dixie,” which so easily became household tunes, which helped to bring the Confederacy together.  These songs helped to embed the distinction of the Southern rebel that we know today.  Their lyrics serve to motivate and push onward the defenders of perceived freedom and justice at the time.  Lines such as “We are a band of brothers and native to the soil,” and “To arms! To arms! To arms in Dixie,”   serve for the purpose of this motivation, and along with their catchy tunes, appealed to generations after the struggle who grew up in a land where clinging to the old cause was the norm.

                                             bonnie 1   bonnie 2


“The Bonnie Blue Flag”

While doing research, I had the privilege of interviewing Barrow Wheary.  Wheary was born in Richmond, VA in 1984. His family has roots in Virginia stretching back to the 1600’s. He has played banjo since the age of fourteen taking lessons from and performing along with Joe Ayers of Columbia, VA. Ayers is widely regarded as a leading scholar of early banjo music whose research and re-publication of early banjo music from the mid 1800’s has opened up a long-obscured chapter of American cultural history. Barrow has also played fiddle since his teens and studied extensively under John Turner and Mark Campbell. In 2007 he was chosen to participate in the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ Folklife Program during which he was engaged as an apprentice to old-time fiddler Mark Campbell. Barrow has been participating in Civil War reenactments and living history events since his father began taking him as a child. He has portrayed a drummer and private with the 18th Virginia Infantry Regiment, Company G, Nottoway Greys, a unit in which several of his ancestors served during the Civil War. In the past decade he has shifted from participating in battle reenactments to providing period music for dances and educational programs. Barrow currently works at Maymont Foundation, a historic house museum in Richmond, VA, where is caretaker for the park’s two horses and assistant with the carriage department. He has attended The College of William and Mary, Emory and Henry College, and Boston University. He is also a published writer of poetry, his chief devotion, and an artist.  

I would like to share some of what Mr. Wheary had to say in response to my questions.

Myself: In what way do you think music influenced the creation of a new identity as a southerner?  With little to no ties to a nation in the beginning, was music directly connected to new-found togetherness among the states?

Wheary:  I think the southern identity is best understood as something that emerged from the Civil War rather than anything which may have preceded the conflict or possibly caused it. Or, at the very least, i think we can agree that it was the Civil War which has stamped southern identity in that way which so dramatically differentiates it from the rest of the nation. It is the defining story of the south.

Before the war there were, of course, family ties and shared economic interests which bound older southern states like Virginia and South Carolina to the newer states of the future Confederacy – states to the west like Alabama, Mississippi, even Texas. Many Virginians and Carolinians settled these new states. So in a very literal sense, these new states were the children of the old colonial south. And of course when these children moved west, they brought slavery with them. On the huge expanses of fresh new land to the west they erected a sort of plantation system on steroids. So, sure, there was commonality among southerners prior to the war. There were the personal connections, the shared economic interests and local customs you would expect to find among any people in a given region or family.But this hardly accounts for the extreme difference we imply with the term southerner in our modern, post-Civil War usage. My sense is that it was really the trauma of the war itself and especially the experience of defeat which distinguished the South in such a deep and irrevocable way, that it was the war which made the slave states into The South with capital letters. … So, look at the popular music of the Confederacy…A lot of it is propaganda, a bad word. But nonetheless it was very popular propaganda and people sang it to their graves. They were trying to overcome conflicting allegiances, trying to pull themselves together, trying to reaffirm their new sense of southern identity, but now with urgency, their lives on the line in the face of their new opponent, the North. …  So to answer your question, yes I believe music was directly connected to a new sense of togetherness between the southern states. Without bands playing these songs at rallies, without printing out tons of sheet music for people to ‘download’ onto their home pianos it’s hard to imagine the south pulling itself together as fast as it did to wage as fierce a war as this country has ever seen against such odds.

Myself:  In many songs that I have looked at, little is said directly about slavery.  Was this done to mask any thoughts of racial incentives in the war?

Wheary:  There’s a quote that comes to mind which seems relevant to your question. I think it was a northern politician in reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation who said, ‘This is a white man’s war to be fought by white men for white men’. At least at the beginning of the war, I think this was the predominant attitude among white southerners and northerners alike. There was a great fear in the northern government that turning the war into a fight over slavery would tear the North itself apart, maybe even spark mutiny in the armies or riots at home. And, although the armies remained in the field, as you probably know the Emancipation Proclamation was partly what fueled the terrible riots in New York City – never mind the fact that the Proclamation was actually an ultimatum to the South saying essentially, ‘come back to the Union and you can keep your slaves’. (If you don’t believe that, just read the thing, the deal is put forth in very plain terms.) Anyway, given the fact that many northerners were in no way interested in dying to free southern slaves whom they feared would steal their jobs etc., you can see why many northerners – even those who might have supported emancipation – would hesitate to link the slavery issue with patriotic ideals in songs that were meant to inspire men to battle for the Union.

Meanwhile in the South, obviously no one would want to sing ‘we’re fighting for our freedom to deny other people’s freedom’ – which of course, was exactly what southerners saw the North doing to them, treating them like slaves by saying ‘No, you cannot leave the Union, you belong to us, and you are not free to leave’. Irony heaped on irony from all sides isn’t it?

And what is irony but pointing to the truth no one wants to acknowledge? Maybe most soldiers on both sides went to war genuinely believing in their hearts that it was about something other than slavery, at least at the beginning. It really is hard to imagine a bunch of white people in that time period seriously going to kill each other over the fate of a people they barely considered worthy of serving in their armies. Maybe they preferred believing it really was ‘a white man’s war’. Maybe they preferred thinking of causes like home, family, honor, duty, or country. But, on a fundamental level, regardless of whatever northern and southern soldiers told themselves they were actually fighting for, the thing that most differentiated north and south was undeniably slavery. The particulars of that debate are another issue. But let’s not pretend that either side was totally innocent or altruistic on the question. One way or another, I think you can safely say that both sides were fighting for control over ‘the slave power’ to use a term common among northern politicians at the time.

I have to say, your observation about the silence on this matter is truly incisive, one I had not thought of, and I think it really cuts deep into the repressed psychological contents of the nation at the time of the Civil War, the cognitive dissonance of a country established on the principles of liberty and self-determination which nonetheless practiced slavery and refused the rights of its member states to seek independence.

However, there are a handful of songs which do at least allude to the presence of slavery in this equation. For one, Dixie was adapted from an old minstrel show tune. The original lyrics are in the voice of a former slave who seems to have come north. He comically describes the affairs of his master and mistress and expresses longing for the old days (maybe sarcastically?) down south. At the outbreak of the war, southern song writers replaced these lyrics with words championing the new southern nation. Nonetheless the famous opening lines remained the same, ‘Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten’. Still, despite the new words, any way you look at the song, you cannot separate ‘the land of cotton’ from slavery.

Myself:  As a musician and a reenactor, how have you viewed music of the Confederacy?  What are some of your favorite pieces and why?

Wheary:  As a musician and a reenactor – I think these are important distinctions from how I view the music of the Confederacy personally. In representing period music for living history events and educational programs I am obligated to focus on the music that was most popular during the conflict and constrained to performing only what music can be documented in a style that replicates that of nineteenth century musicians as nearly as possible. I have to set my personal preferences aside. To be honest, however, many of the more ‘war songs’, those that are champion the South’s leaders or ‘the cause’ don’t do a lot for me. I’m just not a flag waver. ‘It ain’t me’, to quote CCR.  Although, as a child I did find these war songs very exciting. Little boys like to play war, it just seems to be in their nature, though I’m sure it is also largely a cultural thing. Regardless, at the time of the war, these patriotic songs were immensely popular. And even long after the war was over these songs about Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, etc. remained very popular – one wonders if they even became more popular as they reminded aging veterans of their martyred leaders and gave them a sense of pride and honor they could hold on to in light of the shame of defeat.

 What may be more important than my sensibility as a reenactor or musician, however, is my identity as a descendant of people who fought for the Confederacy, whose families and homes were torn apart and uprooted by the war. I know that the war songs I mentioned earlier were very important to my ancestors because my family never forgot them over the generations. In fact we have a large collection of Confederate sheet music that has been in my family since the time of the struggle. In our family collection there are dozens of titles like No Surrender and The Virginian Marseillaise along with all the other classics like Bonnie Blue Flag, Dixie, and so forth.  But there are also just as many other titles like Who Will Care for Mother Now, Tenting Tonight, The Vacant Chair, Lorena, and All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight – songs which allude to suffering, loss, and the home front, the personal side of the conflict. These songs and the enormous body of undocumented or vernacular folk songs as well as hundreds of banjo and fiddle tunes – many of which predated the war and were never set on paper – are what interest me most. They were just as popular and important to people at the time and they remind us of the personal, human side of the war, or any war for that matter, and most of these songs were equally loved by soldiers and their families both north and south.

One favorite of mine is Lorena. You may know the melody, Elvis stole it for his song Aura Lee. But the lyrics are beautiful and heart wrenching. They say nothing of war at all, I believe it was actually composed a couple years before the conflict, but instead describe the memory of a lover who has since died.

Another favorite is The Bright Sunny South. However, I cannot prove this song was actually sung in the form we know it at the time of the war, since it comes from the folk tradition, passed down orally that is, and first appears on a 1920’s recording of the great banjo songster of Southwest Virginia, Dock Boggs. I love this song because it seems to be the plain and honest confession of a young soldier saying goodbye to his family and struggling with the idea of imminent death. Also, it seems to express the attitude of an average non-slaveholding southerner who nonetheless is willing to die for his home. The song is a mixture of fear and resolve, bravery and reluctance. It juxtaposes borrowed bits of popular nineteenth century verbal ornament with plain spoken statements and images and a blunt acceptance of fate, all cast against the backdrop of a dark and insistent banjo tune. It is haunting, stark, matter of fact, and totally sincere. And yet it is highly poetic, concerned with images and feelings rather than championing lofty ideals or political statements. It is personal and doesn’t purport to speak for anyone but the singer. It doesn’t speak of the Confederacy by name, doesn’t speak of sides, only of home and the horror and senselessness of war, things which anyone can relate to regardless of place or time. It is in this sense universal.


I am very thankful to have been able to conduct this interview.  It was incredibly helpful and extremely interesting.  I know that readers will enjoy what Mr. Wheary had to offer.  It is songs such as these that have been remembered and listened to over the many years since the end of the war.  We can still see their influences today.  The Southern identity created during the war has been rebuked due to perceptions of racism, but it has also been celebrated.  This celebration can be seen in modern songs such as “Carry Me Back,” by Old Crow Medicine Show, and fraternity functions such as the Kappa Alpha “Old South.”  This date function includes clothing of the time period and the celebration of the Confederacy.  This tweet below shows that people still return to lines from those old songs.


As someone who is very interested in history, I have found this to be an incredible topic to study and have enjoyed listening to the different pieces.  I have created a podcast below which includes some information about my topic as well as an urge for all readers to go out and learn about the past and to take the time to understand its effects on our society today.


Works Cited:

Abel, E. Lawrence. Singing the New Nation: How Music Shaped the Confederacy, 1861-1865. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2000. Print.

“Bonnie Blue Flag.” Duke Digital Collections. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.

“Legacies of the Civil War.” American Civil War Center. The American Civil War Center at Historical Tredegar, n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.

McWhirter, Christian. “The Birth of ‘Dixie'” Opinionator The Birth of Dixie Comments. The New York Times, 31 Mar. 2012. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.

Silver, James W. “Propaganda in the Confederacy.” JSTOR. The Journal of Southern History, 2008. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.

Townley, Joshua. (KAswamp_cricket). “ ‘ I wish I was in the land of Cotton’ #KAOS14 #OldSouth”  3 May 2014 8:19 p.m. tweet.

Wheary, Barrow.  Personal Interview. 29 April 2014



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