Strike up the band; music was a player in the Civil War
Editor’s note: As part of the nation’s 150-year anniversary of the Civil War, the Henry County Civil War Sesquicentennial Task Force will be publishing a monthly column, written by Henry County historians. The research for the articles comes from Henry County newspapers published between 1861-1865, as well as diaries, journals and letters written by Henry County Civil War soldiers and their families.
By Joy Lynn Conwell
“Peas, peas, peas, eating goober peas; Goodness, how delicious eating goober peas,” sang Pearl A. Moyers, of Morning Sun to his great-granddaughter one summer afternoon while working in his garden. He said he remembered that his grandfather sang it to him when he was young. The girl would carry the words of the song and count the time she spent with her great-grandpa as one of her favorite childhood memories. Music inspires. Music tells stories. Music records history, especially the history of war.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee once remarked that without music, the Confederate army would cease to exist. A reporter for The New York Herald in 1862 wrote, “All history proves that music is as indispensable to warfare as money; and money has been called the sinews of war. Music is the soul of Mars....”
From the cadences of regimental fife and drum corps to soldiers sitting around their fires singing of home to buglers blowing reveilles on the battlefield to slaves singing songs of the Jubilee, the Civil War has left us with a legacy…a rich musical legacy.
As Union regiments were organized in 1861, each unit was authorized to have a full brass band. Some Iowa regimental bands numbered fifty strong. Considering, that a brigade was comprised of four to five regiments, three brigades in one division, and three divisions in every corps, and that entire divisions were often encamped in small areas in close proximity to each other; the “band competition” of nights filled the battlefield with music. By the end of 1861, the Union Army had 618 bands and more than 28,000 musicians. Being a musician was an “optional” enlistment, meaning that Quakers and other anti-war supporters could support the cause without having to fight
But by the spring of 1862, musicians not only provided music but were being called upon to enter the battle as soldiers, medics and morticians. Under the direction of General George B. McClellan on the Peninsula Campaign, the musicians suffered greatly and many died on the field. It would be at the Seven Day’s Battle of the Peninsula Campaign, that the mournful melody now known as “Taps” was composed. Following the campaign, the notes were used by both Union and Confederate forces to mark the passing of one of their own, instead of the traditional 3-gun volley.
And so on July 17, 1862, Congress passed a bill which ordered the mustering out of all regimental bands, allowing only two buglers, two fifers and two drummers for each regiment. The bill was signed by President Lincoln 12 days later as the War Department’s General Order 91.
For several Henry County residents, General Order 91 was their ticket home from the war front. For others, it represented a time of difficult decision – whether to go home or to stay – to become a fighting soldier.
George W. Marsh and Harvey Buck, both of Mt. Pleasant and both with the 4th Iowa Calvary, made differing decisions. Marsh mustered out in 1862. Buck, a chief trumpeter, requested a reduction in rank and became the bugler for Company C, 4th Iowa.
Welcome B. Walker, a Salem resident, was 44 years old when he was named the drum major for Company C, 25th Iowa Infantry. One of his drummers was Benjamin F. Carey, a 29-year old from Mt. Pleasant. Walker mustered out in 1862. However, Carey was with the 25th Iowa when they marched through Georgia, mustering out in June of 1865. Alongside of Carey marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in June of 1865 was Jerome Rowland, also a drummer, of New London.
Sadly, Benjamin F. Taylor, age 20, of Mt. Pleasant never returned home. A drummer, Taylor mustered out in 1862 but contracted a disease and died in St. Louis en route home.
But bands didn’t provide the only music of the Civil War. Soldiers and sailors brought home music that would bind the hearts of comrades together. Grand Army of the Republic gatherings and meetings of the Sons of the Confederacy rang forth with tunes and words learned around a campfire. Henry County citizens, Lot Abraham and William H. Williford became nationally known at Civil War reunions for their singing. Mr. Williford’s obituary published in the Wayland News, February 5, 1920, records, “In company with his comrade and bosom friend, Capt. Lot. Abraham, he attended every soldiers’ reunion and these two veterans were invariably the life of these gatherings. Mr. Williford was a member of the famous 25th Iowa Infantry which formed a part of Sherman’s Army in its march from Atlanta to the Sea. Williford and Abraham were celebrated for the singing of the grand old war songs. How they enjoyed singing ‘Marching through Georgia’ every word and line of which was a history of their experience in that great campaign.”
Whether it be “Marching Through Georgia”, “Eating Goober Peas,” or the clear soulful notes of “Taps,” the Civil War has imbedded itself in our country’s musical heritage. Even Pres. Abraham Lincoln recognized the power of music when following General Robert E. Lee’s surrender; he asked a band to play “Dixie”, stating it had always been one of his favorite tunes. A simple gesture of reconciliation at a very difficult time.
And that little girl who learned to sing “Goober Peas” in the garden with her great-grandfather; she will be in the audience on Sunday, October 27, when the Friends of the Harlan-Lincoln House and the Henry County Historic Preservation Commission combine forces to bring to Henry County the music of the Civil War. Through their efforts, the Marengo Civil War Band, Iowa’s only band established for the preservation of the music of the Civil War, will provide a free concert at the IWC Chapel at 2:00 p.m. Afterwards, maybe we can just try,
“Sitting by the roadside on a summer’s day
Chatting with my messmates, passing time away
Peas, Peas, Peas, Eating goober peas.
Goodness how delicious, Eating goober peas”
NOTE: The lyrics of “Goober Peas” describe the last two years of the Civil War for Southerners. After, Union forces destroyed rail lines and General Sherman slashed and burned his way across Georgia, both the Confederate army and local citizens had little to eat. “Goober peas” (boiled peanuts) became the mainstay of their diet. Today, “Goober peas” are a very popular southern regional treat. When in Georgia, don’t miss out trying this Civil War delicacy.