Singing the Songs of Zion
Soldiers' Hymn Collections and Hymn Singing
in the American Civil War

Mark D. Rhoads

"Every night the holy songs of Zion go up on this balmy spring air, a sweet incense, I think,
to the throne of the Eternal.
" Rev. William Hauser, chaplain of the 48th Georgia

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Reenactor's Hymn & Tune Book | About the Author

The Civil War Reenactor's Hymn & Tune Book
26 hymns with suggested tunes and notes on authentic singing practice


Singing Soldiers, Singing Reenactors

Some Civil War reenactors who would otherwise be meticulous about their uniform or their musket or their mess kit or the tent they sleep in, are content to sing "the old hymn, 'The Sweet By and By'" in a church service or around the campfire accompanied by bluegrass guitar, in spite of the fact that "The Sweet By and By" was not published until 1868 and that the modern steel string guitar is much bigger than a mid-19th century guitar which had gut strings and was not played with a pick. Furthermore, the loping bluegrass style did not emerge until the mid 20th century. Is this too picky? Only if you are not serious about authentic musical practice at Civil War reenactments.

Singing was a very important part of soldiers lives. "The men who wore blue, and the Butternut Rebs who opposed them, more than American fighters of any period, deserve to be called singing soldiers." (Wiley, 1953) This betrays the first challenge for the 21st century Civil War reenactor, beyond the problem of bringing bluegrass into camp: modern Americans don't sing much. Our goal should be to work at singing to the point that it is heard often in every corner of the camp. This aural image is clearly painted in the record.

Serious reenactors who are willing to sing and are interested in bringing mid-19th century singing practice into camp should carefully consider what soldiers sang and how they sang. While much more work needs to be done in helping reenactors sing correct secular music in an authentic manner, popular song from the era has at least been organized into songbooks with some commentary on their use. And it is good to see that craftsmen are making period banjos with musicians learning to play them in authentic style. In addition period string bands have formed to play music that was popular among Civil War soldiers. But to my knowledge no one has studied sacred music of the period as it applies to Civil War soldiers. In my research I have discovered that sacred hymns were a staple in the general song repertoire of soldiers. We rightly assume that soldiers sang hymns in often well attended church services and prayer meeting, but less well known is the evidence that these men also mixied sacred hymns with secular songs outside specifically religious settings. Scanned copies of period hymnals and tune books are readily available online but no one has organized this massive amount of raw information into something that is practical for the reenactor.The purpose, then, of The Reenactor's Hymn & Tune Book is to provide American Civil War reenactors with a list of popular period hymns, the tunes to which they were sung, and advice on how and where the hymns were sung.

Hymns and Tunes

In the 21st century we expect our hymns to be interlined with a tune because this is how American hymnals have been published since about the 1930s. Because of this we think that a hymn and tune as printed have always gone together. But in order to grasp the hymn singing conventions of the Civil War era we must understand that church hymnals were mostly published with only the words, no tunes. Tunes appeared in separate tune books. Although a few major church hymnals by 1860 introduced the inclusion of tunes on the same page with the hymn texts, they were only suggested tunes. There is evidence that by convention, some hymns were almost always associated with a particular tune, but this was the exception. The deacon or clerk of the presenter or the pastor had to choose an appropriate tune to which a hymn would be sung. Thus, they had to announce the hymn and the tune before a congregation could sing. Tunes used for a given hymn could vary from region to region and from congregation to congregation.

Hymn and tune books intended for revivals or "social worship," not the Sunday church service or "public worship," sometimes contained hymns interlined with tunes. At least one compiler of such a collection said that this was done to increase the variety of tunes. Variety would increase the enjoyment and "there is nothing that brings in the unconverted than good singing." (Dadmun, 1863, preface) It is apparent that this pairing of tune and hymn was not done to suggest any permanent association of music and text. Tune names are still listed in an index with the retention of the ideas that hymns and tunes can be interchanged.

That tunes needed to be chosen, and were normally chosen ahead of time by a leader, is clearly seen in a story from Incidents of the United States Christian Commission (Smith, 1869, p 140-141). In reporting on a spontaneous soldier's prayer meeting a Northern chaplain states that a number of hymns were sung, one after another "without agreeing on a tune." This procedural comment betrays the practice. Evidently a soldier in the group did the unusual and led out on a hymn with the tune of his choice.

Church hymnals of the day often contained more that a thousand hymns.  Protestant sects during this era saw hymns as the carrier of Christian belief, and the hymnal as a compendium of Christian doctrine in the service of “teaching and admonishing” believers. Pastors valued and required a large store to illustrate the themes of sermons.   Parishioners were used to singing familiar as well as unknown hymns to a limited number of familiar tunes. So, for instance, the tune NEW BRITAIN, the tune to which we sing "Amazing grace how sweet the sound," could be used for any number of texts in the same meter--in this case common meter (C.M.) or four lines of text with 8, 6, 8, and 6 syllables respectively. To see how this works try singing a C.M. hymn like "When I can read my title clear" or "There is fountain filled with blood" to the tune NEW BRITAIN.

Choosing the Hymns

I chose 26 hymns for the Reenactor's Hymn & Tune Book. I used three basic criterion loosely applied: that they appear in soldier's hymn collections from both armies, that they were mentioned by soldier in diaries or other primary sources, and that they represent a variety of subjects suitable for church and evangelistic use.

Although many of the Northern soldier's hymn collections contain patriotic hymns, I have not chosen to consider them for inclusion in the Reenactor's Hymn & Tune Book. Reenactors should, however, choose a variety of patriotic hymns for camp singing as the literature mentions their use frequently, sometimes in religious services, but more typically in social settings and military rallies and ceremonies.

Choosing the Tunes

Choosing tunes that mid-19th century church goers used for singing particular hymns is a challenge. It was up to the leader in every church to choose a tune that best fit the hymn and was reasonably familiar to the congregation. The leader could also add to the congregations tune repertoire by introducing new tunes. In the wisdom of the day leaders were to choose tunes that best amplified and supported the sentiment of the hymn. Within this general guideline the choice of tunes varied by convention, locale, musical taste, or all three, and made the possible permutations endless. The complications are alluded to in the preface to Hymns for the use of The Methodist Episcopal Church (1857, preface) where the editor says that "the adaptation of tunes to hymns is a difficult task. Adaptation [is] a matter of taste, to a considerable extent. . . . For example, in some sections of the church, MENDON is employed to express the highest exhilaration, while in other places it is employed in the use of hymns of the greatest solemnity."

Issues of taste also extended to musical style. Big-city churches, north and south and along the coast, were more likely to sing tunes that matched the refined "scientific" specifications of the musical reformers of the day. Rural churches away from societal influences of the elite and sometimes amalgamations of various denominations called "Union" churches, gravitated toward the lighter tunes including the use of tunes to secular songs like "Auld Lang Syne" and "The Last Rose of Summer."

While soldiers mentioned favorite hymns, they almost never mention the tune to which it was sung. There is no lexicon of hymn-tune matches for this period. It is clear to me that choosing appropriate tunes in the way people did in the mid-19th century can only be approximated. Conventional wisdom guided the process and that wisdom has been largely lost. Fortunately, tune book compilers always interlined a representative hymn with the tunes, and I assume that the texts they chose reflected, at least in part, the choices that might have been made by a church music leader or pastor. Conversely, the compilers choice may have influenced the tune choices of leaders. In addition some hymnal compilers give one or more suggested tune names for each hymn. Again this may or may not represent common linkage of hymn and tune.

To account for a variety of tastes I chose tune books that represent everything from the most fastidious sensibilities of the musical elite to revival hymnals where the compiler solicited "favorites" from his constituency--tunes that appealed to those who appreciated and sang the lighter tunes. I also made use of the tunes appended to both The Soldier's Hymn Book with Tunes and Hymns Religious and Patriotic for Soldiers and Sailors cataloged on this website. Then I looked to see which tune (or tunes) the compiler linked with a particular hymn. Sometimes, as in the case of "All hail the power of Jesus' name," compilers across the spectrum almost always link this hymn with the tune CORONATION. Consequently, I think it is safe to say that "All hail the power" was sung to CORONATION almost everywhere. Other hymns like "Am I a soldier of the cross" or "Just as I am without one plea" were linked to a very wide variety of tunes, almost as many tunes as tune books. In all cases I chose tunes from both the more "refined" sources and the sources of tunes considered lighter in character, typically designated for revivals or "social worship." Every tune I chose is known to have been in use during the civil war even though I may have scanned it from a tune book dated after the war. For practical use I have made a printable version of each hymn that contains the hymn text along with scans of suggested tune from period tune books.

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A charge to keep I have
All hail the power of Jesus' name
Am I a soldier of the cross
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
Come thou fount of every blessing
Come we that love the Lord
Gently Lord O gently lead us
Guide me O thou great Jehovah
How firm a foundation
I would not live always
I'm a pilgrim and I'm a stranger
Jesus lover of my soul
Just as I am without one plea
Mid scenes of confusion
My days are gliding swiftly by
Nearer my God to thee
O happy day that fixed my choice
O sing to me of heaven
Rock of ages cleft for me
Say brothers will you meet us
There is a happy land
There is a fountain filled with blood
There is land of pure delight
When I can read my title clear
When I survey the wondrous cross
Why should we start and fear to die