"What has happened to the son (father, brother, lover, neighbor) who left our home so many months ago? Is he dead? Injured in a hospital? Or, worse, captured and starving in a prison cell?" These questions were asked over and over in homes across America during the early 1860s, when so many men had gone to war, many without writing home to their loved ones. And the circumstances were exacerbated by the newspaper accounts of bloody battles that left unidentified soldiers to die, their bodies rotting on unnamed battlefields ("Could one of those be my loved one?"). Every family, in the North and South, had some connection to the conflict, even if their own relatives were not involved. Associating with neighbors, customers, fellow parishioners, etc. made it so that every household was touched by the Civil War; thus nearly everyone was making these speculations.
Composer George Frederick Root elected to answer some of these questions by writing a song that would not only describe the plight of the prisoners, but also reinforce the beliefs that these incarcerated soldiers did not forget their families, their homes, or their ideals. Alternately titled "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" and "The Prisoner's Hope," Root's composition became an immediate "hit." In fact, the song was promoted via "sheet music," the legitimate business answer to the old "broadsides," (single sheets of type that would announce some event) (Century Dictionary, p. 689) or, in the music industry, provide music and lyrics of a song that was frequently a platform to oppose bureaucrats or others in positions of power (Silber, Broadside, p. 4). In the earliest years of written music production (as opposed to oral tradition), dating back to pre-Revolutionary War times, a song of the nature of Root's "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" would more like have been found as a broadside or in a "chapbook" (the literature of the streets) (de Caro, p. 412), but because the music industry had flourished (in many ways, fed by the written words that were inspired by the War), this piece, which is really an anti-war song, made its way into the more acceptable and widely distributed sheet music format (Silber, Songs, p. 14).
The song, written in 1863, was inspired by the novel Andersonville, written by MacKinlay Cantor, which brought to public awareness the atrocities experienced by the soldiers who were suffering in that particular Southern prison (Silber, Songs, p. 13). The composition by Root did not name any particular prison and, with just a few adjustments, the song about Northern prisoners was transformed into a similar story of the Southern prisoners who were incarcerated by the Union (p. 15). The original version was made popular by minstrel singer Edwin Kelley and the sheet music, copyrighted in 1864 by Root and Cady, Chicago, Illinois, soon appeared in both home- and battle-fronts. The original sheet music bears descriptive graphics of soldiers heading into battle, proudly displaying the stars and stripes, and standing watch over the camp; other drawings depict the family at home (with another Root title underneath - "The Vacant Chair" - to be discussed in a future article), and a woman sitting by an empty chair, a harp at her side (interpreted to mean that the musician is far from her) (Crawford, p. 45).
I have encountered many folks who are amazed at the speed with which the Civil War songs were distributed across the nation. In those turbulent times, the means of entertainment were limited: many homes had pianos, melodeons, organs, harpsichords, and other parlor instruments, and even with the reduction of menfolk, these instruments were favorites among the women. Sheet music was readily available (produced both in America and abroad) and the instrumentalists learned the tunes from the notes (no radios available to spread the music). It is estimated that pianos were being produced at a rate of 20,000 per year and newly devised systems of "installment plans" allowed even the lower-income consumers to acquire them (Crawford, p. v).
So now that we know how the song was spread and promoted, let us look a little at the piece itself. Since the song was written long before the war was over and the "tramp" was heard, its words were eerily prophetic (or perhaps created a self-fulfilling prophecy). The Union soldiers adapted the piece as a marching song (McNeil & McNeil, p. 76), and its tune is well-fitted to the marching they did - making one wonder if that was purposely orchestrated by Root or if it just turned out that way. (To those readers who are LDS, let me add that the tune was adapted by the Mormon Church for their song "In Our Lovely Deseret" (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hymn 307), where, interestingly enough, the tune has been dubbed "Sheffield" (p. 403), for no apparent reason that I can determine; the name appears nowhere on the original sheet music.)
The song begins with our unnamed and, initially, un-affiliated prisoner sitting in his cell, thinking of his family and, in particular, his mother and his "happy home so far away." He admits to his tears and feelings of despair but also indicates that he makes efforts to cheer his companions who are in the same predicament. Their fondest desire is expressed in the chorus: "Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching; Cheer up, comrades, they will come. And beneath the starry flag we shall breathe the air again of the free land in our own beloved home" (Silverman, p. 16). The Southern version alters the chorus just a bit, substituting ". . . the stars and bars" for ". . . the starry flag" and "of freemen . . ." for "the free land" (p. 17).
The second verse of the original song talks of the experience in battle: in spite of the Rebels' "fiercest charge" and that they "swept us off a hundred men or more," the boys in blue came through and were successful in beating them back, adding the cry of victory. The Southern version essentially reverses the charge and victory. Both sides end up with prisoners taken, however, where the inmates wait and wait to hear the tramp of the comrades coming to rescue them (Silverman, p. 17). The Southern version is three verses longer than the original piece by Root (perhaps they had more to be mournful about?). The Northern version does not identify what battle is being referenced, but the Southern version is more specific in the skirmish details, providing the historian to track down the referenced battle (or at least some options for it). It was almost two years from the creation of this song until the tramp was finally heard and many of those waiting never lived to hear that tramp or witness the soldiers arriving and opening "wide the iron door" (O'Neill & O'Neill, p. 77).
I wish to add an aside here. As I mentioned earlier, Root said he wrote this piece to answer the queries of those left at home who were wondering about their loved ones. It seems to me that, when I read these lyrics of feelings of despair and homesickness, not to mention physical deprivation, that if I were one of those left at home, I would not be at all comforted. In fact, I believe it would give me all the more to worry about.
But the day did come and the door was opened. As sequels are written today for movies and books that have left the consumer wondering "then what?," George Frederick Root provided an answer. Here we know which side is rejoicing, of course, and he titled the composition "On, On, On, the Boys Came Marching," also known as "The Prisoner Free." This follow-up was written post-war, and possible too long after the end of the war, for it to gain popularity among the general public (Silber, Songs, p. 14), but the veterans, in their GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) meetings, sang it with gusto: "On, On, On, the boys came marching; Like a grand majestic sea; And they dashed away the guard from the heavy iron door; And we stood beneath the starry banner free" (Old War Songs, p. 19). Now, this version certainly did have the power to raise the spirits of those who waited to welcome their soldier-boys home (Silber, Songs, p. 14).
Was your ancestor one of those who spent time behind those iron doors? If so, whether he survived or not, this song, then, is part of your heritage. And, if he survived, so is the subsequent version a part of your family history. So many songs of this time period dealt with the realities of death and dying that to find some that, while speaking of the event, also emphasize the hope, purpose, and values of those who went forth ready to sacrifice it all for their ideals, is a welcome change of pace. Make their songs part of your family stories.
Century Dictionary of the English Language, The, Part III. New York: The Century Co., 1889.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985.
Crawford, Richard (Ed.). The Civil War Songbook. New York: Dover Publications, 1977.
de Caro, Francis A. "Studying American Folklore in Printed Sources," pp. 411-421. Handbook of American Folklore, Richard M. Dorson, Ed. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986.
Old War Songs and G.A.R. and Patriotic Songs (presented to the Grand Army of the Republic, Milwaukee, Wis., Aug. 27th, 1889). Selections from Acme Haversack of Song and Patriotic Eloquence.
McNeil, Keith and McNeil, Rusty. Civil War Songbook with Historical Commentary. Riverside, CA: WEM Records, 1999.
Silber, Irwin (Ed.). Broadside, Vol. III. New York: Oak Publications, 1970.
Silber, Irwin (Ed.). Songs of the Civil War. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.
Silverman, Jerry (Ed.). Civil War Songs and Ballads for Guitar. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997.