"The years creep slowly by, Lorena, The snow is on the grass again; The sun's low down the sky, Lorena, The frost gleams where the flow'rs have been. But the heart throbs on as warmly now, As when the summer days were nigh; Oh! the sun can never dip so low, A-down affection's cloudless sky" (Silverman, pp. 74-75).
These words, written by Reverend Henry De Lafayette (H. D. L.) Webster, kept many a soldier close to home in his heart when sung on the battlefields of the War Between the States, and was a special favorite for those on the Confederate side (McNeil & McNeil, p. 83).
At no point in this song does the singer mention America's War in the 1860s; that is probably because the piece was written in 1857 by a Massachusetts Universalist preacher and published in Chicago that same year. The composer of the music (who may or may not have been related to the lyricist) was Joseph Philbrick (J. P.) Webster (Erbsen, p. 47), a Union sympathizer (McNeil & McNeail, p. 83). The latter Webster went on to make a name for himself in his working with S. Fillmore Bennett, producing together a number of Civil War songs; a list that includes "The Negro Emancipation Song" and "The Irish Volunteer" (Silber, p. 119). But J. P. Webster is best-known for his hymn, "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," written in 1868 (Erbsen, p. 47).
Strange, that a song written by a Northerner, with music by a crusader for the North, and published in the North would end up becoming a particular favorite in the South. The clarity of this fact is made even more evident when one traveled to the South soon after the War and met so many little girls named "Lorena" (Erbsen, p. 47). A steamship and various small settlements also bore the name "Lorena." It was said, at least in the South by a Confederate veteran, the he heard the song "more during the war than any other time" (Silber, p. 119). Let's see if we can uncover why this particular song, heard so often in the 1860s but almost never heard today in the 21st Century, was such a favorite.
There is no coincidence that the heroine of the ballad has a name that closely resembles the lost love, mourned over by Edgar Allan Poe's narrator in "The Raven":
"Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December; And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor. Eagerly I wished the morrow; --vainly I had sought to borrow From my books surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost Lenore – For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore – Nameless here for evermore" (Williams, p. 375).
Here is the story of a man whose lost love consumed him to the point that every unfamiliar sound caused him to believe that his beloved had returned to him once again. This was the inspiration behind Webster's composition of a love, gone but never to be forgotten (Erbsen,. p. 47).
In May of 1849, Ella Blocksom, fiancée of the Reverend Webster (a less than successful preacher whose financial prospects perhaps looked bleak to Miss Blocksom), left the minister for a much more stable (and well-off) lawyer. This action, not surprisingly, broke the heart of Rev. Webster, who continued to mourn her loss (even though, unlike Poe's Lenore, was not lost to death) and finally, after 100 months of pining, put his feelings to paper (that length of time is mentioned in the second verse of most versions). He was kind enough not to use her real name and, instead, borrowed both the feelings and the name of Poe's Lenore – Lorena (Erbsen, p. 47).
From the very first shots, fired at Fort Sumter, to the ending surrender at Appomattox (and beyond, of course), songs and poems were used to express universal feelings of homesickness, ache over lost loves, anger about the situations, patriotism, and more (Hill, p. xiii). While it might not have been appropriate to physically act out one's emotions (though that probably also occurred many times), reciting (or writing) a poem, singing a song, or just listening to those uttered by others and experiencing an identifying emotion privately was more than acceptable. However, when soldiers expressed their emotions via the "lost love" types of songs, officers noticed a downturn in morale as depression seemed to be the more common result, as opposed to the hoped-for motivation (Norris, p. 15). This was particularly evident with "Lorena" and many commanding officers banned the singing of the ballad among the ranks. Of course, the troops sang it anyway, and it is believed that those lyrics were the cause of desertion of many of the Confederate soldiers. This phenomenon was apparently so prevalent as to have caused some to believe the War was lost due to "Lorena" (Erbsen, p. 47). This makes for an interesting contrast to Confederate General Robert E. Lee's theory that a successful army required music for its very existence (Davis, p. 45); in this case, music is alleged to have resulted in anything but success for the troops.
The song "Lorena" was not the first with that title. An (apparently) older folk song appears in a collection by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. No author is given credit, probably lost to obscurity as are the composers of so many folk ballads. This particular piece appears to have been written way before the War: it references the experience of the narrator, a slave, pining for his lost Lorena, a "yellow" girl (probably Mulatto) who had been made his wife, was to give birth to his child, and then was "stolen" by the plantation owner to be sold to someone else a long distance away. This Lorena died in the possession of the distant master three years after being removed from the heartsick husband (Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, pp. 303-304). While a very sad song, it is clear it is not the same one that was sung by the Southern soldiers: no way would they have experienced any identification with this man's plight.
There are six verses to Webster's "Lorena" and there is not space to include them all here. If you check on-line for "Lorena" and "lyrics," you can bring up both YouTube and written versions of the song. From my vantage point, the lyrics do not appear to be clearly about a woman who forsook her beloved; in the context of War, they could just as easily be interpreted as a man mourning not only his separation from his betrothed (or wife), but his most likely impending death. The knowledge that each day threatened to be his last gave the soldiers a sense of doom and the final verse seems to speak of that:
"It matters little now, Lorena, The past is in the eternal past; Our heads will soon lie low, Lorena, Life's tide is ebbing out so fast. There is a Future! O, thank God! Of life this is so small a part! ‘Tis dust to dust beneath the sod; But there, up there, ‘tis heart to heart." (Silverman, p. 75).
Did your ancestor sing this song? Was it one that touched him as he prepared for battle? Some things we just don't know, unless letters or journals make the information available. But if he didn't sing it, the chances are that he knew it. If you listen (or sing) this song, it might add to the realism of what these soldiers, on both sides, were experiencing.
Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. Pioneer Songs. Salt Lake City: Utah Printing Co., 1932, 1978.
Davis, Burke. The Civil War: Strange & Fascinating Facts. New York: The Fairfax Press, 1982.
Erbsen, Wayne. Rousing Songs and True Tales of the Civil War. Asheville, NC: Native Ground Music, Inc., 1999.
Hill, Lois. Poems and Songs of the Civil War. New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990.
McNeil, Keith & McNeil, Rusty. Civil War Songbook with Historical Commentary. Riverside, CA: WEM Records, 1999.
Norris, David A. Life During the Civil War. Toronto, ON, Canada: Moorshead Magazines, Ltd., 2009.
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.
Williams, Oscar (Ed.). American Verse from Colonial Days to the Present. New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1955.