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Songs of Yesterday: Civil War, Part 8 - The Battle Cry of Freedom

Did your ancestors 'Rally 'Round the Flag'? Whether or not they personally 'Shouted the Battle Cry of Freedom,' the examination of this song (published in 1862 by George Frederick Root) will give some insight into the value of music to the soldiers, the people keeping the home-fires burning, and, after the War, the veterans who stayed close as comrades.


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Editor Note: Hear the author perform, The Battle Cry of Freedom and Comrades! Touch the Elbow. To order the complete CD, see Songs of the War of the Rebellion.

Some songs that were sung by the soldiers of the War of the Rebellion were written by the very folks who marched into battle. However, the majority of the songs that "held" - that remained popular even after the War - were composed by the songsmiths of the day: Henry Clay Work, Stephen Foster, George Frederick Root, etc. It is from the repertoire of that last one named that we will take "The Battle Cry of Freedom," and its mutations, to examine today.

A few months ago I examined the song "Battle of Shiloh Hill" and its verbiage of the bloody conflict that ended so many lives. Only three months after that battle, the Lumbard Brothers introduced the song "The Battle Cry of Freedom" at a Chicago war rally. Soon after, the Hutchinson Family (also discussed in a prior article) presented the piece to audiences in New York. The soldiers liked the song for its easy adaptation to marching; the home-folk liked it for its ability to raise and maintain morale (McNeil & McNeil, p. 40), always an important aspect of life in the 1860s. The song was written on 3 May 1861, following an address given by Lincoln, calling for the conscription of 175,000 volunteers (Erbsen, p. 16). It was copyrighted in 1862 and published by Root & Cady of Chicago. The original score had four verses and the original arrangement included four-part harmony for the chorus (something that was not usually seen in the sheet music for War songs) (Crawford, pp. 1-4).

George Frederick Root was born in Massachusetts and died in Maine. He was well-associated with Chicago publishers Root & Cady, a firm which was best known for its school and church song books as well as sheet music publications (Crawford, p. x). Root's inspirational, patriotic songs were used to motivate the troops in battle. In the early days of the War, his work was in good company, sung alongside such notable pieces as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Root is also responsible for the previously examined "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," so his position as a war song composer was known from the early days of the conflict (Silber, pp. 8-9).

Root describes his own experience in writing the flag-waving number as follows: "I heard of President Lincoln's second call for troops one afternoon while reclining in a lounge in my brother's house. I thought it out that afternoon, and wrote it the next morning at the store [his office at Root & Cady]" (Erbsen, p. 16). It is this song that is considered the most popular of all the ones Root composed before, during, and after the War (Davis, p. 178). Stories have sprung up to testify to the power of this song. Whether or not they were the Urban Legends of the time, I do not know, but they certainly speak to Root's ability to create great pathos in his audience, regardless of the allegiance. A story from each camp follows.

Out of Murfreesboro in 1863 came the report that, following a disastrous day of battle for the Boys in Blue, depression reigned in the camp. A Chicago glee club, sent down to entertain and lift the morale of the troops, included in their repertoire a rousing version of "The Battle Cry of Freedom" (also called "Rally 'Round the Flag"). Their offering to the despondent soldiers completely changed the atmosphere. The words are rather simple and the tune, an easy one; soon the soldiers learned it and sang it at all times of the day and night. Root succeeded in that one song what many failed to do in all types of orders and speeches: inspire the troops by reminding them of their purpose (Silber, p. 9).

The Confederates were not immune to the power of the composition. A Southern veteran relayed his experience with the song, first heard on a rainy night while he stood picket duty. North and South Armies were often camped within easy hearing distance from one another and, in this case, "Battle Cry of Freedom" was sung just before taps and the words and music floated from the Blue to the Gray side of the battlefield. The exuberance with which the song was sung created in the reporting veteran a feeling of "doom . . . and my heart went down into my boots . . ." (Silber, p. 9). That which gave strength to the morale of the North caused just the opposite effect to those on the South.

What could an Army do but strike back? Thus was born the "Southern Battle Cry of Freedom." I have found two completely different versions of this song, confusing me all the more since copyright dates are not included. Piecing together what I could, here is my (uneducated) conclusion. The first "Southern" version also contains four verses, attributed to W. H. Barnes but with a slight variation to the tune (yet still recognizable as an imitation of Root's original piece); its chorus was slightly different: "Our Dixie forever, she's never at a loss, / Down with the eagle and up with the cross, / And we'll rally 'round the bonny flag, we'll rally once again, / Shout, shout, the battle cry of Freedom" (McNeil & McNeil, p. 41; Silber, pp. 10-11).

Sometime after his initial composition was so well received by the Union troops (and possibly after it was stolen by the Confederates), Root wrote a new set of lyrics. While the original song could easily be applied to both those on the battlefield and those at home, the second set of verses (another four) seems to make it more of a marching song for the troops (Silber, p. 10). And, in like manner, a version just slightly altered but very similar in construction and lyrics, popped up yet another one from the South (pp. 11 & 20). It is as if the "Battle Cry of Freedom" was enduring a battle of its own. An additional verse dealing with the other sex that was involved in the War, also has been located: "Our women forever, God bless them, huzza! / With their smiles and favors, they aid us in the war; / In the tent and on the battle-field the boys remember them, / And cheer for the daughters of freedom" (Botkin, p.250). I'll leave it to you to decide if this was heralding the woman left at home, those that served with the troops in battle (many units had laundresses, cooks, and nurses [Norris, p. 49]), or women that performed other services for the men. It is not clear who takes credit for this set of lyrics.

When the War was finally behind them, the veterans took the song, one of the positive remnants of the event, and adapted it to other parts of their lives. In their reunion encampments, they sang a song to the same tune entitled "Comrades! Touch the Elbow." The words are designed to urge the old soldiers to return to their comrades for a time of celebration of when they ". . . stood by 'Old Glory,' it hasn't lost a star." Songs of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), sung at their reunions, were almost as important as the ones they sang on the battlefields and in their camps. The encouragement to "touch the elbow" (Old War Songs, p. 21) was in reference to how they stood in battle, keeping contact with the soldiers next to them to give a sense of security and unity (Fullenkamp); smoke was sometimes so thick that they could not even see a man standing inches away.

Another verse appeared tacked onto Root's original composition about 1885, declaring: "Now a score of years have passed since we conquered treason's band, / Shouting the battle cry of freedom! / And we'll never let a traitor talk rebellion in our land, / Shouting the battle cry of freedom!" (Old War Songs, p. 9). Who wrote the words, this one also sung at GAR rallies, remains a mystery; it was probably be our favorite composer: anonymous. It also tells of the unity that continued to bind these men together, even long after the smoke of battle had settled.

George Frederick Root is said to have been one of the most prolific composers of his time period. His songs sold across the country and this example was no different. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 750,000 copies of this composition were published by the time of his death in 1895 (Norris, p. 15). His tune is still adapted to lyrics for other events and purposes, so it is not likely that this song, and for certain the music, will be around for a long time to come. No doubt your Civil War period ancestor, if in the United States at the time, was well acquainted with the music and at least one version of the song, whether or not he/she fought in the War.


Botkin, B. A. (Ed.). A Civil War Treasury of Tales, Legends and Folklore. Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1960.

Crawford, Richard (Selector). The Civil War Songbook: Complete Original Sheet Music for 37 Songs. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977.

Davis, Kenneth C. Don't Know Much about the Civil War: Everything You Need to Know about America's Greatest Conflict but Never Learned. New York: Avon Books, 1996.

Fullenkamp, Leonard J. "New Looks at the American Civil War." Parameters, Summer 1998, pp. 144-151; accessed 1 August 2011, from

McNeil, Keith & McNeil, Rusty. Civil War Songbook with Historical Commentary. Riverside, CA: WEM Records, 1999.

Norris, David A. Life During the Civil War. Toronto, Ontario, CA: Moorshead Magazines, Ltd., 2009.

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.

Silber, Irwin (Ed.). Songs of the Civil War. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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