150 years ago today, Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina, marking the first military action in the bloodiest conflict in American history. From 1861 to 1865, the Civil War divided the nation, states and even family members, and its repercussions are still felt to the present day. It has been romanticized like no other era in US history — particularly in the South — having been the topic of countless novels, films and songs over the years. Country artists in particular have frequently commemorated it.
Johnny Cash, one of country music’s greatest storytellers, told of how the war divided families and pitted brother against brother when he offered up this medley in a 1969 installment of his ABC variety show:
The First Battle of Bull Run, fought on July 21, 1861 resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Union Army and quickly laid to rest any hopes harbored by either side that the conflict would be over quickly, as Johnny Horton recalled:
The conflict was also a frequent theme in the music of Waylon Jennings:
The concept of women in combat was unfathomable in the 19th century, but it was up to the womenfolk to keep the home fires burning as Lee Ann Womack recalled:
The South had the upper hand through most of the early battles of the war, but that all changed in July of 1863 with the decisive Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. By 1864, President Lincoln had put Ulysses S. Grant in charge of all the Union armies. That same year, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman led Union forces on a scorched earth campaign through Confederate territory, burning homes and destroying farms and railroads on his March to the Sea:
There is, perhaps, more romanticism in noble defeat than in victory, and that, along with the Southern heritage of most country artists, explains why most country songs are sympathetic to the Confederate point of view:
However, in the interest of being fair and balanced, we will point out that there are some songs that tell the tale from the Northern point of view, like this one from Tennessee Ernie Ford:
But perhaps the most famous Civil War song from the North is the Battle Hymn of the Republic, sung here by Lee Greenwood (you may want to avert your eyes at about 2:25 into this one. Don’t say I didn’t warn you):
The War Between The States is one of the most fascinating periods in US history, and not only to Americans. English songwriter Paul Kennerley wrote the concept album White Mansions in 1978. It featured performances by John Dillon, Steve Cash, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. In his role as The Drifter, Waylon recalled the Confederacy’s final defeat in 1865:
On a more lighthearted note, in 1988 Hank Williams, Jr. speculated how the course of history might have been changed had the Confederacy prevailed:
The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The Civil War was one of, if not the first, industrial wars, making use of railroads, telegraphs, steamships and mass-produced weapons. The concepts of total war and trench warfare were later practiced in Europe during World War I. It preserved the Union, strengthened the federal government and ended slavery in the United States, at the cost of the lives of 620,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians. It was not America’s last war by any means, though we continue to pray for peace and pay homage to those who gave their lives in the pursuit of liberty.