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Bands play Civil War music, teach history

By Kate Brumback
Associated Press Writer

DECATUR — With darkness settling over the battlefield and soldiers bedding down for the night, the familiar lyrics rose — music and voices blending from both Union and Confederate camps.

“ ’Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,

“Be it ever so humble there’s no place like home!”

On more than one occasion during the Civil War, those words — from the prewar hit “Home, Sweet Home” — brought the two sides together, an impromptu and peaceful battle of the bands, if only for a few minutes.

For the bored and lonely men trying to while away the evenings, military bands provided much-needed comfort and entertainment.

Songs and stories

Now several dozen bands around the country perform music from the Civil War era — often on authentic instruments and in period attire — but not just to entertain. By telling stories that go with the music, they also provide a lesson in history, a glimpse into the lives of the soldiers and their families as they fought to define the nation’s future.

“We read from the actual diaries of musicians, so you can hear in their own words how they felt about what they were doing at that time,” said Jari Villanueva, an expert on music from the era who co-founded a band in Baltimore that has both Union and Confederate uniforms.

The band, whose members range in age from 16 to 58, plays Union music as the Federal City Brass Band and Confederate music as the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band.

Providing insight

“When you play music from a given time period, you can really look into what a society was all about at that time,” said Villanueva, who has pored over hundreds of the diaries at the Library of Congress in Washington.

He said the songs from the Civil War — with their depictions of how life was before the war, their patriotic messages, and the longing for loved ones left at home — give some insight into what the soldiers on both sides believed they were fighting for.

John James, of the Fort Hill String Band in Louisville, Ky., said one of the requests his band gets most often is for a song called “Lorena” that was popular before the war and was a favorite of Confederate soldiers.

James said it is rumored that field commanders didn’t like bands to play the song, a sad one about lost love, for fear that it would cause men to lose morale or even to desert.

James said that while he relishes telling the stories of the Civil War’s songs, he also hopes the music will help ignite an interest in the history of the war itself.

“A lot of historians talk about the Civil War being a defining point in our history, and I think so, too,” he said. “It settled some important issues once and for all for our country — slavery, secession and the role of the federal government. So I think it’s really important for people to learn about that era.”

Many folks listening to the music know the period well, and for some the tensions of the war have not completely faded.

“When we first started playing the music, we were under the misapprehension that the war was over,” joked Joe Ewers, a founding member of the Gettysburg, Pa.-based 2nd South Carolina String Band.

When the band included two Union songs — “Marching Through Georgia” and “Lincoln and Liberty Too” — on its second album, it “made it virtually impossible to sell that tape in parts of the South.” The offending songs were dropped when the band combined its first two tapes in a CD.

Ewers said his band has since stuck to songs that were universally popular at the time or that were specifically Southern.

An Illinois native, the 63-year-old Ewers said he has identified with the Confederacy since he first started learning about American history at the age of 10. “I can’t explain why,” he said, noting that his bandmates, most from the North, feel the same. “The heart knows no Mason-Dixon line.”

At the end of a dance, the band plays “Dixie,” pairing it with “Southern Soldier.”

“It’s a barn burner,” Ewers said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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