“The Battle Cry of Freedom.” Written by George Frederick Root.
Release Date: July 26, 1862.
“The Battle-Cry of Freedom.” Music by Hermann L. Schreiner. Lyrics by William H. Barnes.
Release Date: 1864.
I’m currently neck-deep in an article on the mid-19th Century Chicago music publishing firm, Root & Cady. It will likely appear in the fall edition of Chicago History and I’ll probably expand it into a longer piece down the road. In practical terms, this means I’m blogging a little less, at least for now. In intellectual terms, it means I’m starting to think about Civil war music more deeply—something I haven’t really done since I wrote my book a few years ago. Those of you who read Battle Hymns probably picked up on my fondness for Root & Cady, since the firm embodied my central idea of Civil War Americans using popular music to reflect and influence public opinion. Thus, although I’ve already blogged about three Root & Cady songs (here, here, and here), I thought it would be fun to write a little about the firm’s biggest hit, “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” But I think I’ll do it with a twist. A lot of people wrote their own versions of the song, but the most popular contrafactum (as musicologists call songs with the same melody but different lyrics) was probably a Confederate version by Hermann L. Schreiner and William H. Barnes. So, let’s compare the two and see what we find.
I wrote an article for the New York Times Disunion blog about the original “Battle Cry” back in 2012, so I won’t recount the song’s history here. Suffice it to say, George Frederick Root, the Civil War’s most successful songwriter, took inspiration from Abraham Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers in the summer of 1862 and the resulting tune instantly became a major hit in the Union armies and on the home-front. By the end of the war, “The Battle Cry of Freedom” was one of the North’s primary anthems and still holds a prominent place in our collective Civil War memory (most recently featured in the climax of Spielberg’s Lincoln).
The verses primarily describe Americans rallying from various parts of the nation to join the Union Army, “shouting the battle cry of freedom.” The real meat is in the chorus, which pairs a rousing melody with a concise declaration of purpose:
The Union forever, hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor, up with the star;
While we rally round the flag boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom.
In 4 short lines it hits 4 key elements of the Union cause: preserving the Union, fighting treason, protecting the flag, and spreading freedom. The latter point is especially relevant, as the song never defines “freedom” but repeats the phrase “battle cry of freedom” over and over again. Root was an avowed and public abolitionist, so his version of “freedom” surely did not include slavery. He would write more overtly abolitionist songs down the road but there’s a clever subtlety to his use of “freedom” here. Writing for a northern audience not yet officially committed to emancipation, Root made the song vague enough that die-hard unionists and abolitionists could project their own ideologies onto the lyrics, without otherwise changing the song’s meaning. We know it worked because both sides did exactly that—with Democrats using the song as a pure statement of Unionism and abolitionists pairing it with “John Brown’s Body” as a major abolitionist anthem.
Of course, both Union and emancipation were anathema to Confederates, but southern music publishers just couldn’t ignore a melody as good as “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” The result was a handful of pro-Confederate rewrites, but none enjoyed the success of “The Battle-Cry of Freedom,” published by J. C. Schreiner & Son, the Confederacy’s most prolific and beleaguered wartime publishing house, in 1864. The Union and Confederacy didn’t honor each other’s copyright laws, but Schreiner nevertheless made two superficial adjustments to be safe: the hyphen in the title and the recasting of “Shouting the battle cry of freedom” to “Shout, shout the battle cry of freedom.” Otherwise, the chorus is basically an inverted version of the original:
Our Dixie forever, she’s never at a loss
Down with the eagle and up with the cross;
We’ll rally round the bonny flag, we’ll rally once again
Shouting the battle cry of freedom.
These lines always give me a chuckle. The authors are so obviously ripping off Root’s original, but also double-down on trying to borrow from the reputation of other songs by referencing both of the Confederacy’s most popular anthems: “Dixie” in the first line and “The Bonnie Blue Flag” in the third. Add the publishers forgetting to add the title’s anti-litigious hyphen to “battle cry” and you get a comically mercenary piece of art.
The rest of the lyrics discard Root’s recruitment theme in favor of an overview of the Confederate war effort. The first verse describes enlistment in the past tense (as opposed to Root’s future tense) and the second describes soldiers dying on battlefields chanting “To tyrants we’ll not yield.” Then we get a verse praising women on the homefront with a modified chorus:
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.
Awkward phrasing aside, this is an interesting verse because it highlights the heightened political role of southern women during the war and their centrality to Confederate nationalism. This was especially true in 1864, when white women’s resistance to Union occupation had become common knowledge. The song demonstrates this by giving these women as much real estate as the men fighting on the front—something unheard of in similarly political Union songs.
The last verse unsurprisingly predicts Confederate victory. That the Union and Confederate versions take these alternating stances—the Union “Battle Cry” spurring men to action and the Confederate “Battle-Cry” encouraging endurance—is interesting. It’s also intriguing that the Confederate version inherently adopts some of the original’s vague ideology. Slavery is completely absent and only the word “free” in the final verse suggests independence. Mostly, the song is just about defeating Yankees and the listener is left to decide why that’s a good idea.
Some of this, I think, is indicative to the whole phenomenon of one side taking songs from the other. In most cases, the new song doesn’t just borrow the melody and phrasing but also the original’s spirit and tone. At worst, this shows a lack of imagination among Civil War songwriters, but I also think it demonstrates how much cultural interaction went on between the North and South. Thematic changes would have seemed awkward because most consumers knew the original songs and just wanted lyrics they could agree with. I’m sure it worked the other way too, with these revisions making their way back to the original authors. There’s no evidence Root ever heard “The Battle-Cry of Freedom” but he likely did and, given his strong Unionism and abolitionist leanings, I’m sure he wasn’t flattered.
- There are lots of great versions of “The Battle Cry of Freedom” floating around out there. While I love Ry Cooder’s take from Boomer’s Story (which I can’t find free online), my favorite will always been Jacqueline Schwab’s dirge-like rendition from The Civil War. I guess I like the tune better slow, since Cooder’s is also down-tempo.
- If you want further proof lots of people rewrote “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” Root even did so himself, with his “Battle Song” targeted at enlisted soldiers.
- Does it mention slavery?: I already covered this, but it’s interesting that neither version directly mentions slavery or African Americans. Interestingly, the contrafacta that blatantly references these aspects of the war are those written by northern anti-war Democrats in 1863 and 1864, which are immensely racist. If I can stomach it, I may do a subsequent post on them because they’re so fascinating. There are also a few versions by African Americans, especially after USCTS entered the Union Army and adopted the “Battle Cry” as one of their marching tunes.
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