Songs of the Civil War

Detail of sheet music showing General McClellan
J.H. Rufford, "Major General McClellan's Grand March" (detail), published by Oliver Ditson, Boston, 1861. Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection AS 2018.136.

Through December 22, 2019

During the American Civil War, music had the power to inspire patriotism and service, and to capture loss on the battlefield. This exhibition showcases historical sheet music that provided the soundtrack to a nation divided by war. 

“I don’t think we could have an army without music,” claimed Confederate general Robert E. Lee. During the Civil War, music was a constant companion for soldiers and civilians alike. Both Union and Confederate armies employed professional bands, and singing around the fire was a common way to pass time when stuck in camp. For civilians, music could bridge the distance between the war and life on the home front. Citizens attended rallies where regimental bands played patriotic tunes, and songs of the battlefield became popular in civilian life.

This exhibition explores five subjects prominent in much of the music from the Civil War: songs of patriotism, sorrow, information, and conscription, along with war marches and music by composer John Philip Sousa. Historical music sheets and select recordings by Washington Revels Heritage Voices illustrate the excitement, the emotions, the tragedy, and the humor of this unforgettable time in our nation’s history.

Organized in cooperation with the Albert H. Small Center for National Capital Area Studies.  

Highlights Tours

Free docent-led tours of the galleries are offered Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. Free student-led tours of the exhibition "Fast Fashion/Slow Art" are offered Saturdays at 1 p.m. at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design.