The American Civil War (1861–65) produced staggering numbers of casualties, including from what to this day remains the bloodiest one-day battle (Antietam) in the country's history. Most combatants were young, many still teenagers, or at most in their early twenties, a fact repeatedly and poignantly acknowledged in the poetry and prose of Walt Whitman. The Civil War was the first to be extensively photographed, which brought the realities of its extreme violence into sharp relief throughout the country on both sides of the conflict. Battlefield photographers often focused their cameras on the wounded and dead; some shot close-up corpse studies of young and often notably handsome men, whose physical beauty—likewise acknowledged by Whitman—increased the affective impact of the tragedy. The youth of Civil War soldiers was likewise reflected in thousands of popular ballads produced by Union and Confederate composers and marketed for home-front consumption. Ballads evoking the bond between a mother and her soldier son are especially common. Two such songs, lamentations, by the highly successful northern composer George W. Root are typical: “Just before the Battle, Mother” (1863) and “The Vacant Chair” (1861), the former voiced by a young soldier fearing that he will shortly be killed, and the latter remembering a boy who has fallen. Songs of this sort, explicitly sentimental and folklike, were sometimes critically disparaged even during the war years, though their general popularity (and the popularity of many other songs of this sort)—even to this day—remains considerable. The apparent, guileless sincerity of lamentation ballads develops from a resemblance to the lullaby, a genre evoking the tightest of all human bonds, that between the mother and child. These songs, too easily dismissed as mawkish and cliché-ridden, stay with us for deep-seated social and cultural reasons.
Civil War Imagery, Song, and Poetics: The Aesthetics of Sentiment, Grief, and Remembrance
Richard Leppert is Regents Professor, and Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor, in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. His research is concentrated on Western European and American music and cultural history from the seventeenth century to the present. His most recent book is Aesthetic Technologies of Modernity, Subjectivity, and Nature (Opera – Orchestra – Phonograph – Film), published by the University of California Press (2015).
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Richard Leppert; Civil War Imagery, Song, and Poetics: The Aesthetics of Sentiment, Grief, and Remembrance. 19th-Century Music 1 July 2016; 40 (1): 20–46. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2016.40.1.20
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