Shape Note Singing as a Civil War Coping Mechanism

by James Brookes

The American tradition of shape note singing was well-established and had seen many decades of development by the commencement of the American Civil War. As early as the turn of the century, The Easy Instructor and The Musical Primer, published in 1801 and 1803 respectively, used shaped note heads for instruction in singing schools. Those involved in a singing would sit on four sides of a hollow square (divided into treble, alto, tenor and bass) facing one another, and would participate in songs relating to various religious themes, such as praise (31b Webster), salvation (47t Primrose), redemption (77t The Child of Grace) and reunion (260 Farewell Anthem). As Zach Allen writes in the introduction to the 1994 Christian Harmony, “written music, in its complexity, has often been accessible only to the educated… In the mid-18th century, efforts were made in America to simplify the musical learning process by assigning shapes to notes of the musical scale.”[1] The form of choral music utilised accessible participation, an aversion to instrumental accompaniment and the rotation of song leaders in order to establish itself as an embodiment of American democracy.[2]

Union Sacred Harp Convention, 131b Invocation

Shape note singing provided a communal form of music which was vastly significant during the period of westward migration. It was a simplistic expression of American culture rooted in shared Christian ideals that were contextually applicable to the livelihoods of many of those who practiced it. The aforementioned themes would be comforting to the thousands who uprooted themselves during the antebellum era in order to carve out a new living in the West, spurred on by factors such as land acquisitions, the expansion of slavery and the removal of Native Americans. Westward migration was fraught with the dangers of disability or death caused by illness, exposure and violence. The insistence that death was part of a journey towards ultimate salvation and reunion with ones’ family in Heaven surely provided comfort to those settlers who ventured out with an uncertainty surrounding their physical presence.  According to David W. Steel, the 1850s were “a period of growth for Sacred Harp singing” (the Sacred Harp book, first published in 1844, was modelled after existing shape note books, and the 1991 edition is in use to this day).[3] The Sacred Harp has established itself as a suitable case study when considering shape note singing in the nineteenth century United States due to its longevity and the academic interest, especially from the authors such as Buell E. Cobb, Jr., that it has attracted.

Such fears regarding the destruction of the physical self and the assurance of eternal rest in Heaven were clearly manifested in letters, diaries and portraiture during the conflict. In fact, it seems logical to assume that such fears were greater; considering the heightened sense of separation and mortality that war brings with it as opposed to that of other shifts during the century such as westward migration. In 1855, G. H. Perdue stated in an article published in the Sacred Harp composer B. F. White’s Harris County, Georgia, newspaper, The Organ: “Music has a powerful effect on our feelings, and in this world of care and trouble it would be extremely difficult to get along without this soul-enlivening gift of God.”[4] In a letter to his wife, Frank Batchelor of Terry’s Texas Rangers wrote in 1864: “O how sweet the thought that after the busy cares of this mortal life we shall be permitted to join our dear George “in the green fields of Eden,” and dwell together, without care or sorrow”.[5] The lines contained within shape note songs do not require explanation in order to establish their importance to the soldier at war:

“And God grant we may meet in together in that world above,

Where trouble shall cease and harmony shall abound!”[6]


“Shout on, pray on, we’re gaining ground, Glory Hallelujah!

The dead’s alive, and the lost is found, Glory Hallelujah!”[7]

Henagar Union Sacred Harp Convention, 277 Antioch

Several Sacred Harp composers served in the military during the Civil War, though this number was surely reduced by the fact that many, being professionals and preachers, could exempt themselves from service. William Hauser, author of The Hesparian Harp, served with the 48th Georgia as a chaplain and James L. Pickard, composer of 275t Loving-Kindness in 1850, died of measles in a military hospital in Savannah in 1863.[8] According to Steel, at least fourteen of the composers represented in the 1991 edition of the Sacred Harp served in the Confederate forces. James William Dadmum, the Massachusetts clergyman who composed 154 Rest for the Weary, joined the war effort as a Federal chaplain, and published Army Melodies in 1861. William Edward Chute, a Canadian-born Unionist, was under Sherman’s command in his assault on Atlanta and his March to the Sea.[9]

The presence of these pillars of shape note singing within the armies surely allowed the choral form to flourish, at least within their particularly vicinities within the army. William Jefferson Moseley of the 10th Georgia wrote “we have some of the best singings around the camp fire I have ever heard, since Troupe Edmonds and E.T. Pound used to teach singing school… Ma, you and the girls get out the old Sacred Harp songbook, turn to the old song invocation on page 131, sing it, and think of me.” Shape note singing seemed inseparable from celebrated communal morals and values, as Moseley also noted: “There are some of the boys here, that start playing cards and gambling as soon as they draw their money and in two days they haven’t got a cent… I have been in the war two years and I do not know one card from another, but I do know my notes”.[10] In Moseley’s case, practising shape note singing during his military service conveyed the impression that he retained the values of the domestic sphere, certainly in defiance to the sinful temptations of army life. In May 1863, James M. Jordan wrote to his sister-in-law, the composer Sarah Lancaster, Guinea Station, near Chancellorsville, to thank her for sending a piece of original music.[11]

Although one may note that southerners, particularly Georgians, were those to engage with the choral music, it is important to remember that such examples relate to the Sacred Harp singing book, published in Georgia, and one of many shape note books available in the United States in the antebellum and Civil War era. Shape note singing was indeed a coping mechanism encouraged by some chaplains and practised by some soldiers in order to manage the fratricidal chaos unfolding during the years 1861 to 1865. Though the existence of shape note singing as a cultural practice in the antebellum United States, North and South, is evident, it remains to be seen clearly in what forms it manifested itself and amongst which demographics it was most prevalent in military life. In May, 1866, in Poplar Springs, Mississippi, a gathering occurred at the local church which included “a few war worn rebs”. Using “the old sacred harp as text” and “mingling their voices together in song, the old veterans seemed to forget for the time being, their dilapidated farms, as well as the hardships and dangers through which they had just passed, and the kind old matrons, thankful that their husbands and sons were once again permitted to be with them on the old hill, seemed to pour forth their joy and gratitude in songs of praise.”[12]

[1] Allen, Zack, ‘Foreword.’ (Asheville: Folk Heritage Books, 1994), in Walker, William, The Christian Harmony (Philadelphia: Miller’s Bible and Publishing House, 1873)

[2] Cobb, Jr., Buell E., The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and its Music, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004), p. 131

[3] Steel, David W., Hulan, Richard H., The Makers of the Sacred Harp, (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010), p. 16

[4] The Organ, 31 October, 1855.

[5] Batchelor, Frank, to ‘Dear Wife’, in Batchelor-Turner Letters: 1861-1864: Written by Two of Terry’s Texas Rangers, annotated by Rugeley,  H. J. H., (Austin: Steck Co., 1961), p. 80

[6] 260 ‘Farewell Anthem.’

[7] 277 ‘Antioch.’

[8] Steel, Makers of the Sacred Harp, p. 17

[9] Ibid., p. 18

[10] Cobb, Jr., The Sacred Harp, p. 76-77

[11] Jordan, James M., to Lancaster, Sarah, May 7, 1863, Lancaster Papers, Georgia State Library, quoted in Steel, Makers of the Sacred Harp, p. 18

[12] ‘Poplar Springs, Calhoun Co.’, Calhoun Monitor-Herald, May 7, 1903, quoted in Steel, Makers of the Sacred Harp, p. 18