The California Regimental String Band
History comes to life the California Regimental String Band (banjo-mandolin player George Martin and guitarist Pauline Scholten) bring their musical program of Songs of the Civil War to schools.
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was famously not musical. He said, “I know two songs. One is ‘Yankee Doodle,' the other isn't.” But Grant was in the minority, for music was a cherished part of military life in the Civil War. Combining period songs with stories and anecdotes about the War Between the States, George and Pauline put a human face on the great struggle to preserve the Union.
Beginning with the pre-Civil War “John Brown's Body Lies A-Mouldring in the Grave,” the program explores the music that was sung around the campfires by both the Union and Confederate troops. In the process, little-known facts and stories are brought out. For
instance: the familiar “Stars and Bars” was not the official flag of the Confederate States of America but only its battle flag. The official flag was a plain blue flag with one large white star on it. And there is a song about that banner: “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”
And a movie: in “Gone With the Wind,” when Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara have a baby daughter they name her “Bonnie Blue Butler,” after the flag.
Another little-known insight concerns the anthem “Dixie,” long credited to a Northern white mistrel, Dan Emmett, the song, according to a 2003 book (Way Up North in Dixie by Howard L. Sacks and Judith Rose
Sacks) published by University of Illinois Press, was actually taught to Emmett by the Snowden family, black musicans and farmers of rural Knox County, Ohio. The song became the most-loved tune of the South and was popular among Northerners as well.
The well-known proverb that “an army marches on its stomach” is explored in songs such as “Hard Tack,” a parody of Stephen Foster's “Hard Times Come Again No More,” as soldiers disparage the “dried mummies of hard crackers” that formed a large part of Army rations. Early in the war, the Union opened warehouses and dispensed hard tack that was left over from the Mexican War (1846-1848). Union soldiers dunked the crackers in hot coffee, then skimmed off the bugs that floated to the surface and ate the softened crackers.
“The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Lorena” are songs about the girls waiting at home, South and North respectively. “The Siege of Vicksburg” describes the sounds of Parrot shells and Minie balls -- two types of Civil War ordnance that killed some 620,000 Americans at a time when the population of the country was only 32 million.
George and Pauline's program can be condensed to 30 minutes to allow more classes to see it, or can be the normal 50 minutes to an hour. The two wear period dress, Pauline as a civilian woman of the time and George in a Union Army uniform. George's banjo and mandolin are not quite of Civil War vintage but from the early 20th Century, and would have been easily recognizable in the 1860s.