Understanding the Music of the Civil War: Performing Ensembles and Multimedia Arts Integration Projects

December 18, 2013


Arts integration provides musical ensembles a unique and creative way to meet learning objectives in music and other content areas while developing skills of the “Framework of 21st Century Learning.” This article describes the process community college students and faculty undertook to develop and present a multimedia concert commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War (1861-1865), representing their understanding of life during the war. Through participation in this creative process, students developed skills, content knowledge, and expertise in the disciplines of music, communication design, and American history. Additionally, students developed “Framework of 21st Century Learning” skills of creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.


This article outlines an approach for incorporating arts integration into the performing ensemble setting and describes how this platform was used to study the American Civil War (1861-1865) while also developing skills of the “Framework of 21st Century Learning.”1 To understand the effect of the war on society at the time, a team of faculty, students, and community members initiated an arts integration project at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) in Alexandria, Virginia. Over one hundred and seventy individuals participated, including faculty and students in the departments of music, communications design, and history, and two community-based groups, the Mount Vernon Concert Band and the Arlington Children’s Chorus. The project culminated in a concert entitled “Understanding our Past, Embracing our Future: Music of the Civil War” on November 11, 2011, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

I served as the Artistic Director and the conductor of the NOVA Concert Band, the primary ensemble around which this project was based. This article begins with a brief overview of arts integration and the “Framework of 21st Century Learning,” followed by a discussion of how the “Learning and Innovation Skills—4 Cs” student outcome from the “Framework of 21st Century Learning” aligns with the implementation of the Civil War project. It then concludes with a description of the multimedia concert, the project’s capstone event.

Arts integration and the “Framework of 21st Century Learning” Four C’s

Arts integration provides a rich opportunity for connecting music with other content areas and for facilitating collaboration among specialists in visual and performing arts.2 In the past two decades, researchers have recognized the integration of the arts as a valid academic approach to broadening learning and facilitating understanding.3 Additionally, within education, there has been an emphasis on preparing students for work and postsecondary study by providing the opportunity to foster learning and innovative skills defined in the “Framework of 21st Century Learning.”4

The NOVA faculty drew upon the Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge program definition of arts integration: “students engaging in a creative process, which connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both.”5 The program further identifies three types of arts integration: (1) Arts as Curriculum, in which objectives are met in a particular art form; (2) Arts-Enhanced Curriculum, in which arts support objectives in other subjects; and (3) Arts-Integrated Curriculum, in which the artistic process generates an understanding and connection between art form and another subject area. This project falls into the third category, where students met learning objectives through their participation in the creative process, fostering connections between music, communication design, and American history, thereby increasing understanding in all three disciplines.

The project began as a discussion between NOVA faculty and community members of a planned reenactment of Abraham Lincoln’s review of the newly formed “Army of the Potomac” in Bailey’s Crossroads in Fairfax, VA. The original Grand Review took place on November 20, 1861 after the defeat of the Union Army in the Battle of 1st Bull Run/Manassas earlier that summer.6  It was reported that “occupying over 50,000 troops, including seven divisions—seven regiments of cavalry, ninety regiments of infantry, [and] twenty batteries of artillery, took part in the review, at that time the largest ever held in America.”7  Among the guests was Mrs. Julia Ward Howe who was inspired by this event to write the immortal lines of the “Battle Hymn Republic.”8 To complement the reenactment and offer the students (many of whom were first-generation Americans) opportunities to better understand the Civil War, the Liberal Arts faculty sponsored a history conference that would conclude with a concert of Civil War music.

Through arts integration students think about important ideas, interpret them, and relate them to themselves in their own time and context.9 Specifically, students focused on developing and demonstrating their understanding of how nineteenth-century soldiers and their families used music to promote ideals and cope with the experiences of war. Music during this time was shaped by military and political ideals, and citizens’ need for songs of inspiration, sorrow, and laughter.10 The specific student objectives were: (1) demonstrating a cross-content area understanding of the Civil War (music, communication arts, and history) supported by technology, and (2) identifying and interpreting significant music and pictures from the time that defined the culture and life of the 1860s.

The Civil War project also aligned with the four Cs represented in the “Framework of 21st Century Learning”—creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking—which focus on unifying skills, content knowledge, and proficiency with support systems (e.g., technology) to facilitate multi-dimensional mastery required of students in the 21st century.11 Throughout the creation and management of the concert presentation, students developed skills in gathering, organizing, evaluating, and presenting information through multimedia. In addition, this project enhanced critical thinking and the application of content knowledge by building life and career skills through the long-term collaborations between students and faculty from several disciplines.

From its conception, this project illustrated how the goals of the four Cs were met through arts integration. The creativity of both students and faculty was the driving force behind the final product. The idea of a commemorative event quickly spread across the campus and the three disciplines contributed to the planning process. This led to a campus-wide creative collaboration. This sharing of ideas resulted in the addition of a substantial multimedia component. The music department initially coordinated the creative processes; however, as the project progressed no single discipline dictated the results.

Communication was important to ensure that visual and audio components, prepared independently, melded together for the concert. To recognize the voices of each discipline, the students and professors often consulted and revised content in light of each discipline’s objectives. This frequent communication ensured accuracy in the historical information, music selection and interpretation, and technical production. For example, the history professors reviewed and edited music students’ written program notes, while the music and history professors and communication design students collaborated on the visual choices that accentuated the specific musical events in the compositions.

Collaboration was the catalyst for developing the theme for the concert. First, students explored musical and visual artifacts from the Civil War in order to develop an understanding of the styles of the period. Then, students engaged in conversations with each other and with faculty on such topics as how music was used, instruments of the brass bands, photographic realism, and the process of capturing and developing photos in the 19th century. The students were drawn to the pictures and music reflecting the day-to-day life of soldiers. For example, the words of “Goober Peas,” a popular folksong of the day, suggested to them that despite the turbulence surrounding the War Between the States, soldiers found time, even then, to enjoy life's simple pleasures (perhaps most deliciously among them, eating boiled peanuts, or "Goober Peas"). Through collaborative discussions and the selection of artifacts, an overall theme emerged—to show the impact on humanity by telling the story of the war through those who experienced it.

For success in the 21st century, students must be able to manage the wealth of information available to them and stay current with changing technological tools. Therefore, throughout the project, the meaningful and consistent application of technology enabled the students to develop critical thinking skills related to information, media, and technology. For example, the students used technology to research, organize, and evaluate information in libraries and special collections throughout the country.12

Initially, a team surveyed playlists of Civil War re-enactor regimental bands, brass band music of the Civil War (e.g. Brass Band Journal, Manchester Cornet Books), and piano music from 1870-1900 representing music of the Civil War and created a database containing information on song titles, composers, source, function, and whether the music was utilized by the North, South, or both.13 Selections that were listed in two or more sources were retained on the assumption that those were the most popular of the day and in the hopes that contemporary arrangements could be found. Sixteen selections incorporating Civil War tunes or Civil War-inspired topics, ranging in difficulty from grades three through six, were located. Modern arrangements were also discovered in the JCPenney Bicentennial Music Project Collection, housed at the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.14 Ultimately, a mix of published works, commissions, and student arrangements were selected for the concert.

Connecting the Visual, Musical, and Historical

Throughout the concert, a combination of still images, texts, and video were projected on a large screen at the back of the stage. Because the student visual designers needed to hear the music early in the design process, the team chose to integrate only published music and one arrangement with the videos. Five pieces were chosen to combine with visuals: “The Blue and the Gray,” “They Shall Run and be Free,” “The Vacant Chair,” “Home, Sweet Home,” and “Hymn to the Fallen.”15

Early in the process the students went to the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian) where they toured a Civil War exhibition for visual ideas and saw battlefield printing presses and an original copy of Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War.” Additionally, students examined images from the Selected Civil War Photographs Collection housed in the Prints and Photograph division of the United States Library of Congress, particularly the work of Matthew Brady.16 Here they found appropriate high-resolution images (photographs, engravings, and woodcuts) and used them in the creation of the various storyboards. The students researched typography from the era and made visually appropriate decisions based on the research.

Guided by a team of professors from each of the disciplines, students created storyboards that sequentially organized the images to depict the students’ interpretation of the theme of the concert. The storyboard process involved visualizing key frames tied to shifts in the music. Each team worked to match specific visuals to musical cues in order to communicate the larger story of people's experience. The lead student visual designer for “The Blue and Gray” described her vision in an excerpt from the program notes:

The Civil War affected millions of lives, yet 150 years later we only associate a handful of names with its battles. The songs of the war epitomize the forgotten soldiers who were not famous generals, but whose contributions were no less important. Within the accompanying images of military divisions and groups that may still be identifiable are portraits of some of the unknown, along with their letters describing their experiences, longing and hopes.

Figure 1 shows the storyboard for “The Blue and Gray.”

a-figure1Figure 1. Student storyboard for “The Blue and the Gray”

Next, students converted the still images featured on the storyboards into a movie using video production software Final Cut Pro X, applying a technique that combined zooming and fading transitions (known as the “Ken Burns Effect”) to create movement that drew the audience’s attention to certain portions of the pictures and, when paired with changes in musical elements such as dynamics, tonal color, motives, and form, enhanced the emotional impact of the concert. For example, in “They Shall Run and Be Free,” composition which portrays a terrifying slave escape on the underground railroad contrasted with a tender setting of the Negro spiritual “Oh Freedom,” students waited until the final cadence to use abolitionist Harriett Tubman’s portrait to illustrate their hopeful and optimistic point of view and heighten the emotional impact of that final musical moment.

The students’ vision and use of the “Ken Burns effect” required me, as the conductor of the ensemble, to coordinate the music with what was on the screen phrase-by-phrase, comparable to conducting a film score live. There were many collaborative rehearsals between the student video designers and student musicians so adjustments could be made to the musical performance and videos. During these sessions, the student designers were constantly editing the order, focal points, and pacing of the pictures. It was important to them that their visual images connect to and compliment emotional story of the aural images. To aid in synchronizing the music with the video, I taped pictures from the storyboard into my score. This enabled me to see when each picture should begin and end, and helped me match particular musical moments with specific angles, zooms, or fades in the video. During the concert, I was able to change tempos, and add ritards, accelerandos, and rubatos, to match the images on the large screen behind the band.

To honor the soldiers of the Civil War and of all American wars, “Hymn to the Fallen” was chosen to close the concert. This was especially poignant, since the concert was held on Veterans Day. The video created for “Hymn to the Fallen” began with black and white Civil War images of soldiers juxtaposed in the last few minutes with contemporary color photos of the Tomb of the Unknown Civil War Soldier. At the final key change, the closing picture, focused on the tomb, slowly zoomed out to include a panoramic view of all of present day Arlington National Cemetery. In another student visual designer’s words:

The somber tone of the “Hymn to the Fallen” is what inspired the arrangement of this selection of images. We see soldiers in tender moments with their loved ones before going to war, as fighters on battlefields, and as memories in the form of a portrait held in a grieving child’s hands. We also see more modern images, which show that the soldiers of the Civil War were no different from those of today. The juxtaposition of images, from then to now, reminds us that their history is our history.

Arranging Music for the Concert

Many of the selections for the concert had to be arranged by students. These arrangements were based on brass band music found in the Library of Congress’s Band Music from the Civil War Era Collection, piano music printed in the nineteenth century from the Library of Congress: Music for the Nation, and other collections found at Duke and Johns Hopkins Universities.17 Guided by the faculty, students made myriad decisions regarding how to set these sounds for today’s band instrumentation and modern audiences. First, they performed much of the piano music to help them create an aural definition of the "sound" of the Civil War and to help them develop an understanding of the style of the tunes, the text, the accompaniment figures, and the form. Then, students studied period instruments of the time and compared them to modern instruments. Next, they listened to current day civil war re-enactment band recordings and analyzed modern arrangements of Civil War music. Finally, under the guidance of NOVA composition faculty, the students created their arrangements, making decisions on the tonal harmony and form as well as expanding the orchestration for modern day band instrumentation while capturing the mood of 1800s.

To aid the student arrangers, the band rehearsed several versions of the compositions, allowing time for feedback from professors and musicians, and subsequent adjustments. Students typically revised their arrangements four times in order to draw nineteenth century sounds from twenty-first century ensembles. For example, the student who arranged “Captain Shepherd’s Quickstep” found a brass band arrangement in the manuscript band books of the Manchester Cornet Band.18 To supplement the brass parts, the student chose to add a castanet, which appears in the published piano arrangement and drum and piccolo parts from the arrangement in Squire's Centennial Collection of Band Music, or New Olio No. 3.19 Additionally, the student added an introduction, arranged the song’s themes for modern audience listening tastes, and reordered the themes to create a traditional march form in the style of John Phillip Sousa’s marches.

This laboratory environment illustrated the collaboration and communication interwoven throughout this project. A student arranger commented:

The Civil War music, especially those tunes that haven't survived the transition to modern music over the century, were hard to evaluate in terms of what would be pleasing to an audience. Hearing several versions in a lab setting allowed me to refine the arrangement and adapt it subtly to achieve the full impact of the music as it was intended. The structural changes, additions of or changes in voicing or percussion, and in some cases, tonal changes sought to preserve the "flavor" of the music while enabling the full impact of the music's description of life in the 1860s. In addition, the ability to "hear" several versions allowed me to tailor the difficulty of the music to accurately define the musical level needed for performance.

The concert

The free concert was presented at Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center in Alexandria, VA, to a full house of over 1,000 patrons. The college chorus, re-enactors, a local children’s chorus, several narrators, and two soloists joined the band. One of the soloists, performing on an antique E-flat cornet from 1860 and in original Civil War uniform, was Dr. Dennis Edelbrock, retired from The United States Army Band "Pershing's Own." He performed a grand fantasia on one of the most popular songs of the Civil War, "Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! (The Prisoner's Hope)."20 The Arlington Children’s Choir performed an arrangement of Civil War children’s songs created by Dr. Jason Lovelace (NOVA faculty member) that were popular during this pivotal moment in American history.21 Re-enactors, dressed as civilians and military members, added realism to the concert by reading letters and telling stories depicting the human experience during the war.

The impact of sounds not heard in 150 years, coupled with pictures of Civil War soldiers and families without fathers, proved a powerful illustration of the despair many Americans felt in 1861. Audience members remarked that the narration, based on historical facts and quotes from that time, coupled with the story told through a combination of visual and musical elements, fostered a deeper appreciation of the Civil War’s effects on each of us. One audience member commented that the combination of the music with the photographs on a large screen, as well as having a great-great-grandfather who served in the war, created a moving and poignant experience. This introspective understanding of the Civil War—and war in general—was a vivid demonstration of how arts integration can impact lives.

In the weeks after the concert, the faculty and the students from all disciplines involved expressed the how they had gained an appreciation of the power of collaboration and arts integration to enable a multifaceted level of understanding not always attained in a traditional large ensemble setting. Beyond just developing and demonstrating competencies of the “Framework of 21st Century Learning,” the faculty and students appreciated the value of communicating understanding through both visual art and music, and the power of the arts to express the inexpressible.


The concert was supported through partial grants from the Northern Virginia Community College Foundation and the Virginia Community College System. I would like to thank Provost Peter Maphumulo, Dean Jim McClellan, Assistant Dean Elizabeth Hill, and the faculty and students of the Alexandria Campus Liberal Arts Division of Northern Virginia Community College for their work on the project. I would like to thank Marcelyn Atwood, Dr. Joshua Duchan (Wayne State University) and Dr. Emery Stephens (Wayne State University) for their support in bringing this project to the College Music Symposium: The Journal of The College Music Society.



1Partnership for 21st Century Skills, “Framework for 21st Century Learning.”

2Burnaford, Brown, Doherty, and McLaughlin, Arts Integration Frameworks, Research & Practice: A Literature Review, 1-59.

3Catterall, “Does Experience in the Arts Boost Academic Achievement?” 89-96.

4Partnership for 21st Century Skills, “Framework for 21st Century Learning.”

5Kennedy Center ArtsEdge, “What is Arts Integration?”

6Holien, “Brilliant Beyond Description,” 6-13.

7Virginia Department of Historical Resource, “Historical Highway Markers: Lincoln Reviews Troops at Bailey's Crossroads ” T-40.

8Hall, The Story of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, 49-63.

9Parsons, “Art and integrated curriculum,” 777.

10Silber, Songs of the Civil War, 3-4.

11Partnership for 21st Century Skills, “Framework for 21st Century Learning.”

12Examples of these included collections housed at the Library of Congress, Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Johns Hopkins University.

13The North and South used many of the same tunes, but with different texts.

14In December of 1974, JCPenney gifted this collection of music entitled “a Bicentennial Music Celebration” to high schools and colleges throughout the country. It was the first corporate program to be made an official part of the nation’s Bicentennial festivities and includes seventy minutes of historical music spanning all two hundred years of American music and thirty minutes of newly commissioned contemporary American works. The gift including music for bands, orchestras, choirs, and jazz ensembles, was given to over 30,000 schools. A copy of this collection is housed in is archived at the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, http://smu.edu/cul/degolyer/.

15Henry Rowley Bishop, arranged by Marcelyn Atwood “Home, Sweet Home”; Clare Grundman, “The Blue and the Gray” (Boosey & Hawkes, 1961); Aaron Hettinga, “Vacant Chair” (Daehn Publications, 2000); Brant Karrick, “They Shall Run and be Free” (Alfred Music Publishing, 2009); and John Williams, arranged by Paul Lavender, “Hymn to the Fallen” (Hal Leonard Corporation, 1999).

16Selected Civil War Photographs Collection, Prints and Photograph Division of the United States Library of Congress.

17Band Music from the Civil War Era Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress: Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, Music Division, Library of Congress: Historic American Sheet Music, Duke University Libraries: Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Special Collections Division of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library. Johns Hopkins University.

18Graffulla, “Captain Shepherd’s Quickstep” Manchester Cornet Band Books, second set, no. 120.

19Graffulla, “Captain Shepherd’s Quickstep,” in Squire's Centennial Collection of Band Music, or New Olio No. 3.

20Rollinson, "Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! (The Prisoner's Hope).”

21“Civil War Medley” is a setting for SA choir and band of five songs that were popular in 1860s America- "Pop Goes the Weasel," "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh," "The Old Union Wagon," "Grandfather's Clock," and "Goober Peas."



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Graffulla, Claudio S. Captain Shepherd’s Quickstep. Philadelphia: Beck & Lawton, 1850.

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------ “Captain Shepherd’s Quickstep.” In Squire's Centennial Collection of Band Music, or New Olio No. 3. Cincinnati: Squire, 1876.

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Rollinson, Thomas. Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! (The Prisoner's Hope). New York: Carl Fischer, 1914. accessed July 9, 2011 www.Bandmusicpdf.org

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