Monday, April 12, 2010

Keep Your Powder Dry: The American Civil War

Y'all forgot this blog existed, right? Certainly it seems like I did for a long time. Let's see if we can fix that and get things rolling again.

The relaunch comes with a blog idea I had when the thing was first started - I just had to wait for today to do it.

It was on this day, a mere 149 years ago, that troops acting under orders from Confederate President Jefferson Davis fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, the first shots in what would be a four-year American civil war.

There were many causes behind the war - slavery is the one most people think of, but it was never quite so simple as that. The battle was over the rights of individual states versus increasing federal power. Slavery, and Washington's desire to end it, brought matters to a head, and came to symbolise the fight - but its precise influence is unclear. Heck, even Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens seems confused: his Cornerstone Speech just before the war cited slavery as the chief cause, but then after the war was over, Stephens would insist it was only a contributing factor.

Either way, the battle would tear at the union and create scars some of which have never truly healed. The 'Lost Cause' is a battle some would love to fight even today, and there is a fascinating living history of the American Civil War which continues now. Let me recommend this book, 'Confederates in the Attic' by Tony Horowitz, as an outstanding trip across the southern states and a study on some very bizarre characters who don't seem to realise the war is over.

It was a terrible battle, killing over 600,000 combined, and wounding many more. Despite what some might tell you, there is little to celebrate here.

But the fascinating history has, inevitably, caught the attention of songwriters over the years.

So let us mark this day with five songs that speak to the ongoing influence of events 150 years ago.

The Felice Brothers - The Greatest Show On Earth (The Felice Brothers, 2008)

Yep, it's those Felice Brothers again. They keep finding their way on here, huh? That's because they are such great storytellers as songwriters, and they are so steeped in American history. I'll be honest, I've not figured out quite what this song is on about, referencing everyone from Doris Day to Henry Kissinger, but it all winds up with them heading out to Gettysburg, "the stand of the Greatest Show on Earth". That probably refers to the circus, because the 'show' put on in this Pennsylvania town during the civil war was great, but only in a terrible sense. The bloodiest battle of the war claimed the lives of 3,200 union soldiers and 4,700 confederate soldiers, all in the space of three days. It proved a decisive turning point, and was later made famous by President Lincoln's poignant tribute to the fallen, the Gettysburg Address.

The Drive-By Truckers - Rebels (The Fine Print, 2009)

Continuing their battle with the Felice Brothers for the most appearances on here, the Drive-By Truckers - those grizzled chroniclers of all things Southern - of course have plenty of Civil War references in their music. It's constantly in the background on their epic Southern Rock Opera, but this one is taken from their B-sides collection of last year, The Fine Print.

The Band - The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (The Band, 1969)

Okay, so if the first two songs put the legacy of civil war into more recent history, this one is explicitly about events at the time. Telling the story of a Confederate soldier in the final days of battle, working on the Daville Train - the main supply route for General Lee's army as they desperately clung on to their capital in Richmond. It would eventually fall after a 10 month siege, with Union forces claiming it in April 1865 to ultimately end the war, three days shy of four years after it began. A sad and poignant song, it speaks of the horrors of war through the eyes of a weary soldier who has lost his brother in battle. "Ya take what you need and you leave the rest/But they never should have taken the very best."

Todd Steed and the Suns of Phere - Sunrise Over Fort Sanders (Knoxville Tells, 2002)

I got my first education on the civil war when studying at the University of Tennessee, which lies just across the street from Fort Sanders, where the decisive battle of the Knoxville Campaign was fought in 1863. The Union stronghold was attacked by Confederate General James Longstreet's troops, but they failed to breakthrough, suffering heavy losses. East Tennessee, unlike most of the south, remained largely loyal to the Union throughout. The Confederates desperately needed to capture their stronghold in Knoxville, but Longstreet's campaign was a disaster as he lost 813 men while the Union lost only 13. The area is now dotted with some fine old houses, and was once home to famed author James Agee. Today, students have taken over large areas of the fort, and it is they who are celebrated in this track. Poet and blues musician RB Morris lends his talents as the contrasts are drawn between the morning after battle, and the morning after a heavy night.

Scott Miller - The Rain (Are You With Me? 2000)

Another track with Knoxville roots - Scott Miller is originally from Virginia but now calls East Tennessee home. His first solo LP, Thus Always To Tyrants, was dominated by Civil War songs, but sadly (in my view) this one never made the cut, and has only appeared as a live track. It's still the best thing he's ever written.