Weird History

14 Modern Songs About The Civil War

Songs have enormous power, retelling stories of the past and present, perhaps even giving insights into the future. Across musical genres, songs can transmit information about fierce conflict, the lives of soldiers, and the hardships felt by innocent victims. Civil War songs can be especially haunting, mixing soulful lyrics with the emotional legacy of a deeply divided nation.

There are numerous songs from the Civil War era, marching tunes and fireside hymns among them. But musicians continue to sing about the conflict today, with modern songs that both explicitly and implicitly incorporate Civil War subject matter - revealing hard truths about change, reconciliation, and the ever-present pain of conflict.

The vast majority of the songs below are sung from the Confederate perspective. Musicians, it seems, share with Gone With the Wind's Rhett Butler a "weakness for lost causes."

  • 'Surrender Under Protest' - Drive-By Truckers

    Included on their 2016 album American Band,  "Surrender Under Protest" by the Drive-By Truckers engages listeners by invoking the fallen Confederacy as a model for moving on - and moving forward.

    The song, written by band member Mike Cooley, is instructive in its lyrics, reminding listeners, "If the victims and aggressors just remain each others' others; and the instigators never fight their own," the battle never really ends.

    Instead of admitting absolute defeat, however, it is possible to "[s]urrender under protest if you must," never losing one's Southern roots entirely while acknowledging the South's troubled past and complicated history. The song was especially poignant as conversations about lowering Confederate flags - a symbol often associated with the band - were taking place around the country at the same time.

    Buy at
    Amazon buy button
  • 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' - The Band
    Photo: Capitol Records / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 1.0

    "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," written by Robbie Robertson, was recorded by the Band in 1969. The song went on to be covered by Joan Baez and Johnny Cash, among others.

    "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" tells the story of the final days of the Civil War from the perspective of poor white Southerner Virgil Caine. As Union General George Stoneman ravaged Virginia in 1865, Caine describes his struggle to survive - "hungry, just barely alive."

    The song encapsulates the utter devastation felt by Southerners at the conflict's end. Caine is willing to accept his fate as a poor farmer, yet struggles to understand why his brother perished for the Confederate cause: 

    Like my father before me, I will work the land
    And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand
    He was just eighteen, proud and brave
    But a Yankee laid him in his grave

    Buy at
    Amazon buy button
  • 'Andersonville' - Dave Alvin

    Dave Alvin, a singer, songwriter, and guitarist from California, released "Andersonville" in 1991. The song retells a story Alvin heard about his great-great-uncle, who had been an inmate at Andersonville, the notoriously brutal Confederate prison at Camp Sumter, Georgia, where nearly one-third of the inmates perished over its 14 months in operation. 

    Alvin's lyrics capture the horrors of Andersonville, where his narrator pulls "worms out of the mud 'cuz there's nothing left to eat," expecting to "die in Andersonville." By the end of the song, all the inmate can hope for is an end to his suffering, dreaming of a woman he hopes will "someday... lay a flower on my grave." 

    Buy at
    Amazon buy button
  • 'Ben McCulloch' - Steve Earle

    Benjamin McCulloch was a real soldier who fought for Texas against Mexico during the 1830s, worked as a Texas Ranger and a Federal Marshal, and later perished as a Confederate brigadier general in 1862. The song bearing his name, "Ben McCulloch," was released by Steve Earle in 1995, and is a vitriolic take on McCulloch told from the perspective of one of his infantrymen.

    "Ben McCulloch" recounts how the song's narrator joined to fight with McCulloch, taking advantage of the offer for "a uniform... seven bucks a week... the best rations in the army and a rifle." The realities of armed conflict, and McCulloch, proved much different.

    According to the song, McCulloch's eyes "were cold as the lead and steel forged into tools of war. He took the lives of many and the souls of many more."

    The song then traces a path from Missouri to Arkansas, all while soldiers cry out, "Goddamn you Ben McCulloch, I hate you more than any other man alive." Ultimately, the speaker abandons his post, later learning that McCulloch had perished in battle. 

    Buy at
    Amazon buy button