In early 1863, at the mid-point in the Civil War, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia were camped on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River, the dividing line between the north and the south. One late afternoon, brigade bands from the Union army gathered down on the riverbank and began to play songs familiar to Union soldiers.
The band played John Brown’s Body, Yankee Doodle, and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, among others that evening. As they played song after song, shouts of approval rose from the Union troops camped along the river. But the shouts of the Union army were echoed enthusiastically by the Confederates camped across on the other bank. As dusk began to creep over the river, the bands quit playing and began to pack up.
A great cry arose from the southern shore, “Play some of our songs,” the southerners cried. The bands brought out their instruments again and began to play songs like, The Yellow Rose of Texas, Tenting Tonight, and Dixie. The Southerners roared with delight, echoed back by their Northern counterparts.
As darkness fell the band concluded its concert. The musicians, tired and weary, began to play a song written 40-years before, Home, Sweet Home:
“‘Mid pleasures and palaces, though we may roam, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”
An impromptu choir of 150,000 men, dressed in uniforms of both the Blue and the Grey, tried to sing that night, but the words stuck in their throats. So both great armies sat in the darkness, listening to the melody of a song that burned in their hearts.
Three months later, General Joseph Hookers’ Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock River and the two mighty foes faced off in the battle of Chancellorsville, a killing field for thousands on each side. But for one night, northerners and southerners all belonged to one family — the brotherhood of homesick soldiers who longed for peace and the presence of the loved ones they held so dear.
— Various accounts of this story have circulated, some stating that Confederate bands answered the Union bands. But, this story was related by Dr. James “Bud” Robertson, Alumni Distinguished Professor of History, Virginia Tech University, at a luncheon in Danville, Virginia that Debbie and I attended on March 22, 2007, as guests of our friends, Ben and Betty Davenport. Dr. Robertson is the pre-eminent academic authority on the Civil War, and his award-winning biography of Stonewall Jackson is a classic in the field of Civil War literature. When Dr. Robertson told this story, his voice cracked as he spoke of the attempt by the great chorus of soldiers to sing “Home, Sweet Home.” It was a moment that moved me as well. — CW