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American Civil War Era Sheet Music Collection

Identifier: spe-w00093

Scope and Contents

These materials are gathered together because they are all pieces of sheet music published between 1852 and 1918, with the majority published during the American Civil War. Chicago-based music publishing companies Root & Cady and H.M. Higgins appear most frequently in this collection. Publishers from other cities around the country are represented as well. While many composers and lyricists are represented in this collection, several are more common, including Henry C. Work and George F. Root who both worked for Root & Cady. The song topics include but are not limited to famous generals, soldiers and the horrors and glory of the war. Many are presented in the form of marches, ballads and polkas, and are dedicated to a specific person or group. The cover page of each piece of sheet music is also noteworthy, as many are adorned with detailed sketches of a person or place significant to both the song and the war.


  • Creation: 1845 - 1918
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1862 - 1864


Conditions Governing Access

Materials are open without restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Please consult staff to determine ability to reuse materials from collection.

Biographical / Historical

Near the end of 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Within a few months, ten more states had seceded. The American Civil War officially began April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Illinois participated on the Union side by sending hundreds of thousands of troops into battle. Many military and political leaders trace their roots to Illinois. The war lasted nearly four years, ending on April 9, 1865, when the Confederacy surrendered. A few days later, on April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Not long after the war ended, veterans began forming organizations. One of the longest-lasting was the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), begun in April 1866 in Decatur, Illinois. Posts were established in different places, grouped under state-level departments, in turn grouped under a national commander-in-chief. The GAR disbanded in 1956 when the last veteran died.

In Chicago, the GAR Memorial Hall Association shared space with Chicago Public Library (CPL). In 1883, the Library Board chose the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street as the location for its future building. At the time, the site was vacant and known as Dearborn Park, named for its proximity to the site of Fort Dearborn. Because of this, many people believed the land was reserved for the GAR. Ultimately, legal action determined the library could have the land, but it had to make room for the GAR, which wanted a memorial hall for its members. CPL gave the GAR extensive rooms and signed a fifty year lease that expired in 1947. At that time, the Library took over caring for the GAR's significant collection of art, artifacts, papers, weapons and more. With the GAR’s material as a base, the library has continued to build its Civil War collection over the years, with a focus on the Illinois experience.

Music played an essential role during the war, both for the soldiers actively fighting and people on the home front. For the soldiers, music served as a form of motivation, a way to keep their spirits up at camp. While there were army bands, often times the music would be sung by the soldiers themselves to commemorate a fallen comrade or remember their homes. Since both sides could hear the other from across no man’s land, Union soldiers would play patriotic northern songs and Confederate soldiers would play patriotic southern songs, each attempting to play louder than the other. On multiple occasions, this would eventually cease and they would play the same song in unison.

Although not represented in this collection, songs sung and written by enslaved people and free African Americans were passed down from generation to generation during the hundreds of years of slavery. They were used as a form of communication on the middle passage, the Underground Railroad and elsewhere. During the Civil War, these songs continued, and included topics like religion, freedom and survival. In addition to their part in the war, these “spirituals” laid the basis for American blues music.

On the home front, music was used both to remember loved ones at war, and as a recruitment tool during rallies. It also helped to bring the two sides back together after the war. After Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 10, 1865, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in which he requested that the band play Dixie, an old Southern song. This request symbolically signified an end to the separation between the north and south, and a hope for goodwill in the future.

Chicago music publishing firms Root & Cady and H.M. Higgins found a national market during the American Civil War era. Neither company survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but their output during the Civil War and shortly after made Chicago a center of music publishing.


5.5 Linear Feet (in 2 boxes and 2 bound volumes)

Language of Materials



Music played an essential role during the American Civil War, both for the soldiers actively fighting and people on the home front. The majority of the sheet music in this collection was published during the American Civil War, by Chicago music publishing companies Root & Cady and H.M. Higgins, featuring composers and lyricists like Henry C. Work and George F. Root.


Sheet music is arranged in two series:

  • Series 1: Songs composed during or about the American Civil War
  • Series 2: Sheet music unrelated to the American Civil War

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The items were acquired through a variety of means over the years. Those items with accession numbers beginning with “72” were originally part of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Collection. The items with accession numbers beginning with a number other than “72” were either donated to or purchased by Chicago Public Library.

Related Materials

  • American Civil War Documents, Manuscripts, Letters and Diaries and Grand Army of the Republic Collection
  • American Civil War Era Newspapers
  • American Civil War Photographs and Images and Grand Army of the Republic Photographs and Images
  • Army of the Potomac Reports
  • Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, 1861-1865, Records
  • Cataloged items of interest include: M1639.R76B9, M2198.R66 M9, M1994.R66C67, M1994.R66F67, PS595.C55W27

Guide to the American Civil War Era Sheet Music Collection
Emma Lipkin; supervised by Johanna Russ, July 2018. Updated and ingested into ArchivesSpace by Johanna Russ, 2021.
2018 July
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Unit at Harold Washington Library Center Repository

Harold Washington Library Center, 9th Floor
Chicago Public Library
400 S. State Street
Chicago IL 60605 United States
(312) 747-4875