The Sentimental Ballad of the Civil War

Forget “Dixie,” it was one New Yorker’s “Home Sweet Home” that was the song most beloved by Union and Confederate soldiers

There are several accounts of Confederate and Union troops camped near one another harmonizing "Home, Sweet Home!" across the battle lines. (Christie's Images / Corbis)

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Despite financial setbacks, Payne’s career flourished in Europe. He would write more than 60 theatrical works, mostly adaptations, while becoming friends with prominent visiting or expatriate Americans such as Washington Irving and Benjamin West. He acted with Edgar Allan Poe’s mother and unsuccessfully tried to court Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. When Payne returned to the States, he traveled the country with John James Audubon, becoming a champion of Cherokee Indian issues.

Eventually, through political connections, Payne was appointed to an unlikely position: He became consular general to Tunis in 1842. There he died in 1852. Some of his effects were auctioned off to pay his debts.

A decade later, in the midst of the Civil War, his most famous song enjoyed a resurgence. “It held extreme emotional power,” says Jolin, who frequently includes “Home, Sweet Home!” in the 35 concerts he gives every year at Gettysburg National Military Park. “The soldiers were in such adverse conditions, they longed for the serenity and warmth of their homes.”

While the brass bands that were an integral part of both armies would have played the song, Jolin believes its most moving renderings would have been on the harmonica, played around campfires, perhaps accompanying the soldiers’ voices. “A harmonica has a sweet tremolo,” he says. “It would have been well suited to the sentimentality of the song.”

“Home, Sweet Home!” continued to be a popular song for decades after the war. So why is it barely remembered today?

“Sentimental ballads went out of style,” explains Todd Cranson, a music professor at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. “During World War I, when people began playing and singing songs that had been popular during Civil War times—which was still in living memory at that point—the ones they preferred were the more up-tempo, martial ones.”

While most Americans today can probably sing along to the chorus of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” modern audiences find the nostalgic strains of “Home, Sweet Home!” a bit over the top. That, however, doesn’t diminish the historic significance of the song. It lives on in the music of people like Jolin as well as in an 18th-century saltbox-style house in the resort town of East Hampton. Promoted as the home of Payne, the house was opened to the public in 1928.

“Unfortunately, what people were learning then was wrong,” explains King, director of the house museum. Though Payne’s relatives had once lived in the house and he had probably visited there as a child, there is no evidence to suggest that he had that particular house in mind when he wrote the famous song. Even so, the museum’s serene gardens and nearby windmill are idyllic, conjuring an image of family and hearth—emotions captured and expressed by Payne, a gifted American who found his home in many places around the world.


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