In The Story of a Musical Life: An Autobiography of George F. Root (1891), the celebrated wartime composer tells of a Union colonel seriously wounded in the Battle of Franklin. The day before he had heard “Just Before The Battle, Mother” and later maintained that the song came back to him repeatedly through a recuperation period which lasted longer than a year. It is not difficult to imagine how a piece so lyrically and melodically pure, so dignified and noble in sentiment, might have in this way sustained men wounded in body and spirit. Unlike many “battle” songs designed to excite martial fervor, “Just Before The Battle, Mother” clearly and unabashedly sounds the notes of home, family, love, honor, and duty and was actually sung by Civil War soldiers themselves, for reasons they probably little cared to admit.
This hugely popular and widely parodied song contains a conspicuous bit of self-promotion: the lyrics allude to the “Battle Cry of Freedom,” another of Root’s giant hits. Early in the war it was brought by Christy’s Minstrels to England and quickly became so ingrained there that ultimately the British claimed it for their own during the Crimean War. In the 1950’s Irish folk singer Dominic Behan, author of “The Patriot Game” and brother of the famous writer, recorded it in the form of a children’s street rhyme. In 1863 Root had sensed its potential and without missing a step followed with “On The Field of Battle, Mother” and “Just After the Battle,” the latter an optimistic sequel in which every soldier survives. The long list of parodies and sequels includes “Brother, Tell Me Of The Battle,” “No, I’ll Not Forget You, Darling,” “Mother, Is the Battle Over?” and “Yes, My Boy, The Battle’s Over,” each contributing to an ongoing musical dialogue central to the emotional life of soldiers and their loved ones at home.
Just Before The Battle, Mother
Just before the battle, Mother,
I am thinking most of you
While upon the field we’re watching,
With the enemy in view.
Comrades brave are ’round me lying,
Filled with thoughts of home and God;
For well they know that on the morrow,
Some will sleep beneath the sod.
Farewell, Mother, you may never
Press me to your breast again;
But, Oh, you’ll not forget me, Mother,
If I’m numbered with the slain.
Oh, I long to see you, Mother,
And the loving ones at home,
But I’ll never leave our banner,
Till in honor I can come.
Tell the traitors all around you
That their cruel words we know,
In every battle kill our soldiers
By the help they give the foe. (Chorus)
Hark! I hear the bugles sounding,
‘Tis the signal for the fight,
Now, may God protect us, Mother,
As He ever does the right.
Hear the “Battle Cry of Freedom,”
How it swells upon the air,
Oh, yes, we’ll rally ’round the standard,
Or we’ll perish nobly there. (Chorus)