There are many recorded instances of civilian and soldier interactions during the American Civil War, but surely one of the most touching sessions was recorded by a Pennsylvania infantryman in March 1864 at Warrenton Junction, Virginia.
Sergeant George P. McClelland reported that a small group of his fellow soldiers, led by their company commander, Captain Edward E. Clapp, inquired at likely houses whether or not they had pianos. When the response was affirmative, they “took possession of the parlors” of Virginia homes in the Warrenton area. Once inside the parlors, the soldiers assured the unsettled occupants that they were there to serenade them. The men caused no damage, nor threatened the inhabitants.
George McClelland, in a letter to his sister, Lizzie, recorded the event: “There is a little musical talent in the Regiment. Colonel Pearson is a good singer and several others, but our Captain beats them all. The Regiment went on a new-fangled scout the other day. Stopped at every good-looking house, took possession of the parlors, sat down at the piano and sang. Called on the family of ex-Congressman Bouldin and other First Families of Virginia. Captain Clapp sings a very pretty piece: ‘Rock Me to Sleep, Mother’ and the answer.”
Since any military age Southern men would have been off fighting with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, we can assume the occupants of the houses, who were the audiences for these singing sessions, were adult females and children. They surely were non-plussed by this Yankee intrusion. Certainly, the women would tell of these Union soldier choristers over the decades following the war. For a brief time, music transcended the differences between North and South and introduced a tender expression of love in a setting surrounded by war.
Rock Me to Sleep, Mother is a poignant mid-nineteenth century song with words by Florence Perry and music by John Hill Hewitt.
Backward, backward turn backwards, O Time, in your flight,
Make me a child again for just tonight;
Mother, come back from the echoless shore,
Take me again to your heart as of yore,
Kiss from my forehead the furrows of care,
Smooth the few silver threads out of my hair;
Over my slumbers your loving watch keep,
Rock me to sleep, Mother, rock me to sleep.
Rock me, rock me, rock me to sleep;
Rock me, rock me to sleep.