What can we learn about the Civil War through Art?

Did you know that the American Civil War began April 12, 1861? This is the date when confederate forces attacked a U.S. Military installation at Fort Sumner in South Carolina. (That event was one hundred and fifty years ago) To commemorate this piece of United States history, there will be multiple events in the arts and culture scheduled in the Lehigh Valley over the next four years. Why so long? That’s how long the Civil War lasted. The arts, culture and history groups in the Lehigh Valley won’t let this anniversary go unrecognized. Just last week, Touchstone Theatre premiered their work, “The Whitman Piece.” Tomorrow night, at Zoellner Arts Center, the Lehigh University Wind Ensemble will feature music of the Civil War; led by their director, David Diggs.

David Diggs has been researching the music of the Civil War for years. He is also the director of the Wind Ensemble, Symphonic Band and member of the faculty wind quintet (oboe). A few years ago, an article was written about his research and the resulting CD of music. I was curious to learn more about why he was interested in the music, so I gave him a call.

Diggs told me that the music of the Civil War was created to serve primarily as entertainment for soldiers while they waited for days at camp, or kept them moving on the march – sometimes as much as 25 miles a day. The songs were mostly of homes and mothers; comfort to the horrors of battle. The instrumental music has an evolutional component to the instruments’ design. It wasn’t until a chromatic system was developed for the coronet (valves) that they became more melodic than harmonic. Some of these brass instruments were designed to have the bells facing behind the musician, so their placement in the front of the troops would have directed sound to keep them in step.

The wind ensemble will play works of the era, including original music written for Abraham Lincoln, Jerry Bilik’s “American Civil War Fantasy,” David Diggs’s composition, “Proud Songs of the Storm” and special arrangements from Civil War regimental band books. Free lobby show at 7 p.m. features the Federal City Brass Band performing Civil War Music on period instruments.

This weekend, you might want to cross over the Lehigh River to observe the Civil War Encampment as part of the Living History activities of the Bethlehem Historic Society.

•April 16-17: “Living History: A Civil War Encampment,” 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 16 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 17 at the Colonial Industrial Quarter in Bethlehem. This family event features re-enactors, who will play the roles of men in the 153rd Pa. Volunteer Infantry, as they are recruited, mustered in, trained, drilled and depart to fight to keep the nation united. In the encampment, you can visit Union and Confederate soldiers who will tell stories of their daily routines. The event includes a parade at 10 a.m., medical demonstrations, fashion shows, music and activities for children, including a scavenger hunt. If you miss this weekend, bookmark the Bethlehem Historic Society website for future reference. There will be many events to try to catch as our community continues to commemorate this important part of our country’s history.

So what might we learn from these experiences? We might re-connect with the human element of this history. We can have a visceral sense of what our ancestors lived through. And perhaps, we’ll carry that experience to the next time we learn of a civil war happening in our time, perhaps somewhere else. And we’ll keep our humanity.

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