One hundred and fifty years ago this year, the American Civil War—the bloodiest chapter in the country’s history—came to a close. From 1861–1865, somewhere between 620,000 and 750,000 soldiers perished in battle or from disease or starvation. It tore the Union apart, pitting American against American in one of the United States’ darkest hours.
There are many ways the story of the Civil War have been told. To share that story from the perspective from North Carolina Moravians, the Moravian Music Foundation and Southern Province Archives developed “A Storm in the Land,” a production that combines words and music in a unique, compelling way. A performance of “A Storm in the Land” was recently recorded and is now available online.
“The American Civil War was a great tragedy in our country’s history that affected Moravians in both the North and South,” said the Rev. Dr. Nola Reed Knouse, executive director of the Moravian Music Foundation. “‘A Storm in the Land’ provides a glimpse into the experience of North Carolina Moravians during this dreadful time, with excerpts from newspaper articles, letters to and from those serving in the Confederate army, and church diaries.”
Performances of the “A Storm in the Land” include dramatic readings of the writings of real people interspersed with band music from the period. The musical pieces selected accentuate the mood of the readings, from rousing marches to somber dirges.
From actual accounts
Other than the narrator’s words, all the spoken words in “A Storm in the Land” come from documents of the period. Characters include newspaper editors; a surgeon and his fiancée; and a soldier from 26th Regimental Band.
In compiling the script for “A Storm in the Land,” archivist the Rev. Dr. C. Daniel Crews looked to the pages of two competing newspapers of the time. The Western Sentinel was the newspaper of the town of Winston (just north of Salem), and its editor, John W. Alspaugh, generally wrote more in favor of secession. The People’s Press was the newspaper of Salem and often functioned as the “voice of the church.” Its editor, Levi V. Blum, tended toward a more cautious perspective, until North Carolina actually did secede from the Union.
Daniel also cited the letters of J. Frank Shaffner, a surgeon from Salem serving in the Confederate army. He and his fiancée Carrie Fries, back in Salem, exchanged a number of letters during the war years, expressive of the experience of the men away at war and the women waiting at home.
Finally, “A Storm in the Land” shares the words of Edward Peterson, a member of the 26th North Carolina regimental band who wrote letters to his family and friends back home. Some of Peterson’s letters describe in painful detail the horrors of war while others (to his sister mostly) describe details of the flora and fauna he encounters, life in camp, food and some interesting people he meets.
The narration comes partly from the Salem church diary, the Memorabilia (year-end summaries written by the pastor and shared with the congregation on New Year’s Eve) and some newly-written commentary on what was happening in the war. Daniel wrote the script, assisted by Nola, who prepared the musical editions.
Readers for the performance last fall included faculty and staff from Moravian Theological Seminary: Craig Atwood (Alsbaugh), Frank Crouch (Blum), Riddick Weber (Shaffner), and Jane Weber (Fries). They were joined by Chris Giesler (Peterson) and Nola (Narrator).
Combined with music
In the production, the readings are interspersed with band music from the period. “The music performed in ‘A Storm in the Land’ was all arranged from the books of the band of the 26th North Carolina Regiment, the only-known complete set of band books surviving from a Confederate band,” says Nola.
The production includes pieces like “Carolina March,” “Dixie/Bonnie Blue Flag,” “Canary Bird Waltz,” “Balade from Zampa,” “Schubert’s Serenade,” and “Lorena & Bright Smiles.” Mainstreet Brass, a professional brass quintet from Bethlehem founded in 1986, performed the music in the performance recorded last fall.
Telling the story
“A Storm in the Land” tracks the war from the election of Abraham Lincoln and the vote for secession to its conclusion in 1865.
The program begins with the narrator laying the scene: “By 1860, the nation as a whole had been wracked for many years by questions of states rights, slavery and the continuation of the Union itself. In northwest North Carolina, opinions were not unanimous on the proper course to take. This may be seen in the running feud carried on by two local newspapers, the Western Sentinel of Winston and The People’s Press of Salem.”
Audiences then hear an ongoing exchange between the paper’s editors. From Sentinel editor Alspaugh: “Our worst fears have been realized. The sectional party of the North has gained the presidency, even though it harbors the direst hostility to the rights, interests and privileges of the Southern states. Still, we urge our citizens to stand by the Constitution. Do not rush to secede! At the same time, we do suggest that the militia begin preparations.”
Counters People’s Press editor Blum: “We deplore the celebrations in Charleston at the election of Mr. Lincoln, which they believe makes secession inevitable. In this they are behaving more like children than soberly reasoning adults. We are happy to report that not everyone there favors secession, and that in some places there is Common Sense even from South Carolina.”
However, North Carolina seceded from the Union on May 20, 1861. In the Salem Diary of June 17, 1861, Francis Holland, pastor of the Salem church, wrote:
“Two companies of volunteers raised in Forsyth County left for the seat of war. The parting scenes were most painful and affecting. The companies halted near the church, the line extending in front of the Academy, from the portico of which short addresses were delivered, and fervent prayer was then offered. The soldiers filed off amid the tearful adieus of the multitude. Many of the relatives and friends accompanied them as far as the bridge, where they bade them finally, farewell. May our heavenly Father screen them from temptation, shelter them in the day of battle, guard them from all danger and may the blessing and peace of Christ our Savior be with them, and may they, if consistent with His allwise and gracious will, be brought back speedily, in peace and safety!” This is followed by the band playing “Dixie/Bonnie Blue Flag.”
In the correspondence of surgeon Shaffner and his fiancée Fries, we hear this exchange as the euphoria of military adventure wore off very soon:
Shaffner: “The probabilities are that the companies will disband… and there are few who will now enter the regular service. In fact, none but the commissioned officers desire doing so, and deprive them of their commissions, a different tune would be sung…A powerful change has swept over our land, a storm is now brewing, even raging, and we must meet it.
Fries: “You spoke of the bravery of the women of the South. I think their hardest struggle is after the excitement of preparation is over they are left to await the future as best they can.”
On the home front
As the performance continues, the audience learns more about what life was like on the home front: “The Salem diary of August 11, 1861, reports that there were no cakes or coffee at the lovefeast, due to high prices. This practice of celebrating ‘dry lovefeasts’ continued throughout the war, except for special efforts to make sure that the children got something at Christmas.”
The audience also hears about the growing carnage on the battlefields and its effect at home in 1862. “Funerals of those who had died in service became more frequent…more perished from disease, however, than from bullets. Pastor Holland lamented in the Salem Diary, ‘How many men in the prime of life have fallen victims to disease in this abominable war, besides the thousands who have been slain in battle!’”
And the People’s Press and Western Sentinel continued their feud: Said Editor Blum, “The Sentinel seems to be accusing the Moravians of being disloyal to the Confederacy. Be reminded, however, that Salem has furnished nearly an entire company of soldiers, something which many larger communities cannot claim.”
A soldier’s Easter, 1863
Later in the program, soldier Peterson shares his Easter Week of 1863:
“Monday of Holy Week. Think of it, in this memorable and Holy week such an enlightened and Christianized nation as ours is, to prepare for fighting and expect a bloody fight too. It’s dreadful to think about it. If peace and good will could only be restored once again between the North and the South.
“Maundy Thursday. I can see you all preparing to celebrate Easter…. This is the first Easter that I have missed spending at home….
“Good Friday. I wonder how you all do on this holy day. One thing I know, you don’t hear such sounds as we are listening to on this morning. Ever since I opened my eyes on this morning, I can hear the heavy discharges of artillery….
“Great Sabbath. Soon Easter will have passed and we have seen nothing of it. It is not observed here at Greenville. If I could be with you in the morning, I would give a heap. I expect we shall blow our church tunes that we generally blow. I’ll think of you at home in the morning if ever I did. And I know you’ll think of us.
“Easter Sunday morning, 6 o’clock. We got up about 5 this morning and played church tunes such as we had. I guess you are eating breakfast just now. I wish I could take it with you.”
The War rages on
As the performance charts the war through 1863–64, we hear, In the words of the Salem Memorabilia of 1863: “To not a few among us it was a year of trials and afflictions and without scarcely any exceptions…while we were once living in a land flowing with milk and honey and yielding even to the poor the necessaries of life, not only have plenty and abundance left us, in general, but want and destitution have taken their place…”
As the performance nears its end, the narrator offers, “Still the dying Confederacy struggled on in 1865. Early in the year word flew that the war might soon end. ‘Rumors of peace caused the hearts of all to rejoice,’ the Salem Diary records.
Other characters offer their thoughts:
Blum: “It’s fine to hope for peace, but we will not get out of this war as easily as we slid into it. It is rather naive to think that the North will offer us favorable peace terms now.”
Alspaugh: “Do not be deceived by talk of negotiations! The only choices are victory or annihilation!”
Fries: “A morning such as this should do much to make us feel cheerful. All nature seems to be rejoicing. With what joy I once welcomed the first indications of spring! Now it is different. The first balmy days of each year serve but to herald the approach of Mars demanding new victims to be slain upon his bloody altars.”
Closing the War
In closing, the narrator shares this: “On April 10 federal troops entered Salem and Bethania. Fearing the worst, the residents had hidden all the valuables which they had left in the safest places they could think of—the girls’ school being the favorite. Generally, however, the federal troops did little damage, and even removed their hats when walking through the graveyard. At the end of the year, the Salem Memorabilia says with a sigh: ‘Thus the fearful war was really ended and much bloodshed spared. Our loved ones returned one after the other, and when we consider how many of them there were, and to what dangers, hardships and privations they were exposed, we can rejoice.’”■