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The Concert Zither in America's Civil War

John Maurath identified a photograph that should be of great interest to zither players. The photograph clearly shows a Union soldier, more than likely a soldier of German heritage, playing a concert zither. Although the picture speaks for itself, the question remains: What did he play?



Several years into the Civil War, the Union Army began forming regiments of freed slaves, thereby enabling these men to engage directly in the struggle for freedom and equality. One such regiment that served with honor and distinction was the 4th United States Colored Troops (USCT), formed in Baltimore, Maryland in 1863.



Officers and enlisted men of the 4th United States Colored Troops

Units such as the the 4th USCT consisted of freed slaves serving as enlisted men, while whites were commissioned as officers to command the regiments. Many of the officers who served within these units were recent immigrants from Germany, many of whom enlisted to serve the cause of the Union. There were also some Germans (and some blacks, ironically) who fought for the South.



Guitar and Zither Player in the Union Army

The photograph provided above with officers and enlisted men of the 4th USCT is particularly interesting for zither players. The soldier, accompanied by a soldier with a guitar, has a zither on his lap. The zither player's right-hand pinky is resting on the bridge of the instrument, a hand position reflective of the playing style of the period. He also appears to be clearly enjoying himself as can be seen by the wine bottle and goblet conveniently placed just to his left.



Captain John J. Eberhardt

The soldier playing the zither is captain of Company D, as signified by the rank on his shoulder boards and the prominent "D" on his cap. Civil War records preserved by the National Archives and Records Administration identify John J. Eberhardt as the commander of this company and provide insight into his service with this unit.

John J. Eberhardt joined for duty in Baltimore, MD, on September 7, 1863 for a period of 3 years. Six days later, on September 13, he was assigned to command Company D of the 4th USCT. In August, 1864, he was a patient at the officers' hospital on Bedloe's Island, New York, where he received treatment for Typhoid fever. While a patient in New York, he requested a twenty days leave of absence to return to his home in Cincinnati, Ohio, to continue his recovery. He mustered out of the Army in Washington, DC, on May 4, 1886, and received travel pay to return to his home in Cincinnati.

Although it is clearly apparent Captain Eberhardt is playing a zither, we're not aware of specific songs performed on the zither by soldiers in America's Civil War. Clues exist, however, in the form of letters written by Germans to friends and family members in Germany during the course of the war. This excerpt, from [1] Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home, was written by Captain August Horstmann, originally from Schweiburg, Germany.

"Long before the battle was supposed to begin and without having any reserves behind him, this officer gave his regiment the command to attack (rumor has it he was drunk and he now faces court-martial). They beat back the enemy pickets, and then they started singing "Hinaus in die Ferne" [ a German hiking song ] etc. and went straight into a bayonet attack..."



Captain Horstmann, in his reference to [2] "Hinaus in die Ferne", does not mention the zither specifically. However, this is a documented reference to a song that was known by Germans fighting in America's Civil War. As such, it is highly probable that this song would have been performed on the zither by German Civil War soldiers.

Additional references to the zither being played by Civil War soldiers during periods of leisure exist. The 20th New York Infantry, known as the [3]"Turner Rifles," as its soldiers were drawn from the New York Turn Verein, provided zither music on the occasion of an inspection by General Benjamin Butler.

"When General Benjamin Butler inspected the 20th New York Infantry in July 1861, the Turners performed physical exercises for the general and his family before delighting them with fine musical pieces. As Butler recalled, 'The melting tones of the zither rang through the air, and in the course of the evening a concert of German music entertained the guests.'"

Aside from the documented instances of soldiers performing on the zither, additional insight is provided by public performances in the same period. In May, 1863, a Professor Turner provided musical entertainment to the residents of Hartford, Connecticut. Professor Turner's zither performance[4] included Operatic selections from "Martha," "Lucia," "Ernani" and "Norma," renditions of "National Melody" and "Battle March", with "Schubert's Serenade" identified as the evening's favorite.



[1]Kamphoefner, Walter D., and Wolfgang Helbich, eds. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home. Trans. Susan Carter Vogel. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006
[2]Feurzeig, Lisa, ed. Deutsche Lieder für Jung und Alt. Middleton: A-R Editions, Inc. 2002
[3]Öfele, Martin W., True Sons of the Republic: European Immigrants in the Union Army. Frederick A. Praeger, 2008
[4]"Zither Concert", Hartford Daily Courant, May 16, 1862

John Maurath, whose research originally brought this photograph to light, is a Missouri Civil War buff, researcher and zither enthusiast. John's great-grandfather, born during the Civil War, was a zither player, and the zither was in the family until recently. John currently works for the Missouri Civil War Museum at Historic Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, MO and is interested in publishing a Civil War Music CD that features the zither. Should this project bear fruit, it will undoubtedly be of great interest to both Civil War historians and zither players alike.

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