Just Before the Battle, Mother (Root, 1863)

George Root‘s popular meditation on mortality, honor, and a last message home



Root’s book “Story of a Musical Life” quotes a letter that cites a curious account of an intriguing instance of a memorable performance of this song — when else? — just before the battle of Franklin (TN, 1864); according to a local resident whose house became the Union field HQ:

“About four o’clock, after the General had left for the field, there lingered a Colonel, from Indianapolis, in my parlor, who asked my daughters to sing and play a piece of music. My daughters asked what they should play. He replied that he did not know one piece of music from another, except field music. I spoke and asked the young ladies to sing and play a piece which had recently come out, ‘Just before the battle, mother.’ At my request they sat down and sang, and when about half through, as I stepped to the door, a shell exploded within fifty yards. I immediately returned and said, ‘ Colonel, if I am any judge, it is just about that time now! ‘ He immediately sprang to his feet and ran in the direction of his regiment, but before he reached it, or about that time, he was shot, the bullet passing quite through him. He was taken to Nashville, and eighteen days after, I received a message from him through an officer, stating the fact of his being shot, and that the piece of music the young ladies were executing was still ringing in his ears, and had been ever since he left my parlor the evening of the battle. In April, four months later, after the war was over, he had sufficiently recovered to travel, when he came to Franklin, as he stated, expressly to get the young ladies to finish the song, and relieve his ears. His wife and more than a dozen officers accompanied him. He found the ladies, and they sang and played the piece through for him in the presence of all the officers, and they wept like children.” ~ Root, Story of a Musical Life (p.136)

Waltz & Engle date the song to late 1863.
It remained popular into the 20th century, and appears on many early recordings

Note the resonance of the final verse with Joseph Roger’s 1862 letter home to Warner, NH >>

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