Reunion opens on an empty stage in a rundown theatre a quarter of a century after the end of the Civil War. As the lights go down, we hear a trumpet fanfare, and a spotlight appears on Harry Hawk, the leader of a ragtag company of actors crossing the country, eking out a living retelling the fight to save the Union in songs and stories.
The act starts with a sunny male trio singing the bouncy “Darling Nelly Gray,” which seems to be a reminiscence about life on a plantation in the south, in the same vein as Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” or “My Old Kentucky Home.” But like much of the music in Reunion, a song may be telling one version of a story while events tell another. As the song continues, we meet a fugitive slave, a guide on the Underground Railroad, and a New England abolitionist whose views are very different from the cheerful trio. In its final verses, we finally understand that what has been presented as a sentimental ditty is actually the tragic last lament of a slave who will “never see my darling anymore,” left behind after his wife has been sold “down the river” by their master to suffer the rest of her days in the dreaded cotton and sugar plantations of the deepest south.
After that, we move rapidly into the excitement of Abraham Lincoln’s sudden rise to the presidency and the first shots of the war that came about as a result. The music will take us from the over-confident strutting of the North as it sets off to war to the despair and panic after its crushing defeats at the hands of the Confederate army, and the act will end with the triumphant victory at Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation that changed the war and the country forever.
Darling Nelly Gray
A powerful antislavery ballad, “Darling Nelly Gray” (1855) was called “The Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of song in its day.
Lincoln and Liberty
This Lincoln campaign song from 1860 accompanies Lincoln’s meteoric rise from fringe candidate to surprise Republican nominee to new President-elect, as seen through the eyes of his young secretary-to-be.
May God Save the Union
Songs like this were heard during many a hometown train-station farewell to the Union volunteers, the last time their neighbors would ever see more than three hundred thousand of them.
This catchy number is performed on the eve of the Union disaster at Bull Run as a music hall performance led by a young woman in a flashy Zouave uniform.
The irresistibly upbeat “Marching Along” originally celebrated General George Brinton McClellan, the first commander of the Army of the Potomac and popular young idol of the north at the war’s beginning.
Comrades! Fill No Glass for Me!
Alcohol created a serious morale and discipline problem for the fledgling Army of the Potomac, leading to prohibition in the camps and arrests by army Provost Marshals.
All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight
This beautiful and moving song, considered by many to be the finest of the great songs from the war, was composed by a southerner, John Hill Hewitt.
We'll Fight for Uncle Abe!
This upbeat song from the northern minstrel show stage is used to point up the growing conflict between President Lincoln’s mandate for action and McClellan’s resolute caution in facing down the Confederates.
We Are Coming, Father Abr'am
Inspired by one of the most famous lines of the war—“We are coming, Father Abr’am, 300,000 more!” The lyrics were first published as a poem in response to Lincoln’s call for more volunteers after the disastrous campaigns of McClellan and Pope.
One of the greatest of all the songs to come out of the war, this beautiful song captures the hope and frustration of African-Americans and the elusive promise of emancipation.
Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade
This traditional song tells the story of the eager enlistment and stark end of a young recruit in the famous Irish Brigade, whose role in the thick of the battles led to staggering casualties at Fredericksburg and Antietam.
Wasn't That a Wide River
The double meaning of the River Jordan turns this traditional spiritual into a powerful celebration by the company at the news of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Heav'n Bound Soldier
Another spiritual finds new meaning as African-American men are at last allowed into the fighting ranks of the Union army.
Battle Cry of Freedom
One of the war’s “greatest hits,” this rallying cry was equally popular with civilians and soldiers, and there are dozens of accounts of Union soldiers spontaneously singing the chorus on battlefields.