Wednesday, January 23, 2019

History Through Music: Stephen Foster's "Better Times Are Coming"

This post contains affiliate links. For more information please see my Terms of Use and Disclosure Policy page. Thank you.

There are many ways to study history. One can use primary sources like newspapers published during the year of an event, contemporary diaries, or secondary resources like books examining the American Civil War by James McPherson or historical accounts like that written by Michael Shaara about Gettysburg (The Killer Angels). One can also use songs to study history.

A song that offers a great opportunity for studying the early history of the American Civil War – written by Stephen Foster – is the optimistic song, "Better Times Are Coming." Throughout the song, there is mention of at least 15 different people, places, and things connected to the American Civil War. From the flag of the United States to President Abraham Lincoln, one can find many things to study using just this one song.

As a song primarily popular in the North during the Civil War due to the mention of all of the Northerner 'heroes,' "Better Times Are Coming" indicates that Foster kept up-to-date about the goings-on of the war – at least in part due to newspapers. Foster published 17 songs in 1862, five of which (including "Better Times Are Coming") were about the Civil War.

Studying the Civil War 

After listening to the song, choose several of the people or topics mentioned to study.

  • Abraham Lincoln 
  • Edwin M. Stanton 
  • George McClellan 
  • Winfield Scott 
  • Nathaniel Lyon 
  • Edward D. Baker 
  • Elmer Ellsworth 
  • Franz Sigel 
  • Henry Halleck 
  • Ambrose Burnside
  • John C. Fremont 
  • James Shield 
  • Thomas Meagher 
  • John Ericsson
  • Monitor 
  • Merrimac
  • Hampton Roads

Please view videos prior to sharing with your family or children.

Resources and References 

You can request the sheet music from the Library of Congress

A fantastic resource is the the Official Records or ORs. You can find The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies at Cornell University Library 

A good overview is available at the American Battlefield Trust

Several of my previous posts explore the American Civil War from individuals like Robert E. Lee to battlefields such as Fredericksburg and Gettysburg

Looking for more on the American Civil War?




  1. This is SO cool!
    I am a huge fan of music but for some reason I never thought like this.
    Appreciate this so much - definitely making music even more a part of our home learning.

  2. what a great way to tie several different subjects together! My kids LOVE history and music so this would work well for us! Thank you!

    1. Thank you for visiting! I love finding new ways to study history.

  3. I've always tried to use music somehow in our History and Social Studies. I wish I'd known about this particular song a few weeks ago during the civil war units in my co-op class!

    1. I only recently discovered it myself as I was going through my songbooks to write a patriotic song guest post.

  4. Interesting! I would have never thought of something like this--so cool!! We love music and what a great way to incorporate it into a lesson that goes beyond fine arts!