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Collection Band Music from the Civil War Era

The Civil War Bands

Colored lithograph [Detail] from "Zouave Grand Parade March," Duett for Four Hands, composed by S.D.S. (Philadelphia: Lee & Walker, 1861). Music Division.
The colorful uniform of the Zouaves d'Afrique was imitated by many regiments, Northern and Southern, at the outbreak of the Civil War. Only a few, however, such as the 114th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, could afford to maintain the expense of the uniforms through the end of the war.

If ever there was a hope or danger of the demise of brass bands, the outbreak of war decisively cancelled or at least postponed the possibility. Throughout the long period of hostilities--both musical and otherwise--Dwight, our well-bred Yankee critic, maintained an attitude of gentlemanly stoicism. And so, for further news of development in the brass band world we must turn to accounts, usually fleeting references, in regimental histories. Many are anecdotal and told, often for mere comic relief, years after the event. Those drawn from letters and diaries have the better claim to reliability as well as to that spontaneity that brings us closer to the participants in the events recalled. Some of these are quoted in the captions for the photographs which appear online with this article. In drawing from these sources it is our intention to have the words of eyewitnesses convey a sense of how bands functioned during the Civil War at home, in camp, and in battle.

Ulysses S. Grant, in his Memoirs, concisely portrays the general situation at the very beginning of the war:

Upon the firing on Sumter, President Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for troops and convening Congress in extra session. The call was for 75,000 volunteers for ninety days' service. If the shot fired at Fort Sumter "was heard around the world," the call of the President for 75,000 men was heard throughout the Northern States. There was not a State in the North of a million inhabitants that would not have furnished the entire number faster than arms could have been supplied to them, if it had been necessary.42

Nevertheless, according to the recollections of a musician printed in the Boston Transcript (August 9, 1890), "inducements were held out to quicken the enlistment of recruits by publicly announcing that a famous band would be attached to some particular regiment," as if such inducements were necessary. Edward Everett, observing the excitement in Boston, guessed that Lincoln's call might bring half a million volunteers. It is more likely that the employment of bands, like the wearing of flamboyant costumes that passed for military uniforms early in the war, was regarded by many as an appropriately festive gesture in the face of preparations for what was assumed would be a glorious and speedy victory.

But, unlike the bright costumes which, in most cases, gave way to regulation uniforms, bands and their music became a more sought-after commodity as the hostilities wore on. Dwight's Journal, in one of its few references to bands in the war, notes on September 28, 1861, that

Gilmore's celebrated band has been engaged to accompany Col. Stephenson's Regiment to the war. The band will consist of sixty-eight pieces, including twenty drummers and twelve buglers. Such a band was never enjoyed by a regiment before, and it will probably incite the men to heroic deeds if loyal men can need any new stimulus in such a time as this. The band will appear three times more before the Boston public at the Promenade Concerts.43

Gilmore's contract was with the 24th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and seems to have involved enlistment and, hence, the duty not only of playing in camp but of following the regiment into the field--and even the heat of battle, where he and his men were put to work, as most bandsmen were, as hospital corpsmen.44 On his return, a year later, Gilmore advertised a concert in which his band--less one member, presumably lost in action--would perform

the gems of such music as have floated over the wild waves and mingled with the howling winds of Hatteras; such patriotic airs as fell upon the ears of three thousand rebel prisoners, and echoed through the dense woods of Roanoke; such strains as followed our victorious arms at Newbern, and vibrated through the deserted streets of the once fair city; and, more than all, such music as has revived the drooping spirits of many a weary soldier, or soothed the pain of many a wounded patriot.45

Regarding the cost of their service, the regimental historian speaks only "of Gilmore's Band, of whose presence everyone is justly proud, even if the same did cost the officers a pretty figure."46

However, we do know the cost of Boston bandmaster E. B. Flagg to the 44th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia: $3,000, and that for limited service in camp.47 A letter dated September 13, 1863, by an officer of the regiment informs us that

Since the 44th went into barracks they have been favored with the services of the Boston Brass Band, under the lead of Mr. Flagg. It is said the expense is to be defrayed by an assessment upon the regiment. Considering that the mass of the regiment have had no voice in the selection of a band, a number of persons are inclined to consider this a little "rough."48

Band of the 114th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry [Detail], in front of Petersburg, Va., August, 1864. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8184-7346.
Call Number: LOT 4190D.
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Another interesting band that found its way into military service was Frank Rauscher's cornet band from Germantown, near Philadelphia. His book on the subject is most informative.49 This regiment was the colorful Zouaves d'Afrique of Gen. Charles Collis, one of many such companies and regiments from the North and South who modeled themselves after the French fighting troops in Africa by adopting the uniform of "red pants, Zouave jacket, white leggings, blue sash around the waist, and white turban."50 Unlike other such outfits, however, whose splendid uniforms could not be kept up, Collis's Zouaves had a fortunate association with Capt. F. A. Elliott, a successful wool merchant in Germantown. It was he, no doubt, who arranged the purchase of such a supply of fresh material for uniforms from France that throughout the war they never lacked the distinctive Zouave dress. He also took a great interest in procuring the band, about which Rauscher, the leader, writes:

As instrumental musicians, they were amateurs and beginners, but with a fair knowledge of music as vocalists, by close application they made rapid progress. . . .
When the band was started, [Captain Elliott] became a helpful friend of the project, subscribing liberally toward procuring the instruments, and afterward assisted in supplying the members with uniforms. It was mainly from this kindly and valued association with the band that it resolved to follow the fortunes of the regiment.51

Another way in which regimental bands were formed, by far the cheapest, was by drawing upon the resources available from among the men in each company. With ten companies to a regiment and two musicians allowed to each company--that is to say the fifers, buglers, and drummers--one could put together some kind of band of twenty men or more, if the officers agreed to detail to the regimental band musically qualified men who had not enlisted as musicians.

This practice became especially popular after the passage in Congress of a bill on July 17, 1862, sections of which ordered the mustering out of regimental bands. The bill was approved by the president and announced in the War Department's General Order 91 of July 29, 1862. Rauscher's observation is interesting, although his band was mustered in after the order of July 29:

At the beginning of the war every regiment . . . had full brass bands, some of them numbering as high as fifty pieces. When it is considered that in every brigade there were from four to five regiments, three brigades in one division and three divisions in each corps, an aggregate of from thirty-six to forty bands is shown for every corps. When a division was encamped in a small space, which was frequently the case when on the march, and the band of each regiment performing at the same time at Regimental Headquarters, the effect of the confusion of sounds produced can hardly be imagined. Whilst this was an unnecessary arrangement and very expensive to the government, it kept a host of noncombatants in the rear of the army. Congress, however, at an early day passed an act abolishing all regimental bands in the volunteer service, with the provision that each brigade should be entitled to a band at the headquarters. It so happened that when the order of disbandment reached the Army [of the Potomac], the bands had seen considerable and hard service on the Peninsula, under General McClellan, and therefore the men gladly accepted their discharges and almost to a man went home. As a consequence the army was left with scarcely any music.52

Unknown location. Zouave ambulance crew demonstrating removal of wounded soldiers from the field. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-7285.
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A band of the size described by Rauscher would have been double the number of twenty-four musicians authorized by General Order 49 of the War Department, August 3, 1861. By October of the same year, the War Department had already begun to trim the number of regimental bands by forbidding their further enlistment.53 Quite possibly, the order was in response to actual abuses of General Order 49 resulting not only in a proliferation of bands but in monster bands full of deadbeats or nonessential personnel. In any case, by 1862, as the Union faced its greatest crisis from Lee's imminent invasion of the North, the more drastic measure of dropping regimental bands became necessary. Before the order of July 29, there were an estimated 28,428 enlisted musicians in the North. Of these, 14,832 were bandsmen.54 Thereafter such men, if they were to continue with the regiments, had either to be supported entirely by the members of the regiment or drawn from the musicians authorized as company fifers, buglers, and drummers.

Undoubtedly, many compromises were reached in order to maintain regimental bands. Notwithstanding Rauscher's comment that the disbanded musicians "almost to a man went home," bands proliferated and, throughout the war, were heard on all manner of occasions, even during the heat of battle. For example, we read of bands performing service in the trenches. Lieutenant Thompson of the 13th New Hampshire describes an incident occurring just after the battle of Cold Harbor, June 8, 1864:

This evening the Band of the Thirteenth goes into the trenches at the front, and indulges in a "competition concert" with a band that is playing over across in the enemy's trenches. The enemy's Band renders Dixie, Bonnie Blue Flag, My Maryland, and other airs dear to the Southerner's heart. Our Band replies with America, Star Spangled Banner, Old John Brown, etc. After a little time, the enemy's band introduces another class of music; only to be joined almost instantly by our Band with the same tune. All at once the band over there stops, and a rebel battery opens with grape. Very few of our men are exposed, so the enemy wasted his ammunition; while our band continues its playing, all the more earnestly until all their shelling is over.55

Another such account of music played during the battle of Gettysburg was recalled by J. A. Leinbach, leader of the 26th North Carolina Regiment band:

About 6 o'clock [in the morning, the bands of the 26th and 11th North Carolina regiments] played together for some time, heavy firing going on meanwhile. . . . Our playing seemed to do the men good, for they cheered us lustily. . . .
We learned some time afterwards, from Northern papers, that our playing had been heard by the enemy, amid the noise of the cannon.56

A British observer, J. L. Freemantle, poised in a tree near Lee's headquarters on Seminary Ridge, also heard the music.

When the cannonade was at its height a Confederate band of music between the cemetery and ourselves, began to play polkas and waltzes, which sounded very curious, accompanied by the hissing and bursting of shells.57

Band of the 114th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry [Detail], in front of Petersburg, Va., August, 1864. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction number: LC-B8184-7346. Call Number: LOT 4190D.

Of this band and the regiment to which it was attached its leader, Frank Rauscher, wrote: "It was in 1861, when President Abraham Lincoln made the first call for three hundred thousand volunteers for three years' service, in response to which Charles H. T. Collis, then a young man and enthusiastic in the cause of the Union, promptly raised a company of splendid material for the full term. The uniform adopted for the dashing members was that of the French Zouave d'Afrique, and besides pleasing their fancy very much, it attracted a number of men to join the company who had seen actual service in the French army, several of whom were French Alsatians. . . . The Uniform adopted for the regiment was precisely like that of the original company--red pants, Zouave jacket, white leggings, blue sash around the waist, and white turban. . . . The material for these uniforms was all imported from France, and special arrangements were made to secure a sufficient supply of the same to replenish the uniforms during the whole term of service. . . . There were other Zouave regiments in the army, but as soon as their uniforms became badly worn, they were required to don the regulation blue. The officers of the 114th were men of pride and culture, as well as courage, and therefore determined to have a full brass band. . . . Concerning the band it may be here stated, that about one year before the war broke out, a number of young men formed a cornet band in Germantown. As instrumental musicians, they were amateurs and beginners, but with a fair knowledge of music as vocalists, by close application they made rapid progress. . . . When the band was started [Capt. F. A. Elliot of Germantown] became a helpful friend of the project, subscribing liberally toward procuring instruments, and afterward assisted in supplying the members with uniforms. . . . Subsequent events . . . proved it to have been a good policy on the part of the officers to secure a band, and that it became a prime factor and one of the most efficient aids in maintaining discipline." (Frank Rauscher, Music on the March, 1862-65, with the Army of the Potomac, 114th Regt. P.V., Collis' Zouaves [Philadelphia: Wm. F. Fell & Co., 1892], 11-14.)

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Ambulance Drill at Headquarters, Army of the Potomac near Brandy Station, March 1864 [Detail]. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B811-1078.

As bandsmen served as hospital corpsmen, these Zouaves may have been members of Rauscher's band. Among the more vivid recollections of this often hazardous duty is that of a Massachusetts musician, John D. Whitcomb: "I put some considerable value on the service of the band in the several affairs the regiment was engaged in as an Ambulance Corps. . . . The mere fact of one member of the band being twice required to cross the line of fire of both forces, undoubtedly saved the lives of several members of our own regiment from the fire of one of our own batteries, several members of our own regiment having already been killed by the unfortunately located battery. . . . The bandsmen had been well taught by the surgeon how to give first aid to the wounded, and how to use stretchers, bandages and tourniquets. We were to go with the regiment into battle, rescue the wounded, if possible, and carry them to the field hospital. We were liable to be sent as messengers on dangerous errands." (Albert W. Mann, History of the Forty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Militia [Jamaica Plain, Mass.: Brookside Print, 1908], 190.)

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