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Civil War Music

By David Niles

When asked to name his favorite martial tunes, General U.S. Grant responded by saying that he only knew two tunes... "one's Yankee Doodle, and the other isn't."

Charles B. Putnam of Cabot, Vermont, spent two years playing music with the Vermont Brigade Band and early on became very convinced that music definitely played an important role with the troops, and most particularly his commander, Colonel Lewis B.Grant, who always demonstrated great pleasure in hearing the band's music on review.

So military bands played an important role during the Civil War. Musical organizations and military bandsmen had a considerable number of important responsibilities during the conflict, many of which involved more than the playing of music. In addition to playing for dress parades, guard mounting, morning colors, regimental and divisional reviews and funerals, band musicians also served as stretcher bearers. During battle, bandsmen often served as medical orderlies and assisted surgeons with amputations and other functions in medical field services behind the lines. In addition, they also assisted in moving the wounded onto ambulances, as well as helping to bury the dead.

There were opportunities for bandsmen to entertain with twilight concerts for the soldiers and serenades for high-ranking officers and their visiting wives when their units were in camp. Such occasions gave the band members the opportunity to demonstrate their musical skills by playing their most ambitious repertoire, much of which was difficult to perform on the march. So Civil War soldiers derived great pleasure and satisfaction from these evening concerts, and often expressed their appreciation in letters home. An infantryman from a Massachusetts regiment wrote in 1862:

Bugle "I don't know what we should have done without our band. It is acknowledged by everyone to be the best in the division. Every night at sundown... gives us a splendid concert, playing selections from the operas and some very pretty marches, quicksteps, waltzes and the like... Thus you see we get a great deal of new music, notwithstanding we are off here in the woods."

Veterans of Gettysburg often wrote in their letters and diaries of hearing a Confederate band play stirring schottische and quicksteps during the second day's cannonade, and historical records point out that the band was identified as that of the 26th North Carolina regiment, which is often referred to as probably the finest musical organization in the Confederate army.

Contemporary accounts often mentioned that when Union and Confederate troops were camped near one another, the soldiers of one army could often hear the music being played by the other army. A Kentucky officer once wrote:

"... the greatest panorama I ever beheld. "Hail Columbia," "America," and "The Star Spangled Banner" sounded sweeter than I had ever before heard them and filled my soul with feelings that I could not describe or forget. It haunted me for days, but never shook my loyalty to the Stars and Bars."

Drummer The period from April 1861 to August 1862 is often referred to as the "regimental band period" of the Union army. It was a time when hundreds of bands and thousands of musicians were mustered into the army, and we paid solely to furnish military music. In this early period the musicians were considered noncombatants and were not required to perform duties outside their musical responsibilities. However, as conflict deepened, bandsmen were called upon to perform functions that had little to do with music, and much to do with the more tragic side of the war.

Late in 1861, the Federal government began to experience financial difficulties and it soon realized it could no longer afford the luxury of permitting volunteer regiments to have their own bands. So in October 1861, the government issued a strict order forbidding the mustering in of new regimental bands and prohibited the further enlistment of bandsmen to fill vacancies. In addition, it directed that all members of bands who were not musicians were to be discharged by their commanders.

Finally in July, 1862 the War Department issued General Order No. 91 which directed that all regimental bandsmen be mustered out of service within 30 days.This directive led the way to the establishment of bands on the brigade level, and from contemporary diaries, letters and journals, by participants, the presence of the Vermont Brigade Band from May 1863 until the end of the war is unmistakable.

The Regimental band of the 3rd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry is the best and most thoroughly documented of all Union army bands in the war. Its music books are preserved in the Library of Congress and a number of other archives. Three sets of bandbooks have survived that contain 136 tunes played by the band with arrangements by some of the foremost brass band composers of the period.

On July 31, 1861, Governor Berry of New Hampshire ordered Gustavus W.Ingalls to "enlist twenty-four men as musicians" to be mustered into the military service, so Ingalls organized a band at Concord which was later assigned to the 3rd NH Infantry Regiment. It spent most of its service enlistment from August 1861 to August 1862 as a post band at Port Royal, Hilton Head, South Carolina. After General Order No. 91 dissolved the regimental band structure, Ingalls and several other members of the 3rd New Hampshire band returned to Port Royal to form the nucleus of the 2nd Brigade Band of the 10th Corps.

Drum The historian of the 3rd wrote: "The band was in demand for funerals and serenades. Its music drew tears and cheers. 'Twas an inspiration to all who stepped to its music, whether at dress parade or on the march." A distinctive member of the 3rd NH band was its youngest member, drummer boy Nathan M.Gove, who enlisted at age 11 and served with the band until it was mustered out in 1862.

On the Confederate side, the regimental band of the 26th North Carolina Regiment is the only band from the south, whose music has survived. The unit served from March 1862 to the end of the war, and prior to the war, its Moravian musicians had been members of the Salem Brass Band, which is still active today, the second oldest continuing musical organization in the United States. It is this band whose music on the second day at Gettysburg could be heard above the roar of musketry, and was mentioned in many a diary and journal kept by participants on both sides. Its music is now in the permanent collection of the Moravian Music Foundation.

The instruments of military brass bands included a wide variety of valved brass horns, from the higher-pitched cornets and saxhorns, to the alto, tenor, baritone and bass saxhorns, many of which were played over-the-shoulder. A horn well-played and aimed to the rear provided music that the troops could always hear while marching. Woodwind instruments such as the clarinet were not used in civil war bands because the wood could not withstand the problems caused by moisture and temperature variations, none of which affected the brass instruments used. The fife and drum corps was a musical adjunct to the needs of the brigade, and the fife was particularly useful because of the penetrating sound that carried for considerable distance, and was a perfect way for the orders of the day, from reveille to tattoo to be issued to the troops in camp, or on bivouac.

Drum The drums were all rope-tensioned with leather ears for tightening the tough calfskin heads upon which the player produced a rattle and sound that could often penetrate the noise of battle action. Punctuating the rolls and rudiments produced by the snare drummer, the bass drum, with it large diameter established the deep, resonant beat upon which the marching step depended.

Among the papers of Charles B. Putnam, Dave Niles found a roster list of the Vermont Brigade Band, the final statement listing 15 original members and 6 later enlistees, for an aggregate of 21. During the conflict only one member was killed in action. The band as an organization was mustered out on Hall's Hill, Virginia, near Washington, on June 29, 1865. In July, Bandmaster Nelson Adams called the band together for the purpose of receiving the 2nd Vermont on their return home. Before this final separation, the band gave its last concert at Burlington's City Hall.

The program follows:

PART FIRST.

1. Gen. Grierson's Grand March......................Downing
2. Song: "How Fair Thou Art"..........................Weidt
3. Waltz: "Il Baccio" (The Kiss)....................Arditti
4. Dirge: "Brave Men, Behold Your Fallen Chief"
  (In memory of Gen. Sedgwick)
5. Medley: "High Daddy".............................Downing

PART SECOND.

1. Quadrille: from "Stradella".......................Ficton
2. Song: "The Vacant Chair"............................Vose
3. Galop: "Trab, Trab"................................Kuken
4. Aria: from "Robert le Diable"..................Meyerbeir
5. "The Officer's Funeral" In Memory of Our Brave Comrades Who Have Fallen
6. Potpourri on Army Calls: Introducing many of the familiar Bugle Calls
and pieces played by most of the Bands of the "Old Sixth Corps."
Finis
See also the Music Room in the Virtual Museum