Civil War Bands

Civil War Bands

When the American Civil War began in 1861 there were few full time military bands in existence.  There was the United States Marine Band, some army regimental bands and the United States Military Academy band at West Point.  There were however numerous state and militia bands.  These bands whom we will refer to as reserve units were of a very high quality.   The reserve military bands had numerous patrons who donated funds to enable the bands to hire musicians and leaders.  In many of the larger centers there were a number of highly trained and experienced reservists who manned these bands.   The leaders in many instances were very high profile military bandmasters.  The great Patrick S Gilmore was the leader of the 24th Massachusetts Infantry band.   The American Brass band of Providence Rhode Island attached to the First Rhode Island Infantry was led by Joseph Green.   The composer of the world famous Washington Greys march Claudio S Grafulla was the director of the 7th New York Infantry.

After the beginning of the Civil War, Congress authorized the creation of regimental bands for the Regular Army.   The law which was published under Order No. 48 on July 31st 1861, specified that each infantry regiment was entitled to two musicians per company, and covered the artillery and the cavalry as well.    Bands were limited however to twenty-four members in the infantry and artillery with a lesser number of 16 in the cavalry.   The terminology of “musician” seemed to have a different connotation for some; the musician was the field musician such as fifes, bugles and drums. They offered signals and ceremonial music. The bands primarily provided entertainment for the troops and civilian gatherings.   The proliferation of volunteer regiments caused Congress to reassess the situation in regard to the bands because the musicians were under salary and it was noted that the cost of operation for the bands was between $9,100.00 and $13,000.00 which included salaries, equipment, transportation, and subsistence.   Finally a public law was passed on July 1862 which abolished regimental bands in volunteer units.   Regular army bands were not effected per-se by this ruling but each unit was restricted to 16 bandsmen.   To many modern day band buffs this is a familiar story and we have no doubt that there was an effect on the morale of the players.  There is an up-side to reducing personnel because it helps to eliminate chair warmers.

The appreciation for  good band music was expressed by several young soldiers who in their letters home mentioned the concerts performed by the regimental bands.  In one instance a soldier of the 24th Massachusetts Infantry in writing to his home in Boston described the band concert with leader Patrick S Gilmore providing a “splendid array of marches, gallops, two-steps and even  selections from opera.”

The Civil war took a great toll on both sides and even the bands suffered casualties.  Many bands led their regiments into battle and on May 5th 1862 at Fair Oaks during the battle at Williamsburg (Peninsular Campaign).  A bandsman was severely wounded.  The following is a description of the battle culled from a book by Stephan Sears ‘To The Gates of Richmond’:

[Federal] Corps commander [Samuel] Heintzelman joined the desperate struggle to close the broken ranks. He hit on the novel idea of rallying them with music.  Finding several regimental bands standing by bewildered as the battle closed in, Heintzelman ordered them to take up their instruments.   “Play! Play! It’s all you’re good for,” he shouted. “Play, damn it! Play some marching tune! Play ‘Yankee Doodle,’ or any doodle you can think of, only play something!”   Before long, over the roar of the guns, came the incongruous sound of “Yankee Doodle” and then “Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Blue.”   One of [General Joseph] Hooker’s men thought the music was worth a thousand men.   “It saved the battle,” he wrote.

Other records of the Civil War indicated even more episodes that included bands. Survivors of General George Pickett’s disastrous charge at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 3, 1863) remembered in later years that Confederate regimental bands stationed in the trees played stirring martial airs as they started off across the mile-long field that separated them from George Meade’s Army of the Potomac.  Those same bands greeted them with “Nearer, My God, To Thee” as they streamed back to the safety of their own lines after being repulsed at the stone wall.   At Antetem (16-17th September 1862) the band led the charge and many of the bandsmen received wounds, and yet kept the momentum of the troops alive with the sounding of the drums and the playing of various Confederate songs.

At Chancellorsville (1-4 May 1863) several Union Bands performed heroically in an attempt to stave off disaster threatened by the Confederate troops of General Stonewall Jackson.   General Winfield Scott ordered all of the bands to play “Rally Round The Flag Boys”.   Despite the shells and mountains of munitions flailing from both sides they stood in the center playing tunes such as the Yankee Doodle, and The Star Spangled Banner.   This performance during the fire storm had a good effect removing the pandemonium that existed and bringing calm to the troops.   This performance and the valor of the musicians under fire is indeed a glorious page in the history and heritage of military bands.   The bands became a very important asset for the regiments providing both music during lulls in the battles and as described during battles but also they were needed to accompany troops on ceremonial parades and from bivouac.   The regimental music was important to the men. They developed a sense of teamwork through song; the accompaniment of the bands brought them closer together.   Many of the personnel in the volunteer units came from the same home town and even were neighbors and the music provided a way to cement the bond of association.   The bands and the bandsmen were the catalyst for the formation and the preservation of loyalty on both sides.  The Civil War bands also played an important role in developing a link to the general public.   They were often called upon to perform concerts in war torn communities and at hospitals.


A review of photographs of Civil War bands held by the Library of Congress suggests that the instrumentation for the most part remained consistent with the restricted figure of sixteen set by Congress in 1861. The instrumentation includes Eb Cornets, Bb Cornets, Eb Alto Horns, Bb Basses and percussion.   The instruments themselves were bell-up horns.  Many of the instruments were manufactured by J F Stratton of New York.   In addition Isaac Fisk who manufactured a variety of brass instruments such as the Eb and Bb soprano Cornets  introduced a catalogue of his instruments.   The horn-up style dominated the Civil War bands, and surprisingly was still in use long after the war had ended into the late 1890′s.   Photographs of numerous town bands in the heartland and the south of the USA indicated that the instruments were treasured by Civil War veterans.   The advent of the three valve brass band instruments began as the Civil war came an end and spelled the demise of the bell-up horns.

One aberration in regards to the 16 man limit was a photograph of the Fort Monroe Post band showing a twenty-four piece band in 1864.  This included a Drum Major bedecked in full dress and sash.   A plumed director also is shown and was no doubt the solo cornet.   Several photographs illustrate that the bands were outfitted in full dress uniforms and in particular the 9th Volunteer Reserve band is seen wearing shakos and a Hussar style uniform while performing at the Officers Unit of a hospital.

The Music of Civil War Bands

Robert E Lee once remarked that without music there would be no army.   Music played a very big part in the life of the soldier on both sides during the Civil war.  The outpouring of patriotic music was essential to building morale and to cement the bonds of soldiers.  Loyalty through music was nothing new, the ear piercing fife and clatter of drums as well as the somber wail of the bag pipes had stirred the spirit and imagination of soldiers for decades. Therefore the music of the Civil war capped off generations of wartime music.   The music was in such abundance that even today as musicologists and historians study authentic music of the period 1861-1865, it is a daunting task.

Bobby Horton, the song writer and performer who contributed to the sound track of enormously successful series by Ken Burns The Civil War (Baseball and the American West) has recreated the sounds of the war in his emotional and spirited recordings.   Songs such as ‘Battle Cry of Freedom‘ and ‘Dixie’ evoke a strong sense of heart wrenching patriotism to their cause.   The bands played the songs to both entertain and to inspire the troops.   The playing of songs such as ‘Cheer Boys Cheer’ and ‘The South Shall Rise Up Free’ impacted on the soldiers and their will to succeed.   The marches and songs and other types of music had an enormous influence on the outcome of the war.   It was not strategy or numbers that always spelled the difference it was team work developed by a sense of belonging which in turn was created through the music of the Civil War.   The music also spawned a very different life for many of the musicians when the war finally ended.   This was true of many of the Afro-American bandsmen who moved to the cities of America and took with them their instrumental skills.   Thus as their musical proficiency was passed on to the next generation to start bands and create a music of their own, there emanated a new and exciting American phenomenon the origin of the jazz idiom.

The music of the Civil war was essentially folk music as suggested by many of the titles, below are some examples

Songs of the Confederacy

Bonnie Blue Flag
Dixie Land
Goober Peas
Dixie The Land of Cotton
The Yellow Rose of Texas

Songs of the Union

We are Coming Father Abraham
Marching Through Georgia
Sherman’s March to the Sea
Hard Tack
Just Before the Battle Mother
John Brown’s Body

The American Experience

The Civil War developed in the American people a powerful momentum.   This great trial by fire where Americans were pitted against each other instilled a patriotic fervor that we recognize today as the birth of their nation.   The bands and the music were  compelling catalysts for the joining of America.   Later John Philip Sousa wrote numerous marches emblematic of the great struggle.   His flag waving music was the culmination of the great surge forward for a Nation that was destined to become  the leader of the free world.

By Jack Kopstein CD

With files from:
The Drums Would Roll: Railsback and Langellier Arms and Armour Press.
The Library of Congress, Civil War Photographs:  Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia
CD Edition. Music of The Civil War:  Tim Holmes, BJ Pino.
The Civil War Music Store:  “Authentic Music of The Civil War by Tommy Horton

2 Responses to “Civil War Bands”

  1. Dorothy Mobilia says:

    I am a writer searching for the music for lyrics presumably composed by the 5th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and this note is more of a question than a comment. I feel certain they are based on a real march of the time. It contains seven stanzas with an unchanging chorus. The first stanza and chorus are:
    We’ve come from Old Connecticut/The steady habit State,
    Each shouldering his musket, boys,/ And careless of his fate;
    (chorus) And we’ll march, march/Till we reach the battle plain,
    There to fight, fight, fight,/ Till victorious or slain –
    We boys from the steady habit State.

    Is this enough to give insight as to how the melody went? I would greatly appreciate learning what the tune was. Sincerely, Dorothy Mobilia

  2. Chris Palmer says:

    Civil war army music CD

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