“I don’t think we can have an Army without music” – Music of the 1860’s


“I don’t think we can have an Army without music.”

 – General Robert E. Lee, CSA[1] 

The German author and poet, Berthold Auerbach once wrote, “Music washes away the dust of everyday life.” People have always needed music; to liven up a party, comfort us when we’re sad, to entertain us, to make work easier, to inspire us, to bring us closer to God.

Today music is everywhere. We are inundated with it on our computers, our phones, on television, in our cars, in the grocery store, even when we’re on hold. It’s there whenever we want it, and it’s only a click away. It is so readily available, that it is often taken for granted. It has become wallpaper for the ear.  However, for many of us, we couldn’t get through our day without it.

For Americans in the 19th century, music was just as important to them as it is us. Perhaps even more so. Without satellite radio, iTunes, CDs, or other means to record or broadcast performers, music was an event; something that the listener experienced in a more immediate way. It was simple: you played or sang music yourself, or you listened to somebody play or sing for you. Almost every community had somebody that could sing or play one or more instruments. Many were willing to teach others how to play music.

The piano was invented in the early 1700s; the first one came to America in 1760. By 1800, new manufacturing techniques that improved the piano’s tonal quality and projection, made it a popular instrument in concert halls, taverns, and especially in the home. It was an instrument that was fairly easy to learn to play, could be played by one, two, or even three people, be used to accompany singers or other instruments, and was also an attractive piece of furniture. Owning a piano was a sign of middle-class respectability.

Outside of urban areas, the desire to play music was so strong that slaves on plantations and people on the frontier often made and played music on homemade guitars, banjos, (an instrument with roots in Africa), and fiddles; on tambourines, drums, and even ham bones. Churches raised money to buy a pump organ to accompany their choir.

And what were Americans listening to in the mid-19th century? Immigrants brought melodies with them from the Old World to the New One. Early English, German, and Moravian settlers brought church hymns and folk songs with them. French Acadian music drifted up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, while German polkas flowed downriver and then west to Texas and Missouri. Swedish folk songs were heard in the upper prairie states, while Irish and Italian folk songs were popular in New York and Boston. Slaves in the South fused their melodies and rhythms brought from Africa and bent Western European harmonies to create spirituals and work songs which in the early 20th century would evolve into jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, country, rock, soul, and hip-hop.

Pic 1

A Union Army sergeant with his guitar (Library of Congress)

The Napoleonic Wars, along with other turmoil in Europe, brought a huge influx of professional musicians to the United States. According to one unknown German immigrant musician, by 1828 in New York City alone, there were over 2,000 immigrants who earned their living by either playing or teaching music. During the Civil War, there were so many opportunities to play music for a living that in 1862 the first musicians’ union forms in New York City with established pay scales. [2] New Orleans was the opera capital of the United States, and in many major cities, you could hear symphony orchestras staffed with professional musicians. Famous singers and musicians from Europe often toured the United States playing in packed theaters. Jenny Lind, billed as the “Swedish Nightingale” by P.T. Barnum, had 30,000 people waiting for her when her ship docked in New York City and a ticket to her concert in Boston, was auctioned off for $625![3]

Controversial today, one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the cities was the minstrel show. Minstrel shows began in the taverns of New York City’s Lower Broadway and the Bowery districts in the mid-1830s and remained popular even into the early 20th century.

Even before Joshua used trumpets to blow down the walls of Jericho, armies have had music. Perhaps more than anybody else, soldiers needed music to inspire them to victory or console them in defeat, to bury the dead, to cheer up the sick and the wounded, to remind them of home and better times, to communicate orders and the time of day, to entertain and help unwind at the end of a long day.

The military band tradition began in Europe in the 1700s and came to the colonies during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Early military bands in the United States were patterned after the European model. That meant woodwinds: usually two hautbois (oboes), two clarinets, two bassoons or serpents (and an early ancestor of contrabass clarinet), a horn (with no valves or keys), and a trombone. The influence of Turkish military bands inspired the adoption of drums and cymbals.

The invention of the keyed brass instruments like the keyed bugle and cornet, (a cousin of the trumpet), allowed brass musicians to play with some of the facility of flute, clarinet, and oboe players, but with greater volume and carrying power than woodwinds. The invention of the piston-valve in the 1830’s, solved the problem of leaky keys and finally allowed brass players to play melodic lines with more fluidity as their woodwind counterparts. By the 1850s, most of the woodwinds with the exception for the fife, and occasionally the clarinet, were gone. Indeed, many bands were now made up entirely of brass and percussion.

Some of the most popular brass instruments were saxhorns invented for military bands by Adolphe Sax in Paris. Sax’s instruments ran the full range from soprano to bass. Sax had also invented a line of woodwind instruments called saxophones; but these would not reach American shores until after the war.

Pic 2

   Union soldier with his saxhorn and family (Library of Congress)

Military musicians were divided into two groups both with specific functions:  field musicians and band musicians. Field musicians played the fife, bugle, and field snare drum.

Since the voice of an officer giving orders had a limited carrying distance, the mission of the field musicians were transmit routine orders. They were the public address system of the army. Field musicians had little or no musical ability. They didn’t need it. The instruments they played were relatively easy to learn and the music they were required to play required little technical ability.

Pic 3

Field Musicians of the 30th PA (Library of Congress)

Field musicians often learned their trade on the job; the primary requirement necessary was the ability to memorize the many calls and signals that regulated a soldier’s day. Calls were the alarm clock of the army. They told you when to wake up, when to assemble, when to eat, when to go on sick call, when to drill, when to take care of the horses, when to go to church, when to go on picket duty, and when to go to sleep. There were also signals to assist the commander in the movement of troops such as “forward”, “halt”, “commence firing”, and “retreat”.  To hear “Reveille”, “Drill Call”, and the “Adjutants Call”, click the icons below:

The popularity of brass instruments led to the development of community brass bands. Professional brass bands toured the country and featured famous soloists. Many militia companies in the North and South had their own bands, and those bands followed their companies and regiments into the army. “The tradition of associating band music with all civil, social, and community celebrations was established long before the war.”[4] When the Civil War began, bands were a valuable recruiting tool. No self-respecting regiment could really call itself a regiment without a band and often popular brass bands were sometimes enlisted en masse into a regiment, with several regiments competing to get the best bands and famous soloists.

While Patrick Gilmore’s Band in the 24th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was reputed to be the best band in the Union Army, not every regiment or brigade was so lucky. The band of the famous Iron Brigade boasted of having the best drum major in the army but the worst band. [5]

In 1862, there were 4,000 musicians in the Union Army. The expense of having to maintain so many bands in the Union Army cost the Federal government four million dollars a year. The U.S. Congress finally had to pass a bill eliminating regimental bands and limiting bands to one per brigade.

Pic 4Soldiers of the 8th New York, “Elmira Cornet Band” (Library of Congress)

With fewer resources, the Confederate armies had fewer bands. That did not mean Confederate soldiers were any less enthusiastic about music. General Jeb Stuart, was a connoisseur of music, and always ensured there were musicians at his headquarters and he sometimes went into battle accompanied by a banjo player. The band of the Stonewall Brigade was considered one of the best, if not the best band in Lee’s army. Many Moravian immigrants settled in North Carolina and served in bands during the war; the best known of which was the 26th North Carolina band, which served a Gettysburg.

Pic 5

Confederate soldier with a saxhorn (Library of Congress)

Bands performed for a variety of functions: military parades and reviews, funerals, executions, on the march. Bands marched at the head of a column of troops, (still the custom today in military ceremonies). Some brass instruments were over the shoulder instruments with the bell of the instrument pointing behind the musician towards the marching troops.

Sometimes bands were used to deceive the enemy. General Pierre G. T. Beauregard used to the Band to cover the retreat of his army from Corinth, Mississippi. The band would perform from location to another, giving the impression that Confederate troops still occupied Corinth. The Federal troops finally realized they were being duped and captured the whole band.[6]

When bands were not performing music for military functions, they performed concerts for the troops. The band book of the 26th North Carolina’s band included marches, transcriptions from French, German, and Italian operas, dances, and folk and popular songs of the day. Bands on the other side shared the same repertoire.

In the winter of 1862-63, both the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Potomac were positioned along the Rappahannock River. One evening, a band on one side of the river began playing. Soon massed Union bands began playing along the bank of the river for the enjoyment of both armies. Men on both sides sat along the river and silently listened while others would sing along with the bands. After a while, Confederate soldiers on the south side of the river requested that the bands play some their songs. The bands immediately began to play, “Dixie”, “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” “Maryland, My Maryland,” and other songs. Finally, a band began playing, “Home, Sweet Home”. As Bruce Catton would write, “Both armies tried to sing it, and it was a rather sentimental occasion. After all, these boys were a long way from home. They knew perfectly well that many of them were never going to see home again; as soon as the warm weather came, they would be fighting each other. The song got a little too much for them and pretty soon the bands finished the music by themselves.”

The 21st Annual Gettysburg Music Muster will be held AUG 12-13. All performances are free to the public

John Nicholas
Park Guide
Gettysburg National Military Park


[1] Sign in the Admin building of the 392nd “Fort Lee” Army Band, Fort Lee, Virginia, circa 1998.

[2] Olsen, Kenneth E. Music and Musket: Bands and Bandsmen of the Civil War Greenwood Press, Westport, CT. 1981 p. 21, p. 219

[3] Cornelius, Stephen H. Music of the Civil War Era Greenwood Press, Westport, CT. 2004 p.14

[4] Olsen, Kenneth E. Music and Musket: Bands and Bandsmen of the Civil War Greenwood Press, Westport, CT. 1981 p. 33

[5] Lt. Loyd Harris of the 6th Wisconsin would write, “Our men were just as ready to wager anything from a box of cigars to a month’s pay, rations included, that our band was without exception the worst of all.” Heardegen, Lance J. and William J.K. Beaudot  In the Bloody Railroad Cut at Gettysburg  Morningside House Dayton, OH 1990  p. 112

[6] Davis, James A. “Musical Reconnaissance and Deception in the American Civil War”, The Journal of Military History 74 #1 (January 2010) pp. 80-81


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6 Responses to “I don’t think we can have an Army without music” – Music of the 1860’s

  1. patrick jones says:

    “Field musicians had little or no musical ability. They didn’t need it. The instruments they played were relatively easy to learn and the music they were required to play required little technical ability.” I’m not sure I agree with this statement. I believe that there were obviously inept musicians, but I feel that the historical record would prove that field musicians were many times very component on either the fife or drum. There was a great amount of technical knowledge required to perform the full Camp Duty, along with any other calls required by the officers throughout the day. I have been taught percussion for seventeen years and have played across the country, and I can say that the Camp Duty requires a lot of technical ability on both instruments.

  2. jfkorber says:

    I am curious. On what evidence do you base the following statement, I read in your blog?
    “Field musicians had little or no musical ability…”

    Have you ever played, to the level required by military service, a fife, drum or bugle? A perusal of period field music manuals would indicate a fair amount of talent and skill was required to play any of these instruments effectively . Anecdotal evidence, diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, from both the war period and post war era, would indicate that the ranks of field musicians were full of talented folks.

    • The Staff says:

      Field musicians required a little bit of technical ability, but no true musical ability. The purpose of field music was purely functional. A bugle could only play C,G,C,E, G. Tone, intonation, reading, sight-reading, phrasing, articulation, playing in an ensemble, and other aspects of musicianship just didn’t come into play due to the limitations of the instrument. Similarly, fifes were the six-hole instrument that could only play in one key. (There were chromatic fifes, but too temperamental for field use.) We found in the journal of an Army musician written pre-Civil War that after just two months practice he was already performing ceremonies. Drummers were a little different. Both for field music and band music, they were taught the rudiments and how to apply them, though band drummers might have been more polished and would the knowledge to read music. Certainly, some drummers may have even known how to play orchestral percussion instruments, but field musicians learned by rote; they didn’t need to be able to read music, since none would carry sheets of music with them.

      In U.S. Army Bands today, field music, (as in bugle calls, drum cadences, and occasionally piccolo music), sheets of music are not taken on the field; it is all memorized before a soldier has left the School of Music.

      The limitations of field instruments set field musicians apart from band musicians. Not only did band instruments require technical facility, but band musicians needed to perform a much wider variety of music in an ensemble where musicianship was just as important as technical ability. Put it this way- a band musician could play field music, but a field musician couldn’t play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto or a Mozart Flute Sonata. That is not a knock on field musicians who had very important duties- thirty two Army musicians were awarded the Medal of Honor, and most (if not all) were field musicians. – John Nicholas, GNMP

  3. Sarah says:

    I appreciated reading about Civil War music and the brass bands. There is a band out of Wisconsin called the 1st Brigade Band that plays period music on period instruments that would be a great resource.

  4. Kaci Anstett says:

    Very perceptive site and a good post. Thanks!

  5. fathersnaturalremedies says:

    I played in the 3rd US Army band and then the 81st FA Band. It boosts the morale of the soldiers and the community.

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