Too much of a good thing--the Union's early war bands sent home

Claude Bauer

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For hundreds of years, brass bands have played a vital role in the military, providing inspiration, comfort, and entertainment to combat soldiers far from home.

An excellent overview by the Library of Congress titled "The Civil War Bands" looks at the role of brass bands in the Civil War and begins, "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."

As hundreds of volunteer units poured into the army from every town, city, and state, many brought a brass band with them. However, the army quickly determined that supporting that many musicians wasn't practical.

"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"

Nevertheless, many Union brass bands remained throughout the war on both sides and many served with distinction until the very end and could even be heard during the heat of battle. 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"
 

Coonewah Creek

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Jun 1, 2018
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Northern Alabama
By mid-1862, most of the "musicians" in the 2nd MS were transferred to the band of the 11th MS. Did attrition force Confederate regimental bands to consolidate? Was there basically now only one authorized per brigade? Or so many for a division? Or did it vary? I don't recall ever seeing any official orders regarding band dissolution or consolidation at least within the ANV, so was just curious.
 

troiano220

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May 17, 2019
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Fairfax, VA
By mid-1862, most of the "musicians" in the 2nd MS were transferred to the band of the 11th MS. Did attrition force Confederate regimental bands to consolidate? Was there basically now only one authorized per brigade? Or so many for a division? Or did it vary? I don't recall ever seeing any official orders regarding band dissolution or consolidation at least within the ANV, so was just curious.

There is not a lot of research done on brass bands in the Confederacy. It is often assumed that the makeup was similar, but significantly fewer in number. This document may help: https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc798486/m2/1/high_res_d/1002715393-Ferguson.pdf

In "Bands and Drummer Boys of the Civil War" by Arthur Wise and Francis A. Lord (1966), they say that there were likely fewer brass bands in the Confederate army because they were more desperate to have every able man available to fight. "A Johnny Reb Band" by Harry Hall demonstrates how the musicians in the 26th NC Regimental Band were increasingly concerned about being transferred to fighting infantry as the war wore on.
 

19thOhio

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Oct 24, 2019
An interest in a local band that morphed into a CW regimental band is what led be to research the 19th Ohio. A rather cold and dreary day here allowed me to count the number of lines in my history that had or mentioned bands or their stories. I found 184 lines which amounts to about 4 1/2 pages. I'm sure you all wanted to know that. A CW movie centering around bands or a bandsman would be interesting.
 
Joined
Jan 24, 2017
Whilst this was an unnecessary arrangement and very expensive to the government, it kept a host of noncombatants in the rear of the army.
I am reading this in a way that may be misconstrued, but my initial impression is that keeping noncombatants at the rear of the army ensured a level of safety from attack (from the rear). I hope someone will correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems an odd thing to mention unless it was significant in providing a protective basis as well (in the context of it being an unnecessary and expensive arrangement to the government).
 
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Claude Bauer

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I am reading this in a way that may be misconstrued, but my initial impression is that keeping noncombatants at the rear of the army ensured a level of safety from attack (from the rear). I hope someone will correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems an odd thing to mention unless it was significant in providing a defensive basis as well (in the context of it being an unnecessary and expensive arrangement to the government).
If your commanding officer ever got you into a position where you had to be defended by the musicians, you'd be in a world of hurt! 😲
 
Joined
Jan 24, 2017
Haha, @Claude Bauer

I changed it to 'protective', but it's probably the same thing! It just seemed like the musos had the army's back (literally) and the government was happy to pay for them to do so (for a short while anyway). The sentence reads rather oddly, which is why I took the meaning from it I did, and "non-combatants" have been known to provide an element of defense or protection for armies in other situations. I'm probably reaching now, so just take it as some of musings on musos! And I loved the notion of the cachophony of sound created when all the bands were still allowed in camp. I can imagine it would have been torture for Ulysses in the circumstances.
 

troiano220

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May 17, 2019
Location
Fairfax, VA
I am reading this in a way that may be misconstrued, but my initial impression is that keeping noncombatants at the rear of the army ensured a level of safety from attack (from the rear). I hope someone will correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems an odd thing to mention unless it was significant in providing a protective basis as well (in the context of it being an unnecessary and expensive arrangement to the government).
I know that regimental bands usually remained behind the line and served in the ambulance corps during engagements. While on the march, bands were actually leading the armies. I think the wording of the article is meant to imply that they were always in the rear and never fighting and they needed combatants, so it was expensive keeping guys around that would never (rarely) fight. I know of no examples where they expected the bands to serve as a last line of defense for the camp ("I didn't sign up for this!").
 
Joined
Jan 24, 2017
I know that regimental bands usually remained behind the line and served in the ambulance corps during engagements. While on the march, bands were actually leading the armies. I think the wording of the article is meant to imply that they were always in the rear and never fighting and they needed combatants, so it was expensive keeping guys around that would never (rarely) fight. I know of no examples where they expected the bands to serve as a last line of defense for the camp ("I didn't sign up for this!").
Thank you so much for your reply @troiano220 . Haha, I'm sure it would be a case of "I didn't sign up for this!"

I take your point and it is well explained. Thank you. I had read before they remained behind the line during battle and also helped in the aftermath. Leading the army on the march seems to be the place for them and I'm sure they were sadly missed in that respect by some.
 

Claude Bauer

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Have you ever felt the weight of the Drum Major's mace? Don't think I'd want to be on the receiving end !

:bounce: Yeah, I imagine that would hurt!

But I've never heard of a fatality and injury caused by Drum Major's mace or even a musician's sword. Not saying it never happened, just that it would have been an exceptionally rare thing.

Union Field Musicians were issued swords, which were essentially ceremonial in design. If used against a cavalry saber, for example, they'd snap like a toothpick. You rarely see them worn by musicians in the field, probably because they were considered an encumbrance, an ornament you'd wear with your dress uniform while on parade, like a surgeon's sword.
 

19thOhio

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Oct 24, 2019
That title sounded familiar thinking I had read that a few years ago but clicking on the link, the cover was not familiar.
I will put that on my want list.
 
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