Music has always been an important part of American society and it was no different during the Civil War. Military bands were called upon to play at recruitment rallies and their patriotic marching tunes were sometimes a great incentive to inspire young men to enlist. When volunteer regiments were recruited, a regimental band was usually included as a part of that organization. The bands
were needed to play for parades, formations, dress parades and evening concerts. Union and Confederate armies both authorized regimental bands. In the Union army, each artillery or infantry regiment could have one 24-member band and the cavalry was limited to a 16 member band. So many bands and the need for more disciplined organizations made officials in the Union War Department reconsider the
regulations. In 1862, the Department ordered the dismissal of all brass ensembles that belonged to volunteer regiments. To replace discharged regimental bands, brigade bands were formed to serve the entire brigade of a division. Despite the order, some regimental officers were able to retain their bands. The musicians re-enlisted as combatants and were detailed by the colonel commanding
the regiment into a regimental band.
(Hardtack & Coffee)
There were fewer Confederate bands because musicians were not quite as plentiful in the South and good instruments were expensive and very difficult to obtain. Quality brass instruments were rare because that metal was in short supply in the Confederacy and some of the best instrument makers were in the North. Like their Union counterparts, most Confederate bands were dismissed from service after
the first year of the war though several organizations, including the 26th North Carolina Infantry, retained their bands and many southern officers were glad for it. Generals Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet were all serenaded by Confederate bands while in camp and they enjoyed the music very much. Most officers, including General Lee, felt that the music supplied by these surviving bands was very
important to keep up the morale of the men. The bands that remained with the army often used music borrowed from Northern song books and used captured instruments in place of the inferior Confederate-made instruments. Some Confederate bands were better than others and not all bands sounded that good. One Confederate soldier regarded the playing of his regiment's band "comparable to the braying of
a pack of mules..."
Members of the 26th North Carolina Infantry Band
Each company in an infantry regiment had a musician who was usually a drummer. They were relied upon to play drum beats to call the soldiers into formation and for other events. Drums got the soldiers up in the morning, signaled them to report for morning roll call, sick call, and guard duty. Drummers also played at night to signal lights out or "taps". The most important use of drums was on the
battlefield where they were used to communicate orders from the commanding officers and signal troop movement. Civil War drums were made of wood that had been cut into thin layers, steamed, and formed into a round shell. The outside of a Union drum was often painted and featured a large eagle displaying its wings with the stars and stripes flowing around it. Confederate drums were not quite as
fancy, many just having a plain wood finish. The heads of the drum were made from calfskin and stretched tight by ropes.
A Union drum
Drummers were often accompanied by a fifer. The fife was a high-pitched instrument, similar to a piccolo, and usually made of rosewood. This hollow wooden instrument was played by blowing wind over one hole and controlling the pitch with fingers placed over other holes along the length of the tube. Fancier fifes had brass fittings and engravings on them. Like drummers, the fifers were also
part of the regiment's band who were detailed as musicians.
A Union fifer
Not all drummers, fifers and bandsmen were allowed to go into battle. When fighting appeared imminent, musicians were often ordered to the rear to assist surgeons and care for the wounded. Some brigade bands did accompany their commanders onto the field and played patriotic songs while under the battle raged all around them. Can you imagine the type of courage it took to play your instrument
while bullets and shells flew thick and fast all around you?
Cavalry regiments did not use drums and fifes. Instead, they used bugles to sound the different calls in camp and on the march. The bugler was considered a cavalry regiment's musician. Cavalrymen became so familiar with their own musician and his bugle calls, that they could often distinguish his calls from that of another regiment. Like the cavalry, artillery units also used bugles in
camp and on the battlefield. One could tell who was camped where by the sounds of drums or bugles being played.
Soldiers in both armies had their own favorite songs to sing and listen to. Sometimes they sang while marching to keep up their spirits. Union soldiers liked patriotic and sentimental songs. The Battle Cry of Freedom was a Union favorite. Some other popular tunes were The Battle Hymn of the Republic, John Brown's
Body, Just Before The Battle Mother, Dixie's Land, Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground, The Vacant Chair, and Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!
Confederate Soldiers also had patriotic and romantic songs they enjoyed such as The Bonnie Blue Flag, Maryland, My Maryland, Lorena, and a southern version of The Battle Cry of Freedom
The "Battle of the Bands", Civil War Style
During the winter of 1862-1863, Union and Confederate armies were camped near each other at Fredericksburg, Virginia, separated only by the expanse of the Rappahannock River. One cold afternoon, a band in the Union camp struck up some patriotic tunes to cheer the men. They were answered from across the river by a Confederate band. The Union band played another tune followed by the Confederates
who also did their best to play the same song. Back and forth the musical duel went well into the evening hours. Soldiers in both armies listened to the musical battle and would cheer for their own bands. The duel finally ended when both bands struck up the tune of "Home, Sweet Home". It was then that the men of both sides who were so far from their homes, cheered as one.
Do you know of any familiar songs today that were sung during the Civil War? How about Goober Peas and The Yellow Rose of Texas?
When Johnny Comes Marching Home was another popular song that is closely associated with the Civil War. These were among the many favorite songs sung by soldiers that are still popular.