The Salem Band at war: 26th North Carolina Regiment Band

Upon the firing on Fort Sumter, armies on both sides of the Civil War began to gear up for a fight. In the North, at least, the announcement that some famous band would be attached to a particular regiment aided recruitment. The South, too, had its famous bands, including one in Salem, North Carolina, which eventually became attached to the 26th North Carolina Regiment.
The Salem Band, which still exists in what has become Winston-Salem, is one of the oldest musical institutions in the country. It began as a quartet of trombones in that Moravian settlement in 1771. It expanded its activities from being strictly a church ensemble, and by 1791 it played secular marches and dance music.

In the 1830s, by now a mixed wind ensemble, it was formally organized as a town band with 15 members and began to travel through the state, making a great impression at a ceremony in Charlotte in 1835. It grew both in size and the variety of its repertoire through the 1850s.

When the Civil War started, the Salem Brass Band immediately began to serve the Confederate cause, supplying bands for both the 21st and 26th North Carolina Regiments. For the first half of the war, they remained in North Carolina and Virginia, serving as medics when not on musical duty. General Zebulon Vance granted them a furlough in 1862 to visit their families, raise funds with concerts and, oh yes, vote for Gen. Vance, who was running for governor. It was not the last furlough they requested, but it was the last they ever got. Even as Governor, Vance did not help them.

Members of the Salem Brass Band on furlough in summer 1862. Image courtesy of the Moravian Music Foundation, Winston-Salem, NC.

The 26th North Carolina Regiment suffered more casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1863) than any other unit. One would think that that would have kept them busy as medics, but according to recollections by their leader J. A. Leinbach, they combined with the band of the 11th Regiment to play polkas and waltzes during the battle to cheer their troops on. Northern troops heard them as well over the din of the cannon fire. A British observer noted that the dance music “sounded very curious, accompanied by the hissing and bursting of shell.”

Shortly before Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender ended the war, the 26th Regiment band became prisoners of war and remained captives in Maryland until mid-1865. They had stayed together as a unit throughout the war and during their captivity. They returned home as a unit without their instruments, but with all their band books–the only known complete set of band books from any Civil War regiment. Now owned by the Moravian Music Foundation, it supplied music for a recording sponsored by the Foundation called
A Storm In The Land / American Brass Quintet Brass Band

The war had pretty much destroyed much of the institutional structure of many Southern cities. Salem recovered sufficiently by 1872 to reorganize its town band as the Salem Cornet Band. In 1898, the town of Salem merged with the nearby town of Winston to form the current city of Winston-Salem. The Winston and Salem town bands merged as well, becoming the Twin City Concert Band. It has since readopted the name Salem Band. It has long since ceased having an exclusively Moravian membership, but it honors its Moravian heritage by performing at Christmas services, Easter sunrise services, and summer concerts at the square in Old Salem.

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