A Wisconsin band in the Civil War: 1st Brigade Band of Brodhead

When the Civil War started, the two sides suddenly required armies, and army regiments needed bands. I have already written about the 26th North Carolina Regiment Band, which grew out of one of the oldest musical institutions in the country. Brodhead, Wisconsin had existed less than a decade before its band joined the war effort. The 1st Brigade Band, as it eventually became known, got off to a rocky start, but earned an excellent reputation by the end of the war.

The rapid growth of towns like Brodhead

Members of the Brodhead band, with leader E. O. Kimberly at top left.

In the decade before the Civil War, railroads spread across the country, or at least the North, and towns sprang up and grew (often rapidly) in their wake. The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway needed a town in south central Wisconsin and acquired land from a group of men headed by Edward Brodhead. The village of Brodhead was platted in 1856, and a year later some of the citizens decided it needed to develop the amenities of a real town, including a town band.

As The Americans: the National Experience by Daniel Boorstin shows, such rapid growth was commonplace at the time. Newspapers, bands, and other institutions helped town boosters recruit new businesses and residents. No one in Brodhead had any formal training in music, but ten young men under the leadership of Edwin Oscar Kimberly decided to give it a try.

They bought cheap instruments to learn on, so they were first known as the Brodhead Tin Band. They had to teach themselves how to play the instruments and how to read the music. Soon enough, they were invited to play for a political rally in Beloit, an event expected to attract such a large crowd that the organizers invited half a dozen bands.

The boys from Brodhead had learned three pieces by that time, but cheerfully accepted the invitation. By the end of the day, they had been voted the best band and given the keys to the city.

No wonder they were invited the next year to entertain the crowd at the Lincoln-Douglas debate held in nearby Freeport, Illinois. By this time, they were the 14-piece Brodhead Brass Band, having acquired new instruments and learned a lot more music.

First Civil War Experience

Civil War bands

Instruments with over-the-shoulder bells, typical of those used by Civil War bands

Once the war started, patriotic fervor swept the country. Everyone in the North figured it would be easy to defeat the rebels and capture their capital city of Richmond, Virginia. The now 26 members of the Brodhead Brass Band eagerly enlisted and took the train to Washington as the band of the 3d Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry.

Instead of joining the assault on Richmond, which ended so disastrously, the 3rd Wisconsin volunteers found themselves sent to Camp Pinckney in Maryland. There, under Gen. Nathaniel Banks, they would be sent to the Shenandoah Valley. Banks proved unequal to the task of fighting Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

Aside from the battles with the Confederates, the band had to contend with other difficulties:

  • The man appointed to be band master proved incompetent. Kimberly, who probably should have gotten the position in the first place, became leader some time later.
  • The shoddy government-issued brass instruments kept falling into disrepair.
  • Disease, brought on by deficient food, hygiene, and medical care, swept through all the various army camps, infecting bandsmen as much as anyone else.

A healthy soldier could fight. A healthy bandsman with an dysfunctional instrument couldn’t play. Just imagine the difficulty of making music when all the cornets were absent!

Because of Banks’ miscalculations and unpreparedness, one battle ended in a rout. Thousands of men dropped their equipment in order to flee for their lives. More than half of the members of the 3d Wisconsin Regimental Band lost their instruments. The regiment had no money for new instruments, so it sent the bandsmen back home.

Second Civil War Experience

Civil War bands

Unidentified band at Lookout Mountain, 1864

Apparently, some in Brodhead wanted the band to reenlist as a brigade band. Understandably, the band had little interest for about a year and a half. In February 1864, they changed their mind, and in April of that year 20 musicians from Brodhead set off for Huntsville, Alabama as the 1st Brigade Band.

This time, they went without the earlier youthful cockiness. They also went with instruments and uniforms they had purchased at their own expense and leather-bound part books with 62 marches, dance tunes, dirges, popular songs, and operatic selections suitable for every occasion.

By 1864, the Union was winning the war. At least partly for that reason, the 1st Brigade Band did not suffer any of the problems it had before, except, of course, the rampant illness in army camps. One day at the end of August 1864, Kimberly could only muster eight healthy musicians.

In May, their first month in Huntsville, the band played four pieces every morning, afternoon, and evening. They began to acquire a reputation for excellence. In their first military action, they boarded a gun boat plying the Tennessee River. Before the gunboat began firing on a small Confederate fort, the band got off the boat and found a place where the rebels could easily hear them.

As the boat razed the fort with its shells, the band taunted the fleeing rebels with “Yankee Doodle” and other Northern battle music. The brigade kept moving into Georgia. There, the 1st Brigade Band got into a battle of the bands one night.

The evening began in an ordinary enough way. The 1st Brigade Band played some tunes outside one of the generals’ headquarters. He asked them to serenade a colonel from Michigan, which they did. After three or four pieces, the Wisconsin group went back to their own camp to play for the acting division surgeon.

As soon as they played one piece, another band began to play, the one from the 15th Michigan Infantry, whose colonel they had just serenaded. They traded pieces for a while until the Michigan band responded by playing exactly the same piece. An insult! The Wisconsin band determined that they would play the last piece if it took all night.

It nearly did. It was 3:00 in the morning before the Michigan band finally missed their turn. Wisconsin played Yankee Doodle and shouted, “Victory!” For the last couple of hours of the contest, probably neither band was at its best. Both of them had been drinking freely from the beginning.

After a brief furlough, the 1st Brigade Band joined Gen. Sherman’s march from Georgia to North Carolina. When the Union captured Columbia, South Carolina, a dozen bands, including the 1st Brigade, massed to play “The Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore.

After the war

Civil War bands

Display case at the Brodhead Historical Society

Throughout this second enlistment, the 1st Brigade Band earned a reputation for musical excellence. Gen. Sherman called them the model band of his entire army. In the eventual victory parade in Washington, it was the only band mentioned by name in the newspapers. They returned to Brodhead as heros.

Not long afterwards, Gen. Grant returned to his home in Galena, Illinois. Locals wanted to give him a spectacular homecoming and, even though Grant was famously tone deaf, wanted the best music available. Many of the veterans they consulted said that the 1st Brigade Band would be the best to invite.

Of course, they were eager to oblige, but they had sold their old band wagon before their second enlistment and had no time to build another. They borrowed one from a band in nearby Shullsburg. And so the Galena papers rapturously praised the wonderful music provided by the 15th Corps Band from Shullsberg.

Until after the Second World War, the US did not keep much of a standing army in peace time. Towns remained proud of their bands, but usually stopped using their military names. The Brodhead musicians traded in their now old-fashioned over the shoulder saxhorns for modern bell forward cornets, bell up euphoniums and tubas, and trombones. As the Brodhead Silver Cornet Band, they continued to entertain until after the turn of the century.

Once easy access to phonographs and the radio enabled people to enjoy music without leaving the house, many town bands, including Brodhead’s, withered and died. Various generations of the band’s instruments ended up in the local history museum.

Then, in 1964, the town of Galena wanted to re-enact Grant’s homecoming. They contacted Fred Benkovic, an instrument collector from Milwaukee, to find period instruments and train people to play music from the old part books on them.

That band did not simply play for a reenactment and disperse. Instead, the 1st Brigade Band permanently reorganized. It is now an affiliate of the Wisconsin Historical Society and maintains a busy schedule of performances. It has made numerous recordings of Civil War music.

Main source: 1st Brigade Band


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