Various army regiments on both sides of the US Civil War had bands. Some of them were quite good and enjoyed an excellent reputation. Only a few played under leaders who were famous before the war broke out. One of them, the Massachusetts 24th, played under Patrick Gilmore.
Irish-born Patrick Gilmore became well known as a cornet player in Boston. At 23, he became leader of the Boston Brass Band as successor to keyed bugle virtuoso Ned Kendall. Later, the Salem Brass Band offered him a considerable raise.
In December 1856, he invited the popular Kendall to be guest soloist. On the first half, Kendall thrilled the crowd with a variety of solos. The second half pitted Kendall and Gilmore against each other, taking turns playing one of Kendall’s favorite solos.
It’s hard to say that Gilmore was a better musician than Kendall, but the cornet proved to be a vastly superior solo instrument. Gilmore easily played every section of the piece both faster and cleaner than Kendall could.
Perhaps for that reason, Gilmore and the Salem Brass Band had the honor of performing for the inauguration of President James Buchanan the following March. He gained a national reputation, as well as the jealousy of the Boston area’s more experienced conductors.
After five years in Salem, Gilmore took over the Boston Brigade Band and renamed it the Gilmore Band. After the Civil War broke out, Gilmore and the band (all 68 men!) enlisted in the army and became the band of the 24th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment.
24th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment
The 24th Regiment was organized in December 1861 and promptly left for training at Annapolis, Maryland. It became part of General Ambrose Burnside’s expedition to North Carolina. The maritime experience of regiments from New England made them especially useful for an assault from the sea.
All of the major early battles under the command of the dithering General George McClellan proved disastrous for the Union cause. Meanwhile, Burnside successfully captured first Roanoke, then New Bern, Beaufort, and Fort Macon. Much of eastern North Carolina remained under Union control for the rest of the war.
The regiment boasted a band that was much larger, more prestigious, and more expensive than most, but it performed all the same duties. It performed music for the troops in camp and wherever else the commanders required concerts. It also followed the regiment into battle and served as hospital corpsmen.
I have not found any specific descriptions of the 24th Massachusetts Regiment Band in action, but my earlier post on the 1st Brigade Band of Wisconsin gives a sample of what combat duty was like.
By August 1862, the war had dragged on longer than anyone expected at first. Most volunteer bands were abolished in order to save money. Gilmore and his band, which had apparently suffered one casualty, returned to Boston.
Gilmore’s continued war service
Even though Gilmore no longer commanded a military band, he could still contribute to the war effort and boost morale by giving concerts. Before long, the Governor of Massachusetts asked him to take charge of all the state’s military bands.
Gilmore trained and sent out numerous bands. He went along himself with a band bound for New Orleans. There, General Nathaniel Banks, a former Massachusetts governor, put Gilmore in charge of military music in occupied Louisiana.
Although Banks, as a political appointee, had an undistinguished record as a leader in combat, he was instrumental in securing the election of Republican Governor Michael Hahn. Had Lincoln not been assassinated, he would have used Banks’ achievements in Louisiana as a model for reconstruction.
Gilmore’s musical plans for Hahn’s inauguration included the first of his famous “monster concerts.” He combined 500 army bandsmen into one Grand National Band and supplemented it with additional drum and bugle players.
This huge ensemble, joined by a chorus of 5000 children, performed many patriotic tunes, ending with Hail, Columbia. During that finale, Gilmore used electric buttons on the podium to fire 36 cannon in rhythm. At that point in the concert, church and cathedral bells from all over the city chimed.
It was probably the gaudiest show of spectacle seen in America since Jullien’s 1853 tour. It’s like would not happen again until Gilmore himself outdid it after the war.
Most bandmasters of the time wrote marches and other pieces for band. Gilmore also found time to compose When Johnny Comes Marching Home. He used the pen name Louis Lambert, but the title page also reads “as introduced by Gilmore’s Band.”
The Nineteenth-Century American Wind Band – Patrick Gilmore / Stephen L. Rhodes
The Civil War Bands / Library of Congress
The Burnside Expedition / North Carolina Digital History