Civil War regimental bands: banned and disbanded?

regimental band portrait

8th New York State Militia Band, June 1861, in Arlington, Va., clearly showing their pre-war civilian identity on the drum.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States had a standing army and many states had their own militia. Volunteer regiments formed on both sides of the war.

No matter when or how they were organized, nearly every regiment had a band. After the war raged for a little over a year, the Union decided to abolish all its regimental bands. Does that mean that Union regiments had no bands for the rest of the war? Hardly.

The history of military bands in both the US and Europe during the 19th century concerns in part the difference between official regulations and actual practice, which nearly always entailed more bands and larger bands than authorized. That’s one fact of military life that wartime conditions did not change.

By the end of 1861, the Union army had 28,000 bandsmen in 618 bands.

The structure and duties of military bands

Zouave ambulance crew demonstrating removal of wounded soldiers from the field. Unknown date and location.

Zouave ambulance crew demonstrating removal of wounded soldiers from the field. Unknown date and location.

The band of the 4th Infantry Regiment of the regular army (Now the Army Ground Forces Band) is a case in point. The regiment traces its history back to 1797. Army regulations did not authorize regimental bands until 1821, but quite a number already had them by that time.

For readers not familiar with the overall command structure of the military, here is where the 4th Infantry Regiment fit at the outset of the Civil War:

  • Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George B. McClellan
  • V Corps (commanded by a Major General)
  • 2nd Division (commanded by a Brigadier General)
  • 1st Brigade (commanded by a Lt. Colonel)
  • 4th Regiment (commanded by two Captains)
  • various companies

The 4th Infantry Regiment Band served with great distinction in the Mexican War, even manning artillery at need. At the beginning of the Civil War, it comprised 50 musicians, far more than regulations permitted. Despite the order to dissolve regimental bands, the 4th Infantry Regiiment’s band maintained its structure and identity throughout the war and beyond.

Here are the basic duties of that band during wartime, which are probably representative of the other bands.

  • Concerts, parades, reviews, and guard mount ceremonies in troop encampments.
  • Performances for units marching into battle
  • Concerts in forward positions during the heat of battle
  • Medical duties
    • Gathered wood for splints before battles
    • Set up field hospitals
    • As stretcher bearers, took the wounded to the hospitals
    • Assisted surgeons during amputations and disposed of the severed limbs.

The illustration shows a band in fancy Zouave uniforms. With proliferation of the Zouave style of military drill units before the Civil War, bands ceased to be a luxury and became a necessity. For more information, see my article on Elmer Ellsworth, who popularized Zouave drills.

Over the course of the war musicians in the regular army were sometimes forced to take on combat duties. Bandsmen in volunteer and militia units were not, and that caused some friction.

The reputation of regimental bands in general

regimental band portrait

Unidentified band at Lookout Mountain, 1864

Some regiments boasted bands led by such excellent and well-known musicians as Patrick Gilmore. Others were simply awful. One army officer asked that the band not play near the food tent “because their music sours the meat every morning.” A naval crew, seriously or facetiously, wanted to get rid of its band on suspicion that their noisome music caused dysentery! Most were at least adequate.

Officers generally supported having bands because of how they raised morale. And, of course, the officers’ support made the hardships of military service more bearable for the bandsmen.

Most soldiers also valued the bands, but they came at a cost. Most of the bands were supported by some kind of regimental tax. The musicians were reasonably well paid, but not enough to buy and maintain instruments—especially considering that some retailers deliberately gouged bandsmen. So soldiers were asked to contribute some of their pay to the band. Some did so gladly and others resentfully.

Despite their overall popularity, the bands had powerful critics. Some regarded bandsmen as cowards who were afraid of combat, others as merely an unnecessary nuisance.

Bands for units with officers who did not value them could not raise the money needed to maintain their instruments. They suffered low morale and were sometimes dissolved.

The Union spent more money on bands than the Confederacy, and therefore received extra criticism for the expense. Some bandsmen were paid more than the field musicians, who considered themselves much more important to the war effort. One even wrote a protest to the Secretary of War. Other enlisted men grumbled about the regimental band tax.

The debate spilled over into the newspapers, some of which wondered if the bands were worth the cost. The Paymaster General testified to the Senate that the bands were “far more ornamental than useful, and should be abolished.” He estimated that the military could save $5 million a year. The Secretary of War also told President Lincoln that the bands weren’t worth the expense.

Congress established a committee to investigate the army’s finances in January 1862. An editorial in the New York Times encouraged committee to “strike first at those brazen monstrosities, the bands.”

The dissolution of regimental bands

regimental band portrait

114th Pennsylvania Infantry Band, Petersburg, Va., August 1864–long after such bands were officially abolished. From the fancy uniforms and turbans, it appears to be another Zouave unit.

Not waiting for congressional action, General Don Carlos Buell discharged every band under his command. A few other officers did the same.  Even the 12th Massachusetts, which was good enough to have performed on Broadway, was sent home.

Congress permanently abolished all regimental bands on July 17, 1862. Accordingly, on August 9, General McClellan issued an order of dissolution. The order allowed musicians to be transferred to brigade bands subject to their own consent and the discretion of brigade commanders. Brigade bands were allowed only 16 musicians.

Most soldiers opposed the move, but some were quite happy to be “rid of the lazy grumbling loafers.” Just as some highly placed critics had engineered the dismissal of the bands, highly placed supporters protested the decision. The Quartermaster General pointed out, among other things, that the dismissal was a false economy. Without bandsmen acting as stretcher-bearers, the army would have to hire replacements.

Various regiments found ways to evade the order. Some simply enlisted their bandsmen as privates. Still more, who had discharged their bands, quietly accepted them back before the end of the year. And some of the soldiers who had welcomed the bands’ dissolution were glad to have them back.

When new regiments were created, some simply ignored the order and formed bands. Some tried to hide the presence of musicians on their rosters. Others didn’t bother.

The bands that were sent home responded in various ways. Gilmore’s 24th Massachusetts band spend its final days in service performing special concerts for each company in the regiment. Another defiantly played loudly till midnight.

As for the 4th Infantry Regiment Band, it stayed with the regiment through December 1862 and participated in the battles of Fredericksburg, Bull Run (second battle), and Antietam.

Strength records for 1863 are generally uninformative about band members, but does mention the discharges of a few individuals, including one discharged for disabilities due to combat wounds.

The 4th Infantry Regiment itself was broken up into individual companies in August 1863. The band, although officially deactivated was sent to Fort Richmond in New York Harbor. It was reorganized there in December 1863, and six new musicians enlisted at that time. The famously unmusical General Ulysses Grant specifically asked for the 4th  Regiment Infantry and its Band to guard his headquarters in  City Point, Virginia in July 1864. He remembered the band’s Mexican War service with deep respect, if not musical appreciation.

Of course, the 1862 act of Congress had never been repealed and General McClellan’s order had never been withdrawn. Officially and legally, neither the 4th Infantry Regiment nor any other actually had a band. Commanders simply ignored any appearance to the contrary.

Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War / Christian McWhirter (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, (2012). Chapter 5.
The Evolution of a Military Band: the History of the 214th Army Band, the Army Ground Forces Band and Its Predecessor the Fourth Infantry Regiment Band [PDF] / Robert. C. Tolton
Photo credit. Library of Congress Civil War Band Photo Gallery 


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