Music in the Civil War Letters of Seneca B. Thrall

Music played a key role in the American Civil War on the home front and on the battlefield. Letters home from Civil War soldiers record much of what we know of music in camps and on battlefields. An officer of the 13th Iowa Infantry, Seneca B. Thrall, wrote 44 letters, mostly to his wife, that provide an officer’s-eye view of part of the Union army’s successful campaign in Mississippi.   It seems to be a fairly well-known collection. A Google search of Thrall’s name turns up several hits. Several of the letters describe music within the regiment. … Continue reading

Civil War regimental bands: banned and disbanded?




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. … Continue reading

Trombone vs bumblebee




“Everyone knows” that the trombone can’t play fast. In the orchestra, trombones are likely to be playing long chords when everyone else has a moving part. Even in jazz, Stan Kenton assumed that bebop would spell the end of the slide trombone. So some trombonists try to prove that “everyone” is wrong. Bass trombone soloist and clinician Alan Raph has pointed out, “Trying to be the world’s fastest trombone player is like trying to be the world’s tallest midget,” but nothing seems to keep trombonists from trying. Here are three of many videos of trombonists playing “Flight of the Bumblebee.” … Continue reading

Patrick Gilmore and the Massachusetts 24th regiment




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. 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 … Continue reading

Civil War field music: fifes and drums




Military music during the American Civil War was a blend of old and new instruments and ensembles. Brass bands like the 26th North Carolina Regiment Band or the 1st Brigade Band, Wisconsinrepresented fairly recent instrumental combinations. The bugle was also a recent invention. Fife and drum bands, on the other hand, reached their heyday in the Revolutionary War and saw their last military action in the Civil War. The United States Marine Band was established by an Act of Congress in 1798. Don’t be thinking John Philip Sousa just yet. The original band comprised 32 fifers and drummers. An army … Continue reading

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 In the decade before the Civil War, railroads spread across the country, … Continue reading

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 … Continue reading

March forth! A brief look at American marches




March music has played a huge role in American popular culture. What’s a parade without marching bands? Or half time at a school football game? Would anyone want to listen to a Fourth of July concert, or a concert on any other patriotic occasion, without lots of marches? Is it even possible to imagine a band concert without at least one march? The modern wind band began at the time of the French Revolution. After that, European nations developed infantry bands and mounted cavalry bands. Some nations developed highly centralized policies for the instrumentation of these bands. In any case, … Continue reading

Brass Bands of the American Civil War




I like to look around on YouTube from time to time. I recently typed “brass band” into the search engine, and a video called “Brass Bands of the Civil War” came up on the first page of results. I wondered how that subject could possibly work in a video. I have seen “videos” with a single photograph and music playing in the background. This one has a collage of wonderful photos and drawings while the Federal City Brass Band plays on period instruments. At the time of the Civil War, brass bands ruled. Few bands included woodwinds. As the photographs … Continue reading

Concert bands and big bands




I used to play summers with the Wheaton Municipal Band in Wheaton, Illinois. The last concert of the season is always “big band” music, which means that most of the 90 members are finished and only 17 people play that concert. It has always struck me as funny that after a season of full band concerts, the one called the big band concert involves only about a fifth as many players. The difference in names turns out to be a matter of history and tradition. During the French Revolution, Bernard Sarrette took charge of training military musicians and assembled a … Continue reading