Music in Letters Home from Civil War Soldiers




In this series of posts on Civil War music I have occasionally cited Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music. Author Christian McWhirter commented twice about letters. On the very first page he noted, ” Almost any war diary, letter collection, or memoir contains at least a passing reference to music.” Later, in the chapter on soldiers, he wrote, “Music became intrinsically linked to the soldiers’ Civil War experiences—even combat performance—and is mentioned in almost every wartime diary, letter collection, or reminiscence.” My sister-in-law, the family genealogist, presented us with a 100-page treatise at Christmas that fleshed out not only … 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

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

Edward Mack, prolific composer of Civil War marches




Of the 412 marches related to the Civil War in the Library of Congress Civil War Sheet Music Collection, 26 are by E. Mack. I never suspected that 6% of the collection would be written by someone I had never heard of. I was not surprised to see so many unfamiliar names among march composers, but I never thought the composer of the most marches would be such a cipher, and I never thought one man would write more than twice as much as second most prolific composer. George Root’s 12 contributions (mostly arrangements and not original compositions) include three … Continue reading

Marches of the Civil War




It is my plan to publish something related to the Civil War every month until the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s assassination four years from now. By that time, if I am even able to come close to finishing the project, I will become very familiar with the Library of Congress’ Civil War Sheet Music Collection. I have just looked through the list of the 412 marches in the collection (out of an entire collection of 2576 pieces of published sheet music. There are pieces written both by Northern and Southern sympathizers, although I have only glanced at the contents and have … 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

Did Sax invent the saxhorn?




(Saxhorns are the top row of instruments in this 1872 advertisement) In1845, French military music reached the bottom of a long decline. The war ministry, desiring to reorganize it completely, arranged for a contest among bands with various instrumentation. The band led by Adolphe Sax won. The Belgian-born Sax had only moved to Paris and set up shop three years earlier. His quick success (largely due to the superior craftsmanship of his instruments but also to notable supporters such as Hector Berlioz) annoyed established French makers. That this upstart should win the right to reorganized French military music added insult … Continue reading

The buccin: a dragon-headed trombone




In the early nineteenth century, some  French and Belgian instrument makers manufacturered a fanciful adaptation of the trombone known as the buccin. In place of the standard bell section, it had a widely curving tube  ending with a gaudily painted serpent’s or dragon’s head.  The same makers also put monster’s heads on serpents, serpent bassoons, and other precursors of the ophicleide. Judging from the trombone parts in French music during or after the Revolution, the was played loudly, primarily in the lower register.  As the French used a very small-bore trombone, its sound must have been coarse and at times … Continue reading