Musicians of the American Civil War

11 June 2015

History | Theatre

While working with the documents of American History, 1493-1945: From the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History my eye was drawn to some of the American Civil War-era military manuals due to some interesting appendices. As a part-time trumpet player I took an interest in some music charts entitled 'General Calls' for the army buglers. There were two different sets that I came across, one for Confederate infantry (Rifle and Infantry Tactics, Revised and Improved GLC03071) and one for Union cavalry (Cavalry Tactics in Three Parts GLC07566.01).

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​Rifle and Infantry Tacics, Revised and Improved, 1861. Image courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Collection

It's fascinating to see the music written for the various different functions and manoeuvres of the army and to also discern the differences between the two sides. There were short pieces written for all kinds of activities: Attention, The general, The Assembly, Quick time, Double quick time, The charge, The reveille, Retreat. But also interestingly there were calls for skirmishers that covered various actions such as fixing bayonets, moving left/right, lie down, change direction, fire, cease fire and more. From looking at these, you’d think these skirmishers were human sheepdogs.

I took some copies of the charts to try them out and get a sense of the bugler’s experience; and at the risk of upsetting reenactors or purists, of which I am neither I hasten to add, the results of this experiment are recorded below. So here’s a little music review of a handful of the bugle calls found in these manuals. Apologies in advance for any musical butchery. 

The Reveille

This is a classic. You’ll all know it from various western films and if I’m not mistaken it was the wake-up call for both sides though here it is written in the Confederate manual. A most spirited get-out-of-bed.

The Charge

Here we can compare the Confederate infantry charge to the Union cavalry charge. Here the Confederates are surely the musical winners. The Union call is abrupt and not particularly dramatic considering this is one of the most fearsome moves soldiers are supposed to perform. In contrast, the Confederate version is surprisingly jaunty and somewhat elated despite staring death in the face.

The Assembly

Here we also have the version of both sides: the Union cavalry have another classic that you might know: a spritely tune to get the men together. For the Confederate infantry it’s a more stately and dignified number.

To Arms

A two-paced number for the Union cavalry. A slow-burning intro then a rousing call to action, reminiscent of the Reveille, to add urgency to tooling up.

You can see from some of the other documents in the Collection that The Charge was used in battle and no doubt the camp calls but I thought that if detailed bugle directions were used – left, right, lie down, etc. – in battle it would be something of a surprise. Having looked at the various calls for the skirmishers it’s a lot of different parts for the buglers to remember, let alone for those they’re bugling at to recall what each one means; and bear in mind the added noise of battle and the bullets flying around – surely a shout would be easier. On top of this, some of them are pretty difficult technically, requiring what in the business is called double and triple tongue to get through the notated rhythms (I've taken on the easier ones above).

Though having thought this, a search through the documents in the collection may prove me wrong. One Union soldier’s letter, James Kellog to his wife Mary (GLC02415.068), talks of having to learn twenty-five calls and be near the colonel in times of battle. Another letter of a Union soldier, Charles Coit (GLC03603.205), describes the horse artillery practising with bugled commands: ‘The batteries would gallop up in full speed, whirl round & fire to front or rear, right or left - a few notes on the bugle - the men would jump on the cannons & trot off - another few notes & they would dash off at full speed - halt - wheel - or change position - & scatter the crowd of lookers on in all directions.’ Finally an account of Union soldiers fighting Indians in 1862 (Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, 1861-1865 GLC00267.288 p.244) states that a ‘command given by the horseman with a mistake in the bugle call created much confusion. The reserve about-faced, the skirmishers on the right came running in on the reserve.’ So here the calls are more trouble than they’re worth and a liability; just one proof that in actual battle they weren't much use.

Another interesting document reveals how buglers and the army’s musicians were selected, in the Confederate States’ army at least. Regulations for the Army of the Confederate States, 1863 (GLC05987.50) has a telling passage: ‘The general superintendent will cause such of the recruits as are found to possess a natural talent for music, to be instructed (besides the drill for the soldier) on the fife, bugle and drum, and other military instruments: and boys of twelve years of age and upward may, under his direction, be enlisted for this purpose. But as recruits under eighteen years of age and under size must be discharged, if they are not capable of learning music, care should be taken to enlist those only who have a natural talent for music, and, if practicable, they should be taken on trial for some time before being enlisted.’ So child labourers if they were good enough.

So we see here how the many documents of American History, 1493-1945 shed light on one aspect of the Civil War, in this case the lives and functions of the some of the soldier musicians.


Module 2 'Civil War, Reconstruction and the Modern Era: 1860-1945' of American History, 1493-1945: From the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is available now. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license.

About the Author

Felix Barnes

Felix Barnes

I have been an editor at Adam Matthew since September 2013. Since then I have been fortunate enough to have been involved with some fascinating collections including Global Commodities, the Foreign Office Files for China, American History, 1493-1945, Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement and Colonial Encounters, Socialism on Film and J. Walter Thompson: Advertising America.