By August of 1861 it was a requirement from the War Department in General Order 49, that each company have two musicians and all company musicians would come together to form a regimental band. The instruments in a band could include trumpets, coronets, flugels or keyed bugles, saxhorns, trombones and tubas.
These bands provided music in camp which boosted morale, helped ease homesickness and provided entertainment. When troops were camped for long periods of time in one place bands played concerts for the soldiers. Band members would try to show off their musical skills at these times with difficult pieces.
There were several instances when Union and Confederate troops camped so close together the bands “played against each other” throughout an evening before battle. Often the bands played during actual fighting. While performing at the back of the line it’s said that their music helped “rally the troops”.
There may have been a down side. In every brigade there were four or five regiments, then three brigades to a division and three divisions in a corps. So there could be anywhere from 36 to 40 bands playing in a limited camp area. Even the greatest music lovers might find that a bit overwhelming.
By mid 1862 it was estimated there were 28,428 musicians in the Union army and 14,832 were band members. Pride in quality and quantity of regimental bands even produced some mega-bands. The result was quite a large number of men not in the fighting ranks yet drawing pay from the government.
As the war carried on and casualty numbers grew many of the band members healthy, active men, were eventually pressed into service helping move the wounded, as ambulance drivers and as surgeon’s assistants.
On July 17, 1862 Congress passed a bill mustering out regimental bands and allowing one band per brigade. Some thought it was a way for the U.S. to cut out a lot of nonessential personnel. Even with this act of Congress many regiments took it upon themselves to maintain and support their band themselves at no cost to the government. When that wasn’t feasible the regiment convinced each company’s drummers, fifes and buglers to come together as a band.Drummers, fifes and buglers played an entirely different role than musicians in the Civil War. Early in the war buglers, drummers and fifes were not part of the regiment’s band. Their function was entirely different. Where bands were considered morale boosters and entertainment, these latter instruments were necessary in any company’s daily routine. Drummers and occasionally fifes were found in infantry units and bugles were most commonly found in cavalry and artillery units where they could be heard over the din of war. Buglers were used to denote time of day, meals, duties in camp and of course signaling instructions during battles. For his part a bugler needed to know as many as fifty or more calls. The calls were all different and used during regimental movement, in camp and during skirmishes.
Buglers filled in where and when needed within their company as well. They were ambulance drivers, medics and helped bury the dead. Many rode with their unit carrying arms. Stories have been written about children and teenagers who lied about their age and took the position of drummer or bugler in a regiment. While this is true, most buglers were older teenagers and men with a good set of lungs capable of producing a clear bugle call.
First thoughts on the life of a regimental musician or bugler may lead us to think it was a lot easier than the life of the everyday soldier. Yet further investigation shows musicians and buglers were just as involved in every aspect of the war as a private. They may have carried a musical instrument as well as or instead of a rifle but were every bit as committed to their company as their comrades in arms and we need to remember and salute their service as well.