What was the Life of a Company Musician or Bugler like in the Civil War?

Bugle Call

Photo Credit: Freeimages.com by coloniera2

As hard as it may be for us to grasp today, music was an essential part of life during the Civil War. Bands were very popular in the mid 1860’s, so much so that in the early years of the war Union infantry and cavalry regiments had their own brass bands. While officers were busy recruiting soldiers as they raised their new units, they were also recruiting musicians. A quality band helped boost a regiment’s enlistment numbers.

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.

Falmouth, Va. Drum corps of 61st New York Infantry. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. No known restrictions on publication.

Falmouth, Va. Drum corps of 61st New York Infantry, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. No known restrictions on publication.

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.

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7 thoughts on “What was the Life of a Company Musician or Bugler like in the Civil War?

  1. I never really thought about it, but the musicians must have been so important. We can turn on music any time we need a little comfort, but this was all they had. Interesting post.

    • Thanks Amanda for your comment! It certainly is true that we need to learn more about the times in which our ancestors lived to understand them. I learned so much researching this post! Thanks for reading it!

    • Jana ~ Thank you so much! It’s a privilege to be included in this week’s Fab Finds! I know the week’s best, informative posts are listed and I appreciate being recognized among them! Thank you too for your hard work! You do a lot of research to compile such a list on a weekly basis! Thanks again!

  2. Loved your Civil War story. My Great Uncle Price Worthing served in the Ohio 122d Infantry Regiment,B Company as a musician. Enlisted 16 August 1862, stated he was 18 yrs old.
    Died of wounds on 17June 1863 at the Battle of Winchester.

    • Nancy – Thank you for reading my post and commenting! Oh what a story you have about your great uncle! Have you written a blog post about him? I’d love the link. Maybe I could use it in a future blog post? The stories of young soldiers you died without a wife or children really tug at my heart. I’m sure they were mourned by their parents and siblings but without descendants they do get lost to history. I want to make sure their stories are told again. I appreciate your comment and hope to hear from you again!

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