Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Walter Dignam leaves behind a musical legacyBy AURORE EATON
May 29. 2018 4:00AM
On Sept. 27, 1861, the newly-organized Fourth N.H. Regiment of the Union Army marched to the railroad station in Manchester, bound for war. The 1,000-man unit had its own brass band, which was essentially the reorganized Manchester Cornet Band led by its leader, Walter Dignam, now a Second Lieutenant. The regiment was fortunate as the Manchester Cornet Band was one of the top marching and concert bands in New England.
The Fourth N.H. Regiment (Fourth New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry) would remain active through August 1865. During its four years of service it was stationed in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina. The unit fought in several major engagements, including the Siege of Petersburg (Virginia) in 1864-1865; and the Carolinas Campaign in early 1865.
During most of 1862 the Fourth N.H.’s band was encamped at Port Royal, S.C. In late summer 1862 the War Department ordered the dismantling of the regimental bands, as it had become too expensive to maintain them. From that time forward the government would only sponsor military bands at the brigade level. In September 1862, Walter Dignam and his men left the army and returned home.
A few of the regimental bands continued to exist, supported by private funds. Walter Dignam was asked by the officers of the Fourth N.H. if he would return to lead a new regimental band.
He would remain as a civilian and the officers would pay him from their own pockets. Walter agreed to the terms, and in 1862 he organized an ensemble of 19 musicians who were already soldiers in the regiment. This new band included two members of the original band—John Harrington and Walter’s own brother, William Dignam. In addition to conducting the band and arranging music for it, Walter also played brass instruments in the brigade band.
The Fourth N.H’s second brass band was admired for the high quality of its music. As active soldiers, its musicians were assigned to care for their wounded comrades, including on the battlefield where several of them were injured in the line of duty.
After the war ended in 1865, Walter Dignam reconstituted the Manchester Cornet Band and continued as its leader. The band quickly regained its status as a premiere musical ensemble.
Walter occasionally played with other bands and also carried on his work as a music teacher and as the organist and choir director of St. Anne Church in Manchester.
By the end of 1889 Walter had largely retired due to poor health. He died on April 22, 1891 at the age of 65. Saxie Pike, the former drum major of the Manchester Cornet band, led the local military marching band in the funeral procession. The marchers included surviving members of the Fourth N.H. Regiment. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Manchester, Reverend Denis M. Bradley, delivered the sermon at the funeral mass at St. Anne’s, saying of Walter Dignam, “…to us who have known Manchester for thirty-five years and more, he seemed endowed with a species of immortality. So accustomed had we become to find him a prominent figure in the public services of the church, and in all notable civic and military displays, that we could hardly imagine these functions performed without him.”
Walter Dignam left behind a wonderful legacy of brass band music recorded by hand in what are known as “band books.” These precious manuscripts were developed largely during the 1850s and 1860s, the heyday of the American brass band movement. The books were used by the Manchester Cornet Band and the two military bands that Walter directed for the Fourth N.H. Regiment during the Civil War. These books and many other musical scores, both printed and handwritten, that Walter had used in his work with the bands and for St. Anne Church, were donated to the Manchester Historic Association in 1970. Additional material related to his church work came into the collection in 1987.
The band books were microfilmed and shared with the Library of Congress (LOC), and today this material is an important part of its “Band Music of the Civil War Era” collection. The transcribed scores and audio of four of the Manchester Cornet Band’s pieces are available online through the LOC.
Next week: The story of the Third N.H. Regiment Band.
Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter.