New Hampshire's contribution to the music of the Civil War era extends beyond the rousing abolitionist tunes of Milford’s Hutchinson Family Singers, and Walter Kittredge’s sorrowful sweet song “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground,” which he composed at his farmhouse in Merrimack. During the 19th century, music was woven into the fabric of civilian life, and so it was natural that music was also an integral part of military life. This period of American musical history is greatly enriched by the stories of the capable and accomplished New Hampshire Civil War brass bands, band leaders, and musicians.
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861 when Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter, a Union fort in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. The Union Army surrendered the fort on April 13. Two days later President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for the raising of 75,000 troops from the state militias to suppress the rebellion. New Hampshire was quick to respond. On May 1, 1861 the First Regiment of the New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry began mustering in Concord, and other regiments soon followed.
By the time the war ended in June 1865, an estimated 35,000-40,000 New Hampshire men had served in the Union forces, out of the total state population of around 330,000. New Hampshire assembled 17 full infantry regiments (and one incomplete regiment); three rifle regiments (sharpshooters); one cavalry regiment; and two artillery regiments. In addition, New Hampshire men served in other army units, as well as in the Navy and the Marines.
On May 4, 1861 the U.S. War Department issued General Order 15 that allowed for each infantry regiment (made up of 800-1,000 soldiers) to organize a brass band to include two principal musicians and 24 players. The purpose of the bands was to provide bugle calls to signal wake up, sleep, and meal times; patriotic marching music for parades and marches; and entertainment in camp during quiet times. In addition, the band’s fife and drum players would signal various commands during battle. The bands were popular among the soldiers, serving as a source of pride for the units.
By the end of 1861 around 75 percent of Union Army regiments had their own bands, with an estimated 28,000 musicians serving in over 600 bands. The cost to supply the bands, and to pay the individual members (many of whom were noncombatants), proved too high. So, on July 29, 1862 the War Department issued General Order 91, which required the mustering out of the regimental bands within 30 days. Afterward, smaller brass bands (up to 16 men) were allowed, but only for brigades, which were made up of four or five regiments. After July 1862 some of the members of the original regimental bands enlisted and joined the brigade bands, and at times other arrangements were made to bring in good musicians and band leaders.
Which factors enabled the Union Army to so readily establish military bands, many of which would prove to be of high quality? In the decades before the war, there was a great deal of experimentation in the development of brass instruments. Manufacturers began producing whole families of saxhorns, cornets, and other instruments that were enjoyable to play, and that could produce a wide range of mellow sounds. The ready availability of these instruments encouraged the formation of town bands, including many in New Hampshire.
Music teacher and Civil War music scholar Susan K. Kinne generously shared the following information for this column: “Regarding New Hampshire bands and bandmasters during the Civil War, bands accompanied almost all of the New Hampshire regiments. We first have to understand how important each town’s brass band was to their town. Military militias, firemen, church organizations, etc. hired the town band for outings and excursions. The bands played winter and summer concert series, performed serenades, funerals, parades, played at levees and balls, and at political rallies. Bandmembers were local men, mechanics, farmers, shoemakers, barrel makers, blacksmiths. They were working class, often skilled laborers who learned to play instruments from family members as children. Many learned as teenagers and adults, thanks to itinerant band masters who traveled throughout New England teaching groups of men wanting to form a band.”
Next week: Edwin T. Baldwin and the First New Hampshire Regiment Band.