Walter Dignam, an English-born immigrant of Irish heritage, moved to Manchester, New Hampshire in 1851. In 1852 he transitioned from working in the textile mills to a career in music when he was hired as the organist and choir director of Saint Anne Roman Catholic Church in Manchester. He also became a music teacher, and in 1854 he founded the Manchester Cornet Band.
With the talented Walter Dignam at the lead, this ensemble became one of the region’s premiere brass bands, due to the high quality of its music and to its smart appearance. The band was honored to entertain President Franklin Pierce in Washington, D.C. in December 1855, and on July 4, 1856 the band played at a celebration in Worcester, Massachusetts, organized to mark the eighth anniversary of the city’s incorporation.
On November 29, 1856 and on January 13, 1857 the band performed in an orchestral format in Smyth’s Hall on Elm Street in Manchester. These programs were conducted by the band’s musical director, George H. Goodwin. Local musician and teacher Edwin T. Baldwin directed the vocalists and played piano. The evenings featured operatic selections and classical instrumental music, as well as ballads and other popular tunes — including original works composed by Goodwin, Baldwin, and Walter Dignam.
This review in the local “Farmer and Visitor” newspaper was typical: “Of Mr. Dignam, leader, and Mr. Goodwin, director of the band, nothing need be said as they are known to be two of the best musicians in the state…Of the band, we will say they have no superior…an honor to our city.” After the January concert, the band received a letter from several prominent men who were so pleased with the concerts that they requested another one, which took place on February 10, 1857.
On September 4, 1857, the Manchester Cornet Band, with its colorful drum major Saxie Pike at its head, marched in a grand firemen’s muster parade in Worcester, Massachusetts. Following the band in the procession was a group of Manchester firemen, pulling the city’s Boston-made hand-tub engine, Torrent No. 5. The Manchester crew took first place in the muster competition, earning the prize money of $300. Today, Torrent No. 5 is on display in the Millyard Museum in Manchester.
The Civil War started in April 1861. In early May the Manchester Cornet Band spent a short time at the fairgrounds in Concord where the First N.H. Regiment was being organized. The band returned to Manchester, but Saxie Pike stayed on, joining the regiment as Principal Musician, Fife Major. He served his three-month enlistment as a member of the regimental band.
The Manchester Cornet Band was later hired to serve as the band for the Second Regiment of the New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry (also known as the Second N.H. Regiment). Walter Dignam and his bandsmen did not enlist, but remained as civilians. The regiment was mustered in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It left the city on June 20, 1861 and arrived in Washington on June 23.
On July 16 the regiment marched from its encampment outside the city along with its brigade, eager to meet the enemy. Spirits were high. As Private Martin A. Haynes would write in his 1865 history of the Second N.H., “The regiment had hardly ever shown as full ranks as on that morning. Men who for weeks had been regular attendants at the Surgeon’s call… became suddenly rejuvenated, and would not think of such a thing as being left behind when the ’death blow’ was to be given the rebellion. So … overflowing with patriotism, we marched across Long Bridge into Virginia, the band playing ‘Dixie’ with might and main, and the soldiers making the air resound with their songs and shouts of mirth.”
On July 21, 1861, the 900 men of the Second N.H. Regiment fought in the First Battle of Bull Run, which took place about 25 miles southwest of Washington near Manassas Junction, Virginia. As non-combatants, Walter Dignam and his bandsmen did not engage in the fighting.
The Union Army suffered a humiliating defeat in this first major battle of the war. It was estimated that seven soldiers from the Second N.H. Regiment were killed, and around 100 men wounded or taken prisoner.
Next week: Walter Dignam’s Civil War service continues.