From 1863 to 1865 the large and busy United States Army post at Hilton Head, S.C., was well-served by an excellent military brass band. The Post Band, as it was called, was led by seasoned bandmaster Gustavus W. Ingalls of Concord, N.H. The majority of his musicians were from New Hampshire and had played in their local town bands. This included a core group from Fisherville (now Penacook) and the celebrated fife and drum major Saxie Pike of Manchester.
Except for several weeks in the summer of 1863 when the Post Band was stationed near the battlefront surrounding the Confederate-held seaport of Charleston, S.C., the band remained at Hilton Head. There the musicians maintained a full schedule of rehearsals and performances.
On April 14, 1865 the band participated in a grand ceremonial event at Fort Sumter. The Confederates had bombarded this U.S. Army post located on an island in Charleston Harbor on April 12-13, 1861. This was the first hostile military action of the Civil War. After the fort was surrendered on April 14, 1861 its commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, was allowed to keep the American flag that had flown over the garrison. During the remainder of the war the 20-foot by 36-foot flag served as an emblem of the Union. It was flown at patriotic gatherings throughout the north, where it was symbolically “auctioned off” to raise money for the war effort.
The Confederates managed to hold onto Charleston Harbor and the city of Charleston until February 1865, when General G.T. Beauregard finally ordered his forces to retreat. With the harbor islands now back in the hands of the U.S. government, Anderson could return the beloved flag to Fort Sumter, which had been largely destroyed by Union artillery fire. A ceremony was scheduled for April 14, 1865, the four-year anniversary of the Union surrender.
The event attracted over 3,000 people, including over 400 Union sympathizers from Charleston, and marines and sailors who had survived a disastrous assault on Fort Sumter in September 1863. A new flagstaff, 150 feet tall, stood in the middle of the fort. The crowd surrounded the central speakers’ platform which was decorated with flowers, evergreen boughs and a golden statue of an eagle. The Post Band and several other military bands played patriotic music.
Anderson, now a Major General, wept with joy as he delivered his emotional remarks, pausing several times to regain his composure. As he raised the flag high up the pole, the crowd broke out in thunderous applause. Guns were fired from Fort Sumter and the other forts in the area, and from the fleet floating in the harbor as a salute. Everyone at Fort Sumter joined in singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the famous abolitionist Rev. Henry Ward Beecher gave an eloquent oration.
Later, at a gala reception held at the Charleston Hotel, Maj. Gen. Anderson concluded the evening with a heartfelt toast to President Abraham Lincoln. At that same moment, in Washington, D.C., Lincoln lay dying from an assassin’s bullet.
The army units in South Carolina did not learn of Lincoln’s death until April 18. Soon after the tragedy became known, a crowd of mourners gathered in the Hilton Head theater. The officers wore black armbands on their uniform coats. Appropriately solemn speeches were made, and the Post Band played music suited to the occasion. The band finished the program with a rendition of “Hail to the Chief” in Lincoln’s honor.
In a letter to his father, Rodney G. Stark of Goffstown, 23-year-old Henry Stark, a musician in the Post Band, wrote, “… We have received the saddest news of the whole war. What a contrast between the feeling today and that of a week ago. Then every heart was filled with joy and gladness and now the country is draped in mourning. One week ago tomorrow I was present at the raising of the old flag on Fort Sumter and there heard of the surrender of Lee and his entire army … Little did that party think that in a few hours, that noble man Abraham Lincoln … would be lying dead, slain by an assassin.”
The Post Band was mustered out at Hilton Head on Independence Day, July 4, 1865.
Next week: The legacy of New Hampshire’s Civil War-era brass bands.