Edwin Thomas “E.T.” Baldwin (1832-1904) made his mark in Manchester, New Hampshire, as a music teacher, choral director, church organist, and composer. He also founded Baldwin’s Cornet Band, which existed for only a few months before it was transformed, in May 1861, into the military band supporting the First N.H. Regiment. This band ceased to exist when the regiment mustered out in early August 1861, marking the end of E.T Baldwin’s career as a military band leader.
Another gifted musician, Walter Dignam, enjoyed a successful musical career in Manchester that paralleled that of his fellow citizen E.T. Baldwin. From a broader perspective, however, it is Walter Dignam who is most remembered and appreciated today because of his lasting contributions to the history of Civil War-era brass band music. His service as a musician and band leader in the Union Army was much longer than E.T. Baldwin’s, and many of the musical scores and arrangements associated with him have been preserved in original documents held in the archives of the Manchester Historic Association and shared with the Library of Congress.
Walter Dignam’s work continues to influence musicians and students of music history.
Walter Dignam was born in Lancashire, England in 1826 or 1827 to Irish parents, William and Matilda (Gallagher) Dignam. Walter immigrated to the United States when he was around 20 years old, first settling in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where he worked as a machinist and block printer. It is uncertain when he was married, but in 1848 his wife Elizabeth “Eliza” (Hughes) Dignam—who had also immigrated from England—gave birth to their first child, a son who was also named Walter. In 1851 the family moved to Manchester. Walter found employment here at the Manchester Print Works, a company that produced printed cotton and wool textiles. In the following years, the couple would have five more children.
Walter was drawn to music. It is unclear if he ever had formal training, but he possessed a vast natural talent and could play the violin, piano, organ, and brass band instruments. He was also a superb teacher and leader. Soon an opportunity came his way that would allow him to transition to a life dedicated entirely to music. In 1848 Reverend William McDonald founded Saint Anne Church, the first Roman Catholic parish in Manchester. The church was organized to minister to the growing Irish immigrant population, and the early congregation included a few French-Canadian immigrants and possibly other Catholics in the city. The parish’s rickety wooden building was replaced by a grand Gothic-revival brick church at the corner of Union and Merrimack streets. When this building was completed in 1852, Walter Dignam was hired as the church’s first organist and choir director. He would serve in these roles for over 30 years.
By 1854 Walter was listed in the city directory as a music teacher. That year he organized the Manchester Cornet Band which, within a short time, would become one of the most popular marching and concert bands in New England. Baldwin was the band’s leader, and his musical director and partner was the capable instrumentalist and composer George H. Goodwin. The band was incorporated, and shares were sold to raise cash to pay expenses.
Many of the players were mechanics who worked in the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company’s Machine Shop. Among the original 20 bandsmen was Francis Harvey “Saxie” Pike, who played fife, drums, and cymbals. At nearly six feet tall, with strong features, dark hair, and blue eyes, Saxie stood out in any circumstance. He was a showman by nature and was happy to serve as the band’s announcer on occasion. Saxie developed a dramatic marching style that would gain him fame as a drum major.
On December 17, 1855 the Manchester Cornet Band made a memorable appearance in Washington, D.C. That day the Amoskeag Veterans, a paramilitary group made up of prominent Manchester men, was received with pomp and circumstance in Lafayette Square, with President Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire and other government officials presiding over the ceremony.
Manchester’s home-grown band represented the city well, and as a local newspaper described, “The appearance and performance of the Marine Band and the Manchester Cornet Band elicited general admiration.”
Next week: Walter Dignam and his bandsmen in the Civil War.