Military music has long stirred American hearts with pride. Today, more than ever, the irresistible beat of drum cadence on parade routes draws thousands of spectators back to Colonial and Civil War days.
Military music devotee George Carroll, Colonial Williamsburg's first drum major and music master, aims to keep up the proud tradition. He leads a group of 20 musicians, hailing from upstate New York to Georgia, known as the Pigg River Invincibles. (That delightful name belonged to a mid-19th century Southern fife and drum corps.) They get together four times a year to perform at musters, battle re-enactments and parades in authentic militia uniforms of the 1780s and 1860s.More than 15,000 people turned out to watch the Pigg River Invincibles and some 50 other fife and drum corps perform at the 1989 Deep River Ancient Muster, near New London, Conn. A muster originally was a roll-call that was held once a year, at which time drums and muskets were counted, as well as noses. Carroll says the recreation at Deep River, the oldest and biggest such event in the world, has been held on the third Saturday in July since the "War Between the States."
Early American military musicians provided music for every imaginable occasion. The musicians were greatly esteemed, wore distinctive uniforms and even drew slightly more pay than ordinary foot soldiers. They often played at supper parties given by officers, and most could share the repertoire of country dance players.
Musicians generated esprit de corps at ceremonial parades, such as the natty, quick-stepping march through Philadelphia that Gen. George Washington staged in 1777 to impress the populace. Before entering the city, the general halted his beleaguered troops, giving them time to spruce up, sending the army baggage and soldiers with tattered uniforms around the boundaries of the town.
The fife and drum regulated a Colonial American soldier's day from sunrise to sunset. Long before the age of crackling walkie-talkies, these humble instruments served as clock, metronome and telephone to troops in camp, on the march and in battle.
Field musicians - fifers, drummers and, later, buglers and trumpeteers - provided signals, easily recognizable tunes that directed the troops. A well-established unit also might boast a full band complete with horns and wind instruments introduced from Europe. The clarinet became the regimental band's major melodic voice. Its smooth throaty sound still distinguishes marching ceremonies, balls and concerts.
In the field music, the combination of rope-tension drum and wooden, holed fife - a Swiss inspiration of the 13th century - "has now become a totally American phenomenon," Carroll says. "The fife and drum tradition, which has died out in Europe, has held on here, unchanged, since the 1760s."
In those days, musicians' uniforms needed to be eye-catching. "Since musicians relayed battle commands, it was crucial that they be easily recognized," says Donald Kloster, curator of the Division of Armed Forces History in Washington, D.C. "The standard practice was to dress musicians in the reverse colors of the regimental uniforms. If the ground of the regular army coat was blue and the facings red, for example, the musician's coat would be red with blue facings."
Some of the uniforms in the Museum of American History collection are surprisingly small in size. These belonged to boys. The British habit of starting field musicians as apprentices when they were under 16 years of age was adopted in the Colonies, and many of the boys were much younger than 16, Kloster notes.
Although musicians were not singled out as targets, sometimes the youths were wounded or killed in battle.
A heart-rending cover drawing of military sheet music in the archives of the Museum of American History's DeVincent Collection illustrates one such tragedy. Called "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh," the piece, arranged for the parlor piano, was dedicated to a Miss Annie Cannon of Louisville, Ky., in 1862, and shows a resolute drummer boy saying his prayers before dying, while officers weep and console the lad. In the drawing, the battle seems to be vaguely suspended in the distance and, so as not to shock gentle hearts, not a drop of blood is seen anywhere.
How a lone drum could be heard over the noise of battle is a wonder to many. According to John Moon, director of music for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia, "a fife can penetrate above musket fire, the sound of the field drum beneath cannon fire." George Carroll says a drum set at slack tension can be heard for many miles on a cold, clear day.
"Recruitment and training of field musicians was vital to the forces of the Continental line," Moon explains. Ten drummers and 10 fifers composed a full regimental complement. They had to communicate flawlessly with battle signals such as "open fire," "cease fire," "advance" and "retire," as well as many kinds of duty calls. Musicians summoned work details and forays for water and wood, and even played in church parades (much encouraged by Washington) when the whole regiment attended services. There were scores of "little tunes and beatings chosen to denote the time of day at which specific functions should occur," Moon says.
In 1777, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, inspector general of the Continental Army, began to standardize the various types of drum beats and signals for the straggly Continental Army. Today, his "Reveille," "Assembly," "Retreat," "Tattoo" (now "Taps") and others still snap soldiers to action, dinning their ears not with drum beats but with recorded bugle calls over a public address system.
Invoking the historic English principle of a universal obligation to military service, Colonial military leaders sent out recruiting parties, both for troops and musicians. Recruiting parties always included one or more musicians. According to a 1780 account of one somewhat sardonic Bostonian, "a recruiting officer, bearing a flag and attended by a band of martial music, paraded the streets to excite a thirst for glory and a spirit of military ambition."
Music also accompanied military ambition gone awry. Miscreants, their coats turned inside out as a sign of dishonor and their hands tied behind their backs, were paraded in front of the regimental formation to the tune of the "Rogues March" and literally kicked out the gate by the youngest drummer.
For funerals, some form of musical ensemble would solemnly precede the bier. The drums, traditionally emblazoned with the arms of the deceased's units, were equal in significance to the bier's flag. Both would be shrouded, the drums muffled by a piece of cloth placed between the snares and snare head as a somber "dead" march was played.
Musical ceremony played an intriguing role in the case of the American capitulation of Charleston, S.C., in 1780. "The choice of the march performed while surrendering had become a matter of honor," Raoul Camus, a University of North Carolina Revolutionary War music scholar, explains. "Playing a melody of the victor showed that the vanquished were not so humiliated that they could not exchange courtesies in return for the honors of war." But the English forced the Colonials to accept harsh terms: "The drums are not to beat a British march, or the colors be uncased."
A year and a half later, however, the Americans managed to reap sweet revenge at the capitulation of Yorktown. The British would have the same "honors" as the American garrison at Charleston. They would not be permitted to unfurl their colors or play a French or American tune such as "Yankee Doodle." When the surrender ceremony came, Lord Cornwallis was "indisposed" and sent his second-in-command instead.
Not all music was played for official purposes during the Revolution. Camus relates the report of an eyewitness in the French army, who had observed the allied march southward toward Yorktown: "The Americans, whom curiosity brings by thousands to our camp, are constantly received with good humor and festivity; and our military music, of which they are extravagantly fond, is then played for their diversion."
Still other moments of such "jollification" were recorded as the American forces moved northward to New York for the last stage of the war. Observed one officer: "The troops halted yesterday an hour to play a number of tunes on ye drum and fife for some country girls, a dancing same evening."
After the war, the army marched home victorious, generating a passion for martial music that can be heard in towns across America today.