When one thinks about the colorful armies of the past, this has to include the amazing military bands who kept armies marching in step and a great deal more. Musicians during the age of the military tailor had even more elaborate uniforms than their firearm toting comrades. The bandsmen relied on the bugle, drum, fife and other musical instruments as tools of their trade to signal commands and to entertain troops in camp. It was also common that these same individuals would lay down their instruments and pick up stretchers to assist in fetching the wounded from the battlefield.

Civil War era musicians still stood out among their comrades but, with a little less color. A Union cavalry musician’s shell jacket residing in the Pamplin Historical Park collection illustrates this fact. The usual dark blue jacket has a “V” pattern “musician’s lace” in yellow which color represents the cavalry branch of service. The same pattern rows of trim, across the chest, represent other branches of service to include a light blue color for infantry and a red color for the artillery branch. A similar approach was taken by their Confederate adversaries with an additional black color trim pattern placed over the common grey uniform coat or jacket.

Bandsmen needed some way to stand out on the smoke filled and chaos laden battlefield and it wasn’t to just look good. During the 19th century, bandsmen provided vital communication between commanders and soldiers in the field. Simple orders could be issued through bugle calls or drum beats ordering troops to halt, charge or anything in between. They additionally provided a cadence or timed steps for the troops on the march. A faster beat would allow the soldiers to cover more paces or steps and therefore cover longer distances in a shorter time.

Musicians were additionally called on to recover the wounded from the battlefield. Acting as stretcher bearers, they would assist surgeons and Hospital attendants in this grisly task. Union surgeon Richard Swanton Vickery stated “The Drum corps and the Regimental Band, if there is one, are always on the eve of a battle ordered to report to the Surgeon for duty, but the less he calculates on aid from them the better. With a few exceptions they are generally worthless as stretcher bearers, many of them being young lads physically incapable of such fatiguing duty.” While not complimentary, Vickery’s statement illustrates the versatility of military musicians.

When not on the march or in battle, the musicians would provide entertainment in camp. Several popular tunes such as “Battle Cry of Freedom” or “The Bonnie Blue Flag” were enjoyed by troops and helped to raise morale. Sometimes the band would play concerts for officers as well. Then-General U.S. Grant was regularly serenaded by a band at dinner during the Petersburg Campaign of 1864-65 at City Point in Hopewell, Virginia. The band played at several dinners for the general, until he commented to an aide, that he wished that they would stop that infernal noise so that he could eat in peace. Although this sounds like the ultimate put down, Grant was tone deaf and once said "I know only two tunes. One of them is ‘Yankee Doodle’—and the other isn’t.” Conversely, General Robert E. Lee once stated that there would not have been an army, without music.