Federal Drum Majors - from Jack Kopstein September 23 2009, 1 Comment

At the time of the American Civil War, music played an important part in military affairs. On a practical level, commands and orders were communicated by drum, or by bugles or trumpets in mounted commands. Bugles and trumpets were also making inroads into dismounted units, where drums were still standard. For marching, company drummers were generally grouped into regimental drum corps, and sometimes fifes, and even a bass drum, were added to complete this "field music". However, regiments that could manage it organized proper marching bands, generally brass bands of from 16 to 24 players, in addition to their drum corps. These were standard for US regular regiments, and were also authorized for volunteer regiments in 1861.

Wealthier peacetime militia regiments had often hired professional bands, either for the occasion, or even on a long-term contract. Many such bands, some of them of a high musical standard, marched off to war with the early regiments; some only went as far as the railroad station, but others went to the front, and served as stretcher bearers in battle.

Some of these bands could number as many as 50 players, and in an army corps where most Regiments had bands, there might be 40 or such bands of music. In July 1862, Congress abolished regimental bands and only the fifes and drums were left. The bands were sorely missed and brigade bands were authorized in their place, while some regiments raised funds to support more modest regimental bands at their own expense, a practice which worked well in the British Army.

In the Confederate service, no such cuts were made, no doubt because not quite so many regiments had bands in the first place. As a result, a few Confederate bands served right through the war.

A drum corps was led by one or two NCOs entitled "principal musicians," one of whom was usually termed a "drum major" (or in mounted corps, a "trumpet major"), while "fife majors" were also sometimes appointed.

Where a band existed, one of the principal musicians would take charge and was generally termed the "leader." While drum majors may have marched at the head of bands, leaders appear to have been musicians; the drum major's main responsibility was for the drum corps, though separately organized civilian bands attached to militia or volunteer regiments would probably have their own drum majors.

Regulations covered the dress of company musicians, who wore the uniform of their unit,    but with "herring-bone" braiding in facing colour on the coat front. Sometimes a drum major might wear no more than musician's uniform, with the distinctions of an NCO; no specific chevrons were prescribed, but a version of sergeant's or sergeant-majors' chevrons, with an additional star or crossed drumsticks, was customary. For bandsmen, regulations simply required regimental uniform with "such additions in ornaments as (the commanding officer) may judge properly." In practice, this could vary from quite modest modifications to elaborate uniforms that bore no relation to what, when fronting a band, a drum major would wear.

Thus attired, drum majors could make quite a show; when the raw student recruits of Company "1" of the Confederate 4th Virginia Infantry encountered a colossal warrior "with a fierce moustache waxed into rat-tails," arrayed in a uniform that made their eyes clink, they were convinced that they met up with the "commander-in-chief of all the Confederate armies," but were disgusted to learn that he was merely the drum major of the First Virginia Infantry!

One of the most prestigious militia units of the period was the 7th Regiment, New York State Militia, which in the dark early days of war was one of the first regiments to march to the relief of an anxious President and a beleaguered capital, its journey funded largely by its businessman Colonel, Marshall Lefferts. The Seventh's brief period of service was up even before the battle of First Bull Run, but its arrival at Washington had boosted the morale of the North, and hundreds of its members later served as officers, and even generals, in the Union armies.

In 1858, the Seventh's dissatisfaction with its band, under Bandmaster Noll, came to a head during an excursion to Richmond, when the "mutinous conduct" of Noll and his men proved too much; "The fatigues of the journey," opined the regimental chronicler solemnly, "the heat of the weather, and perhaps the free flow of wine and lager-beer, had demoralized the band ..." Thankfully, Noll's contract was up that November, and the next month band-leader and composer C. S. Grafulla (Washington Grays march, see note 1) was engaged in his stead; 38 musicians were selected for the new band, and a contract made for new uniforms and equipment. Under Grafulla's leadership, the band went on to establish a national reputation for musical excellence.

The full dress of the Seventh was a shako and grey tailed coat, but the band adopted a more modern style based approximately on US regulation patterns, with a dark blue cloth shako, dark blue frock coat with scarlet trim and "plastron" front, and sky blue trousers. The scarlet facings were, perhaps, a reference to the earlier artillery status of the Regiment. The drum-major's dress differed in several respects, having gilt epaulettes, and no plastron, but outer rows of buttons, nine in number as for the centre row. The cuff patches bore three small buttons, and the collar carried a brass "7".

Instead of a bandsmen's shako, the drum major wore a bearskin hat with a feather plume, gold tassels and a scarlet bag with gold cord trim. His scarlet baldric had brass fittings - apparently an eagle of the type worn on US regulation "Hardee" dress hats, linked with a chain to a shield bearing miniature drumsticks. The remaining trim was gold lace.

The trousers were not the sky blue worn by the other bandsmen, but the grey trousers of the Regiment's officers, with a double, gold lace stripe set on black. The waist belt plate is that prescribed by the New York militia regulations of 1858 - gilt, rectangular, two inches wide, with a raised bright rim, and bearing a silver wreath of laurel and palm encircling the letters "N.Y" in silver Old English characters. Though sergeants of this regiment carried straight NCOs swords, the drum-major, in common with the other senior sergeants, wore an M 1851 type company officer's sword, without sword knot, in a scabbard studded to fit in a black.

Drum Majors proved to be an invaluable inspiration to the troops and bandsmen as they strutted in front of the Civil war bands and the custom remains to this day with the hundreds of military, civilian and School bands across North America. Federal bands often led troops in momentous battles and the drum majors played an enormous part in the performance of the duties of bands.

Main Sources : FP Todd Military Equipage 1851, Francis A Lord “Bands and Drummer Boys of the Civil war”, Regulations for Uniform Dress of the United States Marine Corps 1859, January 1987 issue of  MILIITARY MODELLING©

1.    WASHINGTON GRAYS is performed on 5 ALTISSIMO recordings
The Bicentennial Collection
Forward march
Front and Center
The Great March
An American Patrol
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