Drum Major’s Headwear in the U.S. Military Bands June 18 2013, 2 Comments

Contributed by Jack Kopstein


My interest was piqued recently by a question posed by Roger Kennedy, President of the American Branch of the International Military Music Society, on the subject of US service band drum majors wearing busbies.  Busbies are also known as bearskins, although recently they are made of man- made materials. I began to research the historical significance as well as the initial known introduction of the headwear for the bands. I had at my disposal some various resources including a book titled Amy and Navy Uniforms and Insignia by a Colonel Dion Williams, a US Marine Officer published in 1918.

Unfortunately, there is absolutely no record in this book of the headgear. I then turned to early photographs of the military bands from pre-Civil War bands if any existed. By the start of the Civil War, many towns and villages had their own bands, and often sent them along with their militia units. The bands, like the young fighting soldiers, were a symbol of pride for communities large and small across the North and the South.  For their part, the soldiers and officers wanted the bands because they were key to maintaining high morale and were the primary source of entertainment.

The earliest known photographs of an American military band displayed with the Drum Major in full military regalia, including the busby, is the United States Military Academy at West Point -1864 and the United States Marine band in the same year.

The busby should not be mistaken for the much taller bearskin cap, worn most notably by the five regiments of Foot Guards of the Household Division (Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards). Around 1900 the word "busby" was used colloquially to denote the tall bear and racoon skin "caps" worn by foot guards and fusiliers and the feather bonnets of highland infantry. This usage is now obsolete. 

In order to research the genesis of the headgear I studied several hundred photographs.  The major collection is in the Library of Congress. The Army Band drum majors mostly wore the Civil War forage caps or the shakoes which was a form of hat with a plume attachment and tassels. A painting from 1855 of the 7th Regiment New York State Militia displays the 7th Regiment band on parade and the drum major clearly wearing a gigantic busby with a massive pom-pom on top. Claudio Grafulla became the bandmaster of this band in 1860. Another exception in the army bands was the Second Brigade Tenth Army Corps Band at Hilton Head, South Carolina. The drum major was Francis Harvie “Saxie” Pike who wore a bearskin with a pom pon (PomPom) like fixture on top of the headwear.

A book by Robert Garofalo and Mark Elrod answered a number of questions about the mystery surrounding the use of busbies in the US Forces bands. Entitled A Pictorial History of Civil War Era Musical Instruments and Military Bands, the book has numerous photographs and text which gives a likely scenario as to how the bearskin developed in US bands.  Francis M. Scala became the director of the United States Marine Band in 1855.  He was the first leader of the band as his predecessors had been fife and drum majors. Scala revamped the entire band including the instrumentation and the drum major roles.  The key to the use of the bearskin was the fact that he patterned the band after European bands of the period including that of the British bands. The Military Academy band followed that lead but initially had the Belgic (Waterloo) Shako made of black felt. Later, photographs from 1888 of the Gilmore Band and the 1900 Military Academy Band also show visibly that the bearskin had become standard dress for drum majors.

On August 3, 1888 The New York Times reported that bearskin caps might be phased out because of a shortage of bear skins. The article stated that, at that time, bearskin hats cost £7–5s each (about 35 contemporary US Dollars; £600 in 2007 pounds and noted “it can readily be seen what a price has to be paid for keeping up a custom which is rather old, it is true, but is practically a useless one save for the purpose of military display”. In a recent photograph the drum major in the United States Marine Band "The President's Own"  is shown wearing a bearskin and holding a ceremonial mace in preparation for reporting to the parade commander at the Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C.

In addition to the specific units named above, bearskins are worn by limited categories of other military personnel with ceremonial functions. These include the band and corps of drums of the British Army's Honorable Artillery Company, the Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the Band and Pioneers of The Royal Regiment of Canada, The Governor Generals Foot Guards, the Ceremonial Guards Band, and the Musique de Royal 22nd Regiment.  The band of the Sri Lanka Artillery, and drum majors of the Royal Highland Fusiliers- 2nd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland; United States Marine Band, the United States Army Band, the United States Navy Band, the United States Coast Guard Band, the United States Air Force Band and the United States Army Field Band. Drum majors of the various services Academies, as well as unit, division and fleet bands across the USA and worldwide, also frequently use the bearskin in ceremonial missions. Drummers and drum majors of the Pipes and Drums of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment use the bearskin as well.

The Bearskin, or Busby, it appears is used by the American service bands for Drum Majors appears to be more by tradition as the order of dress does not seem to be discussed. The 1941 orders for drum majors stated: DRUM MAJOR.-The band leader will select a musician (other than the assistant band leader) to act as drum major for the band. He will be selected for his soldierly appearance, knowledge of band formations and  movements,  and  skill  in the manual  of  the baton and in the execution of  signals.

Established in 1801, Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C. is the "Oldest Post of the Corps."  Since that time, grand military ceremonies have been held regularly within the site's famed quadrangle. One such ceremony is the heralded Evening Parade. Following the participation of a Marine Detachment in the celebrated Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Scotland in 1958, the event became a fixed Marine Corps tradition. This unique collector's edition performance features the Marine Band, the Marine Drum & Bugle Corps, and the Silent Drill Platoon. The unrivaled splendor and pageantry will make you stand up and cheer these fabulous Marines on parade. Includes bonus Marine Corps program "Leatherneck Ambassadors".


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- Jack Kopstein