A visit from the Union Volunteers Fife and Drum Corps

Field musicians were an integral part of both the Union and the Confederate armies during the Civil War. The drums provided the soldiers with a steady beat when they were marching. The instruments were designed to be loud and to be heard from a great distance. In fact, they could be heard from as far away as three miles over artillery fire. After the Civil War, with the advent of telegraphs and telephones, fife and drum were relegated to a ceremonial function only. But the story of the field musicians is a fascinating piece of history.

On Thursday, the featured presenters at the November meeting of the Grand Island Historical Society came from the Union Volunteers Fife and Drum Corps. Two musicians came in uniform, and they offered us living history with music and story. They were fifer Jim Pace and drummer Brian Seibel.

According to Pace, “the use of musical instruments (in battle) started in Roman times.”

The fife, which is an early form of the flute, was first played in Europe in medieval times. It has six fingering holes and one blowhole. The instrument, especially the earlier forms of it, were unable to play all of the notes of the chromatic scale, and they were frequently out of tune. The fife is similar to the piccolo, which is a high-frequency instrument. The fife, however, is louder and shriller than a piccolo. A shrill sound can be more readily heard over the noise of a battlefield than a more mellow sound.

The Civil War, said Jim Pace, was “a war of music.” Each company had to have two field musicians, one fifer and one drummer. The field musicians were called upon to play from early morning until late at night. They woke up the soldiers in the morning. On the battle field, the signals that they played told the soldiers what they were to do next. They were considered to be battlefield communication. There were 30 to 40 different signals that were played by the drums. Fifes did not play tactical commands. The commands included forward march, commence firing, cease fire, and march in retreat.

Sometimes, on the battlefield, the field musicians were called to play something inspiring and patriotic, especially if their army was being routed.

 The extra musicians were called upon to perform other duties, such as carrying stretchers and assisting in surgery. Field musicians were designated as uniformed noncombatants. They carried ceremonial swords but most did not have any actual weapons.

Back at the camp, the field musicians played at all ceremonies, including dress parades and inspections by the commander, the president, etc.; funeral ceremonies; and the punishment ceremony.

Brian and Jim demonstrated songs that were played during each of the ceremonies. Ceremonial performances always began and ended with “three cheers.” At the dress parade, people might hear “Duke of York” and “The Old 1812.” These were upbeat and happy sounding songs. The funeral ceremonies featured more somber music, written in a minor key. The sad songs were followed by happier music. Unfortunately, funeral ceremonies happened very frequently. There was a “tremendous loss of life after battles,” Jim said. “Most casualties in the camp were not from battle wounds, but from disease.”

The punishment ceremony was performed when someone was caught for breaking rules, such as stealing. The convicted thief had his head shaved and his military insignia taken away. The fife and drum played the Rogue’s March. As the music was played, the culprit was marched to the end of the camp and was thrown out of the army. Literally. The drums were playing. That is where the expression “drummed out of the army” came from.

Field musicians also provided entertainment for the troops when they were not fighting. “If you survived the war, you came out a very good musician,” Jim said.

Veterans of the two armies held reunions for many years. The union veterans were called the “Grand Army of the Republic,” and the confederate veterans were the “United Confederate Veterans.” The last reunion was the 75th Gettysburg reunion, held in 1938. Many of the veterans were nearly 100 years old. To the end, there was a level of hostility between the two sides. And, to this day, there are Civil War songs that are considered to be inflammatory. Even now, it is considered provocative to play “Marching Through Georgia” by Henry Clay Work, in the south. The song commemorated General William Tucumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea, when the Union forces were trying to capture Savannah, Georgia.

tomorrow: some of the stories of field musicians during the civil war

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