Civil War Memorial Day

Memorial Day is ending (it is later in the evening on May 28th) but I have the only tribute I can to this day where we remember those who fell on America’s battlefields. The following are from the Shiloh and Stone’s River National Cemeteries.

At Shiloh alone there are over 2300 unknown graves, at Stone’s River 2500. These cemeteries hold the honored dead not only from the battles fought there but also from other skirmishes and battles all along the western theater. In addition to Civil War dead, these cemeteries also hold those veterans who have passed on from our other wars.

Shiloh National Battlefield




Stone’s River National Battlefield



Musics, beat off! Oh, grow up!

93rd NY Drum Corps, Bealton VA 1863
(click image to enlarge)

Drum Corps, 93rd NY Volunteer Infantry, Bealeton VA, 1863

Sorry, not to be crude, but that is the official command once a tune has been given prior to marching to the beat, is to beat off. It never fails at a reenactment to hear titters of laughter in the background and it may have elicited like responses back then.

The command sequence going something like this: prior to parade and assembly of the companies in the company streets the Adjutant or the Colonel would give the command for the start of parade and trooping the colors (color guard with national and regimental standards assembled to give honors) whereas the drum corps would follow “Musicians, beat off!” and begin the drum and fife to morning parade. For a nice discussion of the use of these calls see The Authentic Campaigner: Drill vs Assembly.

Civil War Musicians dress uniformNote the lack of uniformity. We put more emphasis on being uniform today than the volunteer units did in the war; perhaps less than the regular army did at the same time. Only a few of these men and boys are wearing the regulation musicians uniform for whatever reason; original issue was disposed of and only thing on hand at the quarter master was the regulation sack coat (according to regulations, musicians were relieved from fatigue duty save for normal mess duty), regulation uniform coat is lost and only the sack coat is available, the soldier was mustered as an infantryman but is able to play a fife or the drums and is assigned to the drum corps, any one of these could be a valid reason for the disparity of uniformness.

These are men from the 93rd NY, (see earlier post of the 93rd NY) and a few of these drummers are wearing the frock coat that I surmised was a hold over or part of clothing issued by the State of New York to its volunteers. It is hard for us sometimes to get out of our heads as we evaluate living history displays and look at uniforms and not make judgements based on modern military doctrine and discipline. But, there are areas of study that are so esoteric, as in the quarter master returns for specific units, to give us an operating idea of why federal regiments had so much variety in uniform use that they are seldom if ever brought to light. We are used to seeing this in the Confederate ranks. As images like these come to light we can get a better glimpse of daily life of the Federal soldier.

There is also a stereotype of the drummer boy and here we see several younger boys but they are the minority as there are also grown men in evidence. It is no easy feat to drum a cadence call and these men would have been doing plenty of it on a daily basis. The need for a regimented life driven by drum rolls and bugle calls meant these men were constantly in use. Every military call required a drum cadence and bugle: sick call, morning formation, parade, drill, fatigue, etc. These men were professionals at what they did and the requirement to have some skill at it would mean a selection process that demanded skill. As a reenactor, I’ve witnessed poor cadence performed by someone’s son who is dressed up in uniform and given a drum. If you’ve ever tried marching to two or more who aren’t keeping the cadence very well it is maddening. These boys who are present aren’t just there because father or brothers are there, they have skill.

The last thing I wanted to point out was the drum major, who looks not so much older than some of his Drum Major's Macedrummers. His uniform is not regulation for musicians but looks to be a bit more tailored for his role, something only seen with officers who were allowed to purchase their own uniforms. The shell jacket is a nice touch, cut with a sash and a belt and buckle that looks like a standard NCO buckle (rectangular instead of oblong) but it is a little hard to discern. The thing in his hand is called a Mace and the design of it hasn’t changed at all in the last 150 years. The drum major uses the mace for two things: for command and control and for flourishes while on parade and the march. The drum corps proceeds the regiment when on parade and while on the march with the drum major in the front of it leading the way. The Mace is used to communicate starts and stops in the music, positions of attention, starts and stops while on the march, and while the group is playing to give martial flourishes. A really good drum major will put on quite a show when on parade. Using the Mace is another skill that is enhanced by the ability of the drum major and no two will use it exactly alike in the flourishes. All commands, when used with the Mace, are unspoken and a good drum corps does not need verbal commands to execute any movement. Watch this YouTube video to see how the Mace is used for both command and for music direction.

191st Army Band at change of command ceremony

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Band box, paper collar soldiers; literally.

10th Veteran Reserve Corps Drum Corps

(click image to enlarge)

Pictured here are the 10th Veteran Reserve Corp’s Drum Corp in Washington, DC June 1865. The Veteran Reserve Corps used to be designated the Invalid Corps, made up of convalescing soldiers who were too disabled for active service but not so severely that they were discharged. Wikipedia article on the Veteran Reserve Corps.

What I find interesting is the presence of the orchestra instruments in this image and it is a little hard to see a drum corps with a string section, but there is also a level of goofing around in some of these images that these musicians also see the humor in grabbing another instrument to “play”. It is also very possible that this group is actually several sub groups together who play a variety of instruments. An army band is full of individuals who play multiple instruments. I spent 15 years in the 44th Army Band in the New Mexico National Guard and we played multiple roles depending on our talents and sub groups that might be formed for a variety of venues. It is also likely that these men with the stringed instruments only play those instruments and were utilized for small ensemble occasions along with a ceremonial role.

The style of dress is unique to military bands. The base uniform was probably the sky blue Kersey trousers with stripe (no NCOs are evident in this from those still wearing their sack coats.) This is not unusual as the civil war uniform in the regular army was a frock coat of dark blue and dark blue trousers for dress parade and sack coat for fatigue detail. All volunteer organizations were issued the basic fatigue blouse (sack coat) and sky blue trousers as the base uniform for regular and fatigue duty and the frock and dress trousers for official functions. Army bands today spend most of their time in dress greens and an almost equal amount of time in dress blues as the role is ceremonial for most of the duty.

The other item that is in preponderance is the kepi and most seem to be trimmed in gold much like what isTrimmed CS Officer's Kepi commonly seen of higher officer’s choice of dress. The infantry bugle can be seen adorning the top part of some of the kepi’s and only one man has a forage cap on. Uniformity, even with this unit, seems to have been something of a latter day marshall insistence by the military of today, even in the same regiment a variety of dress and styles can be seen in any image. Some of this was due to differences in what the Quarter Master drew for uniforms and equipment and what the men may have been able to purchase for themselves. The crisp uniformity of dress became more of a staple with the rise of the larger and larger permanent army. The regular army during the civil war was still relatively small, volunteers making up the majority of those who served and this would explain a lot of why we fail to see the uniformity we often expect from our military today.

Civil War era paper collarsThe last thing I wish to point out are the paper collars evidenced here. The 19th century shirt was dual purpose. It was long (down to the knees) had a short button down front (down to the naval) and did not have a collar (at least not a traditional collar but a short, high collar). The paper collar was donned for ceremonial purposes and parade, even as late as the Petersburg Campaign as highlighted by diary entries and letters by men of the 57th Mass. Volunteers in Mother May you Never see the Sights I’ve Seen by Warren Wilkinson.

There was an insult in the war that soldiers used to describe other regiments or those who only saw garrison duty. Band box or paper collar soldiers as explained by Billings in “Hardtack and Coffee“. Band Box referred to gentleman such as these whose duty in the war was strictly ceremonial and who played in a band box, a small stage or contained area for giving concerts or playing for parades and official reviews.

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Deadly Teepee: Musket stack in Petersburg, VA 1865

Musket Stack with accouterments

(click image to enlarge)

Image is from Petersburg, 1865 after the city was finally in Federal hands by April 3rd, after ten months of siege.

One can see the devastation the siege wrought on the city by the rubble and buildings in the background. The image was taken in a residential area with a gas lamp to the far left of the frame. It is still cold and the leaves have yet to return on the trees. Oringinal Federal Greatcoat Another indication of time of year is the great coat slung over the musket stack in the foreground. A big indicator of this is the arm with its french cuff visible as pictured here. Greatcoats sported a long rear cape and a high collar made of thick kersey blue wool. The wearer obviously did not need it at this moment and chose to disrobe.

I have found that the cape works well for a face covering when sleeping out if one needs an additional layer. Enlisted men were allowed limited baggage and would often mail home such articles of clothing once campaign season returned as they would have to carry everything with them otherwise, greatcoats being heavy and cumbersome to pack in the two compartment knapsack. Or, they would simply discard the extra impediments once winter weather was over hoping to draw new by next winter.

The rifle stacks themselves are another facet of soldier life. Formed of three central muskets whose bayonets have been intertwined to form a teepee, the formation was devised as a way of keeping soldiers from losing their weapons while halted and on rest, for allowing a formation of four men, two in front and two in back, to intertwine and remove their pieces while in company front (two files), and for quick breaking down of the stack when ready to move on. These stacks are made whenever a unit is at rest after a halt and when in camp but on other duties and a musket is not required. You can see the ghost of a soldier on the upper left side of the frame and several others barely visible on the hillside.

Another common feature of the musket stack is the hanging of a soldier’s basic kit or “traps” as they were called by the soldiers. Original Federal Cartridge Box w/SlingA soldier’s traps would consist of his leathers: cartridge box with sling, belt and brass buckle, haversack, water bottle, and bayonet and frog. You can see that several leathers have been wrapped over the stacks. These would belong to the individuals who would line up behind that stack in the company formation. On the ground are several bundles of blankets and other personal gear. If this were a permanent movement, the privates would also have grounded their knapsacks in front of the rifle stacks or some distance beyond also in formation or if they expected to be in close contact with the enemy. What is more probable, is that this is not a permanent movement of troops but a patrol into the city 9though the blanket rolls do indicate a possible anticipation of a longer sojourn). The length of the stacks width wise indicates a company sized unit. A regiment or battalion sized stack would have extended much further down the street and would have been broken down into companies with the center or left most having the regimental flag rolled up and laid across the stacks lengthwise. None is clearly visible.

The stacks of rifles out in front of the formation would be those of the non commissioned officers who would act as file closers when in company front (two files standing shoulder to shoulder) and whose position in line of march is to the right flank of the marching column or in company front are in the rear of the formation. It is probable that we are looking at the rear elements of the stack and the soldiers would have faced to the right when in company front to stack their muskets and then been released from formation by which most have found a place to sit or lie on the hillside behind them. One can barely make out men in the upper right quadrant of the image by a house with a fence, possibly officers.

If you attend any civil war reenactments, these stacks are as ubiquitous as tents, but know that they served a specific purpose in the life of the soldier and not just for spectator show.

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