SHARPSBURG, Md. — Nothing can stir the blood of a Yankee fan quite like a stirring fife-and-drum rendition of “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (the boys are marching),” a song written from the viewpoint of a Union prisoner claiming that “beneath the starry flag, we will breathe the air again, of the free land in our own beloved home.”
And nothing can warm the blood of a Confederate fan like that same fife-and-drum band enthusiastically performing “Dixie,” a song that while associated with the antebellum South, had many fans either side of the Civil War firing line.
During the current Civil War sesquicentennial, folks can hear the same band — any band — perform both songs (and many more) at re-enactments great and small across the United States.
At the 150th anniversary Antietam re-enactment held Sept. 14-16 in Sharpsburg, several bands performed for visitors numbering at least 5,000 each day. Several members of the 2nd South Carolina String Band (http://civilwarband.com/) played each day beneath a tent set up in the Sutlers’ Area. Other bands staged impromptu “concerts” in the camps concealed beyond a thick tree line at Legacy Manor Farm, site of the three-day event.
As Pat Horne and I circulated in the Union camps on Saturday, Sept. 15, we heard a fife-and-drum band playing not far away. We hustled to catch the 79th New York Infantry’s musicians rehearsing between battles; some musicians had marched out playing fife or drum for the morning’s Battle of Dunker Church, and they planned to “fife” (in lieu of the Scottish term “pipe”) the Boys in Blue to the battlefield for the afternoon’s Battle of Bloody Lane.
The New York musicians — some could live elsewhere than the Empire State, given the eclectic hometowns of re-enactors who belong to the same outfit — quickly drew admirers; good music is good music, no matter its genre. People gathered to listen, including a cameraman whose footage of the band’s performance starts at the 0:44 mark and runs until the 1:59 mark at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qC-xMlFIxg.
The 79th New York band even had a Maine connection: drummer Yusuf Elshihibi, born in Millinocket. He no longer lives there, but he’s still a native Mainer.
During the Civil War, a regimental band often led the way as the unit marched; note the band playing as Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Infantry march toward an appointment with destiny in “Gettysburg.” Long miles, poor roads, and sometimes poorer shoes (typically called “brogans”) caused musicians to fall silent not long into a day’s travel, however.
Not long into the war, the Union War Department abolished regimental bands as a waste of manpower. Some colonels or lieutenant colonels ignored the ban by officially dropping a band — which would magically reappear when the regiment marched out of a camp.
Bands sometimes played in the camps, especially in those erected with long-term habitation in mind. Sometimes when the lines and camps lay not far apart, especially along the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers in Virginia, Confederate and Union bands would entertain every soldier within hearing after dark. “Dixie” was a favorite North and South, and “Aura Lee” was a tear-jerker. If a Johnny Reb band played “Bonnie Blue Flag,” a Billy Yank band might respond with “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
And no Confederate musician would dare play that particular selection.
Individual soldiers might quietly play a fiddle, flute, or other small instrument at night as soldiers gathered around campfires. Men might sing along; despite the dearth of iPods and other instruments of mass music dissemination, the war offered hundreds, if not thousands of tunes, all published as sheet music, and music diverted lonely soldiers’ attention from the boredom of camp life.
On Saturday, Oct. 6, my son and I attended the Perryville 150th anniversary re-enactment held on the actual battlefield at Perryville, Ky. About 3:30 p.m., after re-enactors had completed their noisy and well-executed “Battle of Webster’s Hill” (part of the 1862 battle), we headed to the Confederate artillery line.
Behind us to the west, maybe 600 yards away, a fife-and-drum band suddenly started playing. I looked back: The band was leading a large component of Union infantry, formed into column with a massive National flag flying in the breeze, from the site of the afternoon’s battle to the Union camps, scattered around the visitors’ center and museum (Perryville is a state park).
I watched awe-struck as the column maneuvered adroitly across the undulating terrain. For a moment, just for a moment, I gazed 150 years into the past to see a Federal regiment marching “as to war” with a skilled band leading the way. Similar scenes unfolded from Corinth and Chattanooga to Charleston and Centerville during the war.
The band was darn good, too.