Union Musicians and the Medal of Honor During the American Civil War

  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18177/sym.2014.54.sr.10638
  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26574367


The sound of fifes, drums, and bugles are recognized as a commonplace yet significant part of the Civil War soundscape. Those who performed this music, however, have drawn less attention than the pieces they performed. This is unfortunate, as soldier-musicians, just like the pieces they played, served a unique and valuable role in the long and bloody conflict. Certainly the calls performed by field musicians were critical to the organization and performance of armies in camp and on the battlefield, but musicians were also assigned additional, often dangerous duties of equal importance. Here enlisted musicians were placed in situations that tested their courage, and many rose to the challenge, performing feats of gallantry that earned them this country’s highest military honor–the Medal of Honor. This article identifies the 28 army musicians who were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions that included assisting the wounded during battle, hazardous courier or reconnaissance duty, seizing or defending a position or flag, leading an attack, and, in one special case, using music to turn the tide of battle. Musician Medal of Honor winners remind us that these men saw themselves as soldiers first and musicians second, and that they, like their comrades in the ranks, were able to distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action even as they supplied the irreplaceable gift of music to the lonely camps and bloody battlefields of the American Civil War.

Eliza Atwood of Shelbyville, Tennessee, told her diary of the memorable sights and sounds she witnessed one evening in 1862:

About nine o’clock hearing a noise on the pike I looked up & saw six horseman flying along up to town. My first impression was ‘It is the Yankees.’ Hardly had my surprise manifested before fifty or more came scouring by went immediately to the court house, hoisted the ‘Star & Stripes.’ Then came about three hundred cavalry, and after them about six hundred infantry, the first singing a song, the later part playing ‘Yankee Doodle.’ Union flags and union cheers greeted them as they passed several houses.1

For Eliza and other Americans of the time, this mélange of martial sounds–particularly the clamor of fifes, drums, and brass bands–formed a predictable yet unshakably affective backdrop to the American Civil War. Future chroniclers frequently reference the patriotic music that inspired both sides of the conflict, and historians have acknowledged the emotional and political power of musical icons such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie.”2 Those who performed this music, however, have drawn less attention than the pieces they performed. This is unfortunate, as soldier-musicians, just like the pieces they played, served a unique and valuable role in the bloody strife that engulfed the country in the 1860s.

Enlisted musicians provided important service to the armies during the American Civil War. Field musicians, including buglers, fifers, and drummers, were an integral part of the military machine. When in camp or garrison, field musicians partitioned the soldiers’ daily routine, playing calls such as reveille to wake the soldiers and tattoo to send the men to their tents at night. There were also calls to summon the men to meals or to gather them for work duties. The drum corps (an ensemble made of a unit’s fifers and drummers) provided a cadence for marching troops and often performed for military rituals. When the troops were drilling or involved in combat, field musicians (particularly drummers and buglers) had additional calls that governed the men’s movements or conveyed an officer’s commands across the noisy battlefield.3

Enlisted bandsmen had fewer official musical duties than field musicians. Bands were more a beneficial amenity than a necessity, though the music they provided was cherished by the men in the ranks. These ensembles performed music for daily ceremonies such as guard mounting and dress parade; they played in celebration of the arrival of dignitaries and officers, and they would lead soldiers on parade, especially when entering a town. In addition to these official duties, bands offered precious serenades for the troops during the evenings, a task that many soldiers saw as the band’s most important function.4

Determining the number of men who served as musicians during the American Civil War is extremely difficult. Some musicians enlisted for only a few months, while others served multiple enlistments with different units. In addition, rosters and enlistment records were inconsistent, especially when it came to musicians. For example, a soldier could enlist as a musician and receive the appropriate rank while another soldier might be detailed to serve in a band and retain the rank of private.5 Following Kenneth Olson’s reasoning–that the number of designated positions for field musicians and bandsmen resulted in two to three percent of the total levy–at least 80,000-100,000 musicians served in the Union and Confederate armies at some point during the war.6 Enlisted musicians included some of the oldest and youngest soldiers, though most were between eighteen and thirty-five years old. A shocking number of Northern and Southern youngsters were determined to be a part of the war; some accompanied their fathers or brothers to the front, while others lied about their age when enlisting. Officers, unwilling to place these children in harm’s way, handed them instruments and sent them to the rear when a battle was imminent. Eight-year-old drummer Avery Brown of the 31st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, who claimed to be the youngest Civil War soldier, lied on his enlistment papers to join the army; fifteen-year-old George Sly had to enlist as a drummer as the recruiting officer felt was too young to be accepted as an infantryman.7 On the roster of men who served as field musicians or bandsmen in the 22nd Massachusetts infantry were a twelve- and thirteen-year-old playing alongside a forty- and forty-four-year-old; six were in their teens, thirteen in their twenties, and five were in their thirties.8

Some of these enlistees had little musical talent and eventually transferred back into the ranks, whereas others were experienced, even professional performers. Harvey Dodworth and the famous Dodworth band enlisted for three months with the 71st New York Militia in 1861; the renowned Patrick S. Gilmore served as bandleader for a year with the 24th Massachusetts Infantry, then helped to reorganize the state’s military ensembles after returning to Boston. In 1864 he traveled to Union-occupied New Orleans to organize an epic concert that foreshadowed his National Peace Jubilee of 1869.9

These illustrious bandleaders were rarely in any real danger. Most bandsmen and field musicians were assigned non-musical tasks away from the front lines during battle. While a principal bugler remained close to the commanding officer during combat, and a drummer might march to the firing line with his regiment, the rest of the musicians were usually sent to the rear to assist the medical staff in caring for the wounded. Other musicians might be assigned as stretcher-bearers to remove injured men from the field. As a result, most enlisted musicians did not perform during battle nor did they engage in combat.

Yet the fluid and unpredictable nature of Civil War combat meant that a posting behind the lines was no guarantee of safety. Depending on the shifting tides of battle, musicians and other noncombatants could find themselves dodging enemy shells, run over by an enemy charge, or left behind during a retreat. Confederate Colonel John M. Lillard of Tennessee reported capturing a set of band instruments as well as prisoners during the fighting around Fort Donelson in February 1862, while the entire band of the 4th New Jersey Infantry was forced to surrender along with the rest of their regiment at the Battle of Gaines Mill, Virginia, in 1862.10 If fighting erupted unexpectedly, then musicians could be wounded or killed as well. The 2nd New York Heavy Artillery lost their bandleader at the Battle of Rheam’s Station, Virginia, in August 1864. Drummer Delevan Miller recalled the bedlam of that day: “This was a fight in which it was all ‘front’ and no chance for the musicians to get to the rear.”11

Occasionally musicians were ordered to join their fellow soldiers in potentially hazardous duties. Members of the renowned 5th Virginia Infantry band–nicknamed the “Stonewall Brigade Band” as they were attached to the brigade of legendary Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson–were detailed as riflemen, couriers, and pickets during the first year of their enlistment.12 Charles Rhoades, a bandsmen with the 9th Indiana Infantry, was a member of an advanced guard that was ambushed by Confederate troops at Allegheny Mountain in West Virginia in December 1861. Rhoades and another soldier were killed in the action.13 In other situations musicians took it upon themselves to assist in the chaotic action around them in whatever way they saw best; at the battle of Bristoe Station in Virginia (14 October 1863), bugler John F. Leach of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery rounded up stragglers and positioned them along an exposed flank, thereby protecting his battery from a Confederate assault and earning a commendation from his captain.14

There were exceptional moments when enlisted musicians performed acts of bravery beyond the call of duty that earned them their nations’ most prestigious form of commendation. For Union soldiers this was the Medal of Honor, an award introduced during the Civil War that stands today as this country’s highest military honor. The Congress of the Confederate States of America formally approved a similar award, the Southern Cross of Honor, in October 1862. In 1898 the United Daughters of the Confederacy began issuing their own version of this award to veterans.15

In December 1861, Iowa Senator and chairman of the Naval Senate Committee James W. Grimes introduced S. J. R. 82 that would reward enlisted personnel who “distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities.” Within two weeks President Lincoln approved the measure and 200 medals were struck. The following February Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson introduced another bill that proposed a medal of honor for enlisted men in the army, and in July 1862 the President approved the legislation (12 Stat. 623-624). In March 1863 the award was expanded to include officers.16

The first recipients of the army’s new award were participants in what became known as Andrews’ Raid, or The Great Locomotive Chase, in April 1862. Twenty-two Union volunteers and one civilian, led by John J. Andrews (a civilian himself), seized a train outside of Marietta, Georgia, then fled north along the Western and Atlantic Railroad, tearing up tracks, burning bridges, and cutting telegraph wires to separate Chattanooga from Atlanta in anticipation of a major Union advance. Confederate soldiers and civilians tenaciously pursued on foot and on rail, eventually catching all the raiders after their engine ran out of fuel just south of the Tennessee state line. The captured raiders were tried as spies; Andrews and seven others were hanged, eight escaped, and six remained prisoners until exchanged in March 1863. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton recommended six of the raiders to receive the first Medals of Honor, though all but two would eventually be granted the award. Ironically, Andrews himself was not eligible for the medal, as he was a civilian.17

Almost 700 medals would be awarded before the war finally ended in 1865. Over the next twenty years an additional 105 awards would be given to veterans as a result of petitions to the War Department from former comrades, commanding officers, and local politicians. The progressive mythologizing of the war and the increased visibility of veterans in American public life generated a landslide of such petitions, so much so that more medals were awarded between 1890-1899 than were given during the war. This surplus of requests and other factors (such as the number of awards requested after the Battle of Little Bighorn [1876]) led to the formation of panels and commissions that examined the nature and requirements of the Medal of Honor. In 1917 a review board reevaluated prior awards and struck a number of names from the honor roll, including one entire Civil War regiment that had been granted the medal simply for reenlisting, and assistant surgeon Mary Walker, who as a civilian was technically ineligible for the award (though her medal was restored in 1977).18 The last two medals for action during the Civil war were granted in 1917.

A total of 1,522 Medals of Honor were awarded for gallantry in action during the American Civil War. Almost eighty percent of these medals were awarded for service in the army, and determining which of these Civil War Medal of Honor winners served as musicians is difficult.19 Both the Union and Confederate armies were largely made up of civilian volunteers led by officers with little to no professional military experience. Assigning ranks and pay grades (especially for non-combatants like musicians) could be a haphazard affair, and the maintenance of detailed, up-to-date rosters varied widely from regiment to regiment. In addition, soldiers who began their service as musicians might transfer to other duties, while privates might be assigned to perform in a band without an official change to their rank. For example, medal winner Philip Petty originally enlisted as a musician with the 136th Pennsylvania Infantry, but quickly traded places with another private and eventually worked his way up to sergeant.20

Awardee Nathaniel Gwynne’s status is harder to pin down. Gwynne was denied enlistment in the 13th Ohio Cavalry due to his age (15 years old in 1864) and the lack of his parent’s consent, but he was allowed to accompany the regiment and given a bugle. Whether he was musically capable of fulfilling this duty is unclear, and somewhat irrelevant, as three months after joining the regiment Gwynne and the rest of the regiment found themselves at the chaotic Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia. Gwynne refused an order to remain behind and joined his company in the deadly charge. As the attack fell apart, Gwynne saw the color bearers fall and rushed to protect his regiment’s flags. He was shot twice while retrieving his unit’s fallen colors, and his wounds were such that his left arm had to be amputated. Having been approved for the Medal of Honor for his bravery, it was then learned that he had never officially enlisted, so his muster as a private was backdated to May 1864 to make him eligible for the award.21

Neither Petty nor Gwynne served in any extended capacity as musicians, yet both were designated to serve as such or were viewed as (or viewed themselves as) army musicians. With such qualifications in mind, twenty-eight Medal of Honor winners have been identified as having enlisted as musicians or served in an official musical capacity at some point in Union Army during the American Civil War. These medals were awarded for a variety of actions that included assisting the wounded during battle, hazardous courier or reconnaissance duty, seizing or defending a position or flag, leading an attack, and, in one special case, using music to turn the tide of battle.

Helping with the wounded during and after battle could be the most traumatic experience Civil War musicians experienced. A Civil War field hospital was a nightmarish abattoir that many men feared even more than the battlefield. The prospect of amputation without anesthetics was enough to chill even the bravest soldiers, and assisting in surgery and tending the patients left enlisted musicians like Vermonter Jere George with something they could never forget: “No scene of woe, of human suffering is worse for humanity to look upon than the hospital of wounded soldiers on the eve of battle.”22 Such life-saving efforts did not fall under the Medal’s parameters, however. Nine Civil War surgeons won the Medal of Honor: five for helping the injured from the field, two for engaging in combat, and one for a daring reconnaissance. Only assistant surgeon Mary Walker was recognized primarily for her help with the wounded.23

On the other hand, getting the injured off a battlefield was a uniquely demanding and dangerous task. Musicians assigned to this duty faced situations that tested the depth of their courage and occasionally drew attention to their heroic efforts. Such was the case with Julian Scott, fifer of the 3rd Vermont Infantry, during the Battle of Lee’s Mill, Virginia, in April 1862. Ordered to disrupt a Confederate artillery battery, four companies of Vermonters were sent across the swollen Warwick River to attack a number of rifle pits. Though initially successful, the Union advance was soon stalled by the appearance of additional Confederate infantry. After suffering from enemy fire for almost an hour and running low on ammunition, the men of the 3rd Vermont were ordered to pull back. Unfortunately, many of the Union troops had been wounded during the fight, and the river proved nearly impossible for them to cross. These men found themselves trapped on the wrong side of the river, allowing the Confederates to "shower the balls into us like hail,” according to one of the Vermonters watching from the riverbank.24 Fifer Scott, seeing the peril of his comrades, plunged into the water repeatedly to help the wounded across, all the while coming under enemy fire himself. By this point the enemy fire was so intense they “made the water boil with their bullets," according to another eyewitness.25 Scott not only pulled men from the water, he twice crossed the river to assist men on the far side. The courageous fifer was notably modest about his exploits: “I deserved the award no more than any of my comrades who were engaged in that affair; but it happened that I was the only musician there for duty. I think any of the others would have done the same had they been on hand.”26 Shortly after his heroic performance Scott was himself wounded in the thigh and sent to a New York hospital. He was discharged from the army in April 1863, but returned to the front as a freelance illustrator. Julian Scott went on to become one of the leading artists of his time.27

Another artist-musician recognized for his bravery in helping a comrade was Charles W. Reed, bugler of the 9th Independent Battery, Massachusetts Light Artillery. Reed was awarded the Medal of Honor for defying both enemy and friendly fire to rescue an injured officer at the Battle of Gettysburg. Eventually recognized for his drawing skills, Reed was detached to serve as a topographical engineer in November 1864, creating and updating maps for the V Corps, Army of the Potomac.28

Six additional musicians braved the crossfire of a battlefield to rescue wounded men. William Horsfall had enlisted as a drummer in the 1st Kentucky Infantry, but eventually gave up his instrument to take a musket. At the siege of Corinth, Mississippi, in the spring of 1862, he dragged his wounded captain away from the fighting, not only rescuing the officer but earning a Medal of Honor.29 Unlike Horsfall, awardee Joseph H. Shea first enlisted as a private and was later appointed as a musician with the 92nd New York Infantry; he was cited for “gallantry in bringing wounded from the field under heavy fire” at Chaffin’s Farm, Virginia, in September 1864.30 Musicians Julius Langbein, William Lord, John Patterson, and Ferdinand Rohm all braved enemy fire to retrieve wounded soldiers and save them from capture if not death.31

Assisting the wounded meant that it was rare for enlisted musicians to play during combat. Both bands and drum corps could be called upon to play when approaching a fight; a few notoriously flamboyant commanders (such as George Custer and George Pickett) frequently asked their musicians to play right before (and occasionally during) a fight.32 Such occurrences were the exception, however. Most field musicians left their instruments behind when approaching a battlefield to prepare for their medical duties; only a principal bugler or drummer were likely to keep their instruments, though even these players were often used as orderlies more than as musicians. Bandsmen were even less likely to have their instruments during combat, though there were times when officers would call upon their musicians to bolster the men’s spirit once the fighting began. At the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm (29 September 1864) a Union general ordered his bands up to the front and “set them to playing patriotic airs” to encourage his defenders and to demoralize the attacking Confederates. According to one Union soldier, the musical reinforcement was a success: “we were all patriotic enough to hold the fort.”33 During the Battle of Five Forks outside of Petersburg, Virginia (1 April 1865) the band attached to Union general Phil Sheridan, mounted on horses and surrounded by gunfire, played Stephen Foster’s “Nelly Bly” to encourage the Union soldiers.34

Such stirring performances were few and far between, so many musicians sought other ways to contribute during a fight. Deprived of their instruments, some enlisted musicians took up arms instead of stretchers when their regiments faced a crisis. In June 1863, men from the 8th Wisconsin Infantry stumbled into a large Confederate force while reconnoitering near Mechanicsburg, Mississippi. Seeing the vastly larger force facing his regiment, musician Benjamin F. Hilliker offered to drop his drum and pick up a musket. Hilliker admitted this was not unusual for him: “I felt better at the front in the heat of the fight than I did at the rear.” During the fight Hilliker was struck in the head by an enemy ball, a wound so dreadful that his comrades laid him aside and assumed he would die. Hilliker did indeed survive, much to everyone’s surprise, and proudly bore a gruesome scar and a Medal of Honor until his death in 1916.35

George H. Palmer, musician with the 1st Illinois Cavalry, not only picked up a musket to help fight, he then joined a charge to recapture a hospital that had been seized by Confederates at Lexington, Missouri.36 Scottish-born James Snedden, principal musician of the 54th Pennsylvania Infantry, also joined his comrades for an attack on the enemy, though Snedden managed to capture a Confederate general, a rare enough feat for any soldier let alone a musician.37 Another unique accomplishment can be credited to bugler Richard Enderlin of the 73rd Ohio Infantry. Enderlin was not only cited for engaging in the fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg (1-3 July 1863), but also for entering enemy lines to rescue an injured comrade. This wounded soldier was George Nixon III–the great-grandfather of President Richard M. Nixon.38

There were many non-musical ways a musician could contribute to a battle, and not all of them included charging the enemy or even firing a gun. On July 28th, 1864, at the age of fifteen, drummer Robinson Murphy of the 127th Illinois Infantry was serving as an orderly to his brigade commander during operations around Atlanta, Georgia. The Union forces sought to encircle the city and cut off the railroads, but a surprise Confederate counterattack threatened to break the Union line. When the call for reinforcements came, it was Murphy who volunteered to guide two regiments to the front. The fresh troops arrived in time to squelch the Confederate assault even though Murphy had his horse shot out from under him.39 Alonzo P. Webber, principal musician of the 86th Illinois Infantry, did not charge the enemy with his regiment at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia (27 June 1864). He volunteered as a sharpshooter, found shelter behind a tree close to the enemy, and remained in that position for an arduous nine hours firing on the enemy.40

There is one notable account of a group of musicians who took it upon themselves to join a fight with their instruments and not guns. During the collapse of the Union line at the Battle of Chancellorsville on 3 May 1863, the band of the 14th Connecticut Infantry, on their own initiative, stood firm and played in an effort to unify the panicked troops retreating around them. Pennsylvanian Frederick Hitchcock saw the effect of this courageous performance: “Its strains were clear and thrilling for a moment, then smothered by that fearful din, an instant later sounding bold and clear again, as if it would fearlessly emphasize the refrain, ‘Our flag is still there.’”41 Hitchock’s linking of patriotic music with the national flag is understandable. A regiment’s flags, including the national flag and the regiment’s distinctive colors, were treasured symbols. Not only did flags serve as a rallying point on the battlefield, they represented the history and soul of the regiment. To lose your colors to the enemy was a great shame, and countless brutal fights could be found centered around the color guard.

Musicians recognized the importance of flags as much as other soldiers. In addition to the aforementioned Nathaniel Gwynne of Ohio, two musicians were recognized for their role in preserving their regiments’ flags during combat. Benjamin Levy was a drummer for the 1st New York Infantry during the Seven Days Battles in Virginia (June-July 1862). Levy performed so gallantly in a number of different actions that no less than six generals recommended him for the award, which also happened to make him the first Jewish American to win the medal. The specific action cited for his Medal of Honor consisted of saving both the national and regimental colors during the retreat to Malvern Hill just south of Richmond. Levy was promptly promoted to Color Sergeant for the 1st New York and remained in this honorable role for the rest of the regiment’s enlistment.42

George Sidman, drummer with the 16th Michigan Infantry, volunteered to carry the colors at the Battle of Gaines Mill, Virginia, in June 1862, just when it appeared his regiment was about to be overrun. His efforts helped rally the disorganized Federals, and a wild charge scattered the larger Confederate force and kept the Union line from crumbling. Sidman was shot in the hip during the fight and unable to leave the field: “I crawled, waded and swam through the Chickahominy swamps, and such a night of misery and horrors few men in this world ever experienced.”43 Sidman was eventually captured and imprisoned. He was exchanged later that year, spent time in a hospital, then reported back to his regiment–without the permission of his doctors. He was once again sent to a hospital, and, after a short stay, again left on his own initiative to catch up with his regiment. Though still wounded, he joined his comrades just in time for the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. He was eventually transferred to the invalid corps.44

Just as defending your flag was critical to morale, seizing the enemy’s flag was seen as a signal accomplishment on the Civil War battlefield. Three musicians were awarded the Medal of Honor for their role in capturing the enemy’s colors. Thomas Wells, chief bugler of the 6th New York Cavalry, joined other elements under the command of General George Custer in an attack on a Confederate position near Cedar Creek, Virginia, on October 19, 1864. A charge was mounted, and the Confederates were pushed back through the town of Strasburg. Cannon, wagons, and prisoners were secured, and bugler Wells was credited with seizing the colors of the 44th Georgia Infantry.45

James Landis, chief bugler of the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry, and Charles Schorn, chief bugler of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry, were likewise awarded the medal for seizing the enemy’s flag. It is noteworthy, but not surprising, that all three of these medal winners were chief buglers with cavalry regiments. During the Civil War cavalry were usually deployed for reconnaissance missions; if fighting occurred, they often faced their counterparts on horseback, and only in large, shifting battles would cavalry engage with infantry or mixed units. In these cases cavalry were used for aggressive charges; as the chief bugler was attached to the unit’s commanding officer, these musicians led the way into the thickest fighting.

Some musicians managed to combine multiple acts of gallantry to earn their medal nomination. John Cook, fifteen-year-old bugler of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery, first assisted a wounded officer from the field at Antietam (17 September 1862), then returned to serve as a cannoneer just as the battery was at the risk of being overrun in the face of “murderous fire at short range.”46 Bugler Joseph C. Hibson of the 48th New York Infantry combined a series of heroic deeds during the fighting at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in July 1863. According to his official citation, Hibson volunteered for picket duty and subsequently came under fire, was called to surrender, yet fought his way free. The next day he volunteered for a reconnaissance mission where he again came under fire. Then on July 18, while engaged in a fight with 31st North Carolina Infantry, the men of the 48th New York were mistaken for Confederates and fired upon by reinforcing Union troops. Hibson dared the friendly fire and ran to the approaching regiment to inform them of their mistake, suffering a severe injury in the arm as a result of his efforts. He then returned to his regiment just in time to witness a serious Confederate counterattack on his regiment’s position. Hibson took the regimental flags from the wounded color bearer and helped rally his men to repulse the attack. Hibson received two more wounds at this time but survived these numerous injuries and lived to the ripe age of 68.47

In all of these cases musicians engaged in traditional combat roles and not in ways that involved their musical talents. Yet there was one Medal of Honor given to a Civil War musician as a result of his use of music during battle. William J. Carson, bugler with the 1st Battalion, 15th U.S. Infantry, won his medal for his courageous and intelligent actions at the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, on September 19, 1863. According to the official citation:

At a critical stage in the battle when the 14th Corps lines were wavering and in disorder, Musician Carson, on his own initiative bugled "to the colors" amid the 18th U.S. Infantry who formed by him, and held the enemy. Within a few minutes he repeated his action amid the wavering 2nd Ohio Infantry. This bugling deceived the enemy who believed reinforcements had arrived. Thus, they delayed their attack.48

Carson’s musical contributions, as well as his fortitude in battle, earned him the highest respect of his regiment, not only for his performance at the Battle of Chickamauga but throughout his entire enlistment. As one comrade noted: “He was as brave a man as ever wore the blue, and I deem it a great privilege and honor to be remembered among his friends and acquaintances.”49

Given the chaos of a Civil War battlefield and the need for musicians to assist with the wounded, it is not surprising that only one award was given for the use of music on the battlefield. Yet musicians could still be recognized in ways that were at least partly the result of their official duties. Willie Johnston, twelve-year-old drummer for the 3rd Vermont Infantry, received his medal for tenacity more than musical skill. During the Seven Days battles in the summer of 1862, incessant and often disorderly retreats demoralized many Union soldiers who threw away their gear (including musical instruments) in their haste to reach safety. By the time the Army of the Potomac went into camp at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, young Willie was the only drummer in his division to retain his drum. Impressed by a determination that outshone many older soldiers, General William F. Smith recommended the drummer boy for the Medal of Honor; this medal was bestowed in September 1863, when Willie was just 13-years-old, making him the youngest recipient of the award.50

No doubt Willie’s age had a great deal to do with his winning the Medal of Honor. Since many of the youngest soldiers who served during the Civil War were drummers and fifers, it is not surprising that nine of the thirteen youngest Medal of Honor winners were musicians. When coupled with deeds of gallantry, their age garnered particular attention from the media and general public, which in turn led to numerous published accounts of their adventures as well as poems and songs written in their honor. Indeed, some of these musician Medal of Honor recipients achieved celebrity status during and after the war.

Twelve-year-old Orion Howe followed his father and brother into service, enlisting as a drummer with the 55th Illinois Infantry. During the intense fighting around Vicksburg in May 1863, Howe and his fellow musicians dared the battlefield to collect ammunition from dead and wounded men. On his own initiative he then darted back across the field to where General William T. Sherman was overseeing the assault. The young drummer, now wounded in the leg, approached the general and requested that ammunition be sent to his beleaguered regiment. Howe’s gallantry impressed Sherman and others so much that in the September 1864 edition of Atlantic Monthly there appeared a poem, “Caliber 54,” which told of the escapades of the “Drummer Boy of Vicksburg.”51 Howe was eventually promoted to corporal and served until October of 1864, when he was discharged so he could attend the Naval Academy. Medal winner John Kountz of Ohio likewise received a poem and moniker–“The Drummer Boy of Missionary Ridge”–for his role in a nighttime reconnaissance with his regiment’s commanding officer around Chattanooga in November of 1863.52

The allure of such fame proved too much for Willie McGee, a.k.a. William Magee, drummer for the 33rd New Jersey Infantry. In 1866, following a petition by the chaplain who had adopted him, the Medal of Honor was awarded to “William Magee” for his valor at the Battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee on December 5, 1864. According to the official citation, McGee “was among the first to reach a battery of the enemy and, with one or two others, mounted the artillery horses and took two guns into the Union lines.” Yet according to other eyewitness accounts, there were no valiant drummer boys around when the guns were seized, and a closer examination revealed that the young drummer was an inveterate conman. The self-proclaimed hero sought every possible benefit from his award to no avail; McGee remained a troubled individual for the rest of his sad life.53

When studying the music of the Civil War it is tempting to focus on the creation, reception, and meaning of iconic pieces like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “Dixie.” Focusing on such significant albeit abstract musical artifacts is certainly necessary and useful, yet this tends to ignore the mundane reality of those who performed such music in daily life. Indeed, it is arguable that Civil War musicians were as valuable as the music they performed. Certainly the musical contributions of enlisted musicians during the American Civil War were indispensable, and most musicians were proud to offer their talents in service to their country. Yet some musicians stepped beyond their musical duties to perform feats of bravery that earned them the accolades and gratitude of their fellow soldiers. Musician Medal of Honor winners remind us that these men saw themselves as soldiers first and musicians second, and that they, like their comrades in the ranks, were able to “distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action” even as they supplied the irreplaceable gift of music to the lonely camps and bloody battlefields of the American Civil War.


1Entry of 26 March 1862, Atwood Diaries. I am indebted to Ashley Carlino for her invaluable help tracking down sources regarding these medal recipients. I am also grateful to Stephanie Todd, Jim Erbeck, Robert T. McCann and Hyde Murray for sharing materials on these musicians.

2The significant role that music played at all levels of Civil War society is admirably addressed in McWhirter, Battle Hymns. See also Root, “Music and Community”; Davis, “All Sounds of Life and Rage.”

3For a thorough description of field musicians’ duties, see Olson, Music and Musket, 82-132. See also Bruce and Emmett. The Drummers' and Fifers' Guide. Some of the better published primary accounts by Civil War field musicians include Bardeen, A Little Fifer's War Diary; Bircher, A Drummer-Boy's Diary; Kieffer, The Recollections of a Drummer-Boy; Miller, Drum Taps in Dixie; Meyers, Ten Years in the Ranks; and Norton, Army Letters.

4The most thorough study of Civil War bands remains Olson, Music and Musket. Additional works on the enlistment, instrumentation, literature and duties of Civil War bands include Bufkin, “Union Bands of the Civil War”; Ferguson, “The Bands of the Confederacy”; Frederick, “The History, the Lives, and the Music”; Lord and Wise, Bands and Drummer Boys; and Patrick, “A History of the Regimental Bands of Minnesota.”Detailed studies of specific bands include Bieniarz, I Was Detailed to the Regimental Band; Brice, The Stonewall Brigade Band; Davis, Bully for the Band; Gardstrom, “A History of the Fourth Regimental Band”; Hall, A Johnny Reb Band from Salem; Nigrelli, “More Musical Contributions”; Pruiett “The Bandsmen and Musicians of the Thirty-Third Regiment Illinois”; Rauscher, Music on the March; and Spicer “An Inspiration to All.”

5See Bieniarz, I Was Detailed to the Regimental Band, ix-xxv.

6Olson, Music and Musket, 71-72. Various estimates of enlisted musician numbers are addressed in Bufkin, “Union Bands,” 25-30; Ferguson, “Bands of the Confederacy,” 75-98; Garofalo and Elrod, A Pictorial History, 53-56; Manjerovic and Budds, “More than a Drummer Boy’s War,” 119-120, 122.

7Margaret Downie Banks, “Avery Brown (1852-1904), Musician: America's Youngest Civil War Soldier,” America's Shrine to Music Museum Newsletter, 28.1 (February 2001): 7-8 (accessed December 30, 2013, http://orgs.usd.edu/nmm/AveryBrown.html); Sly, Diary, front matter. Possibly the youngest enlisted soldier was drummer Edward Black, who enlisted with the 21st Indiana Infantry at the age of eight years, one month.

8Massachusetts Adjutant General’s Office, Record of Massachusetts Volunteers, 395-419. An excellent biographical summary for one regimental band can be found in Gardstrom, “A History of the Fourth Regimental Band.”

9Cipolla, “Patrick S. Gilmore,” 284-86; Gilmore, “Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore,” 72-77; Hansen, The American Wind Band, 36-42; Smith, Bandstands to Battlefields, 75-136. An intriguing yet unexamined aspect of Civil War musicians currently under study is the inconsistent level of musicianship and the training that took place after enlistment, including reading music, learning new instruments, and rehearsal techniques.

10United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion [hereafter OR], Series 1, Vol. 7, 346; Campbell, Skoch, and Perkins, Lone Star Confederate, 41.

11Miller, Drum Taps in Dixie, 142.

12Brice, The Stonewall Brigade Band, 30, 33.

13Official Records Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part I), 51.

14Official Records Series 1, Vol. 29 (Part I), 307.

15For more on the Southern Cross of Honor, see Clemmer, Valor in Gray.

16For a history of the Medal of Honor, see Boston Publishing Company, Above and Beyond.

17Bonds, Stealing the General.

18Harris, Dr. Mary Walker.

19The U.S. Navy awarded 311 Medals of Honor during the American Civil War, while the U.S. Marine Corps issued 17; none of these awards were given to enlisted musicians.

20Beyer and Keydel, Deeds of Valor, 121-22.

21Keesee, Too Young to Die, 4-5; Hoar, Callow Brave and True, 22-23.

22Diary entry of 4 April 1865, in Davis, “Bully for the Band!” 226.

23Office of Medical History,” U. S. Army Medical Department, accessed 22 April 2014, http://history.amedd.army.mil/medal.html.

24Henry Dunbar, Co. C, 3rd Vermont Infantry, quoted in Marshall, A War of the People, 74-75; Report of Colonel Breed N. Hyde, Official Records, Series I, Vol. 11 (Part. 1), 375.

25Balzer, Buck's Book, 30.

26Quoted in Mitchell, The Badge of Gallantry, 96.

27Titterton, Julian Scott.

28Reed and Campbell, "A Grand Terrible Dramma."

29Beyer and Keydel, Deeds of Valor, 35; Keesee, Too Young to Die, 206.

30New York State. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General, 1025; "Medal of Honor recipients - Civil War (A-L)," United States Army Center of Military History, accessed 19 July 2012, http://www.history.army.mil/.

31Beyer and Keydel, Deeds of Valor, 22-23, 342-44; Rohm, No Braver Man; Congressional Medal of Honor Society, accessed 1 April 2014, http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/1036/patterson-john-t.php.

32For one example of Custer’s band in action, see Official Records, Series 1, 43 (Part I), 456.

33Porter, “Personal Recollections 1861-1865,” 105-6.

34Porter, “Five Forks and the Pursuit of Lee,” 710. For more examples of musical performances during combat see Davis, “Music and Gallantry in Combat.”

35Beyer and Keydel, Deeds of Valor, 205.

36The Journal of Major George H. Palmer,” accessed 21 July 2012, http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~luff/PalmerGH_Journal.html. 

37Beyer and Keydel, Deeds of Valor, 356.

38Hanna, Gettysburg Medal of Honor Recipients, 11-13.

39Anonymous, Record of Robinson B. Murphy, 101-2;

40Beyer and Keydel, Deeds of Valor, 372.

41Frederick Lyman Hitchcock, War from the Inside: The Story of the 132nd Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry in the War for the Suppression of the Rebellion, 1862-1863 (New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1903), 218-19.

42Keesee, Too Young to Die, 202-3.

43Wachter, Sidman-Sidnam Families of Upstate New York, 256. 

44Mitchell, The Badge of Gallantry, 102-10; Beyer and Keydel, Deeds of Valor, 51-52; Silliman, Michigan Military Records, 214-15.

45Report of Captain George E. Farmer, Official Records, Series I, Vol. 43 (Part 1), 485; Hall, History of the Sixth New York Cavalry, 234-6.

46Rodenbough and Haskin, The Army of the United States, 361-362; Beyer and Keydel, Deeds of Valor, 75-76.

47Nichols, Perry’s Saints, 162-77; Beyer and Keydel, Deeds of Valor, 260-1.

48"Medal of Honor recipients - Civil War (A-L),” United States Army Center of Military History, accessed 19 July 2012, http://www.history.army.mil/.

49Phisterer, Proceedings of Reunions Held at Pittsburgh, Pa., 121.

50Rutland Herald, 3 November 1863; Hoar, Callow Brave and True, 24-28;

51Crooker, Nourse, and Brown, The Story of the Fifty-Fifth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry, 237-40; Keesee, Too Young to Die, 168-9.

52Kountz, “From Camp Brown to Mission Ridge,” 10-30.  The poem can be found in Sherwood, Camp-fire, Memorial-Day, and Other Poems, 90-98.

53McGee’s post-war life included murder, time in prison, bigamy, fraud, and eventual obscurity; see Fox, Drummer Boy Willie McGee.  A similar scandal surrounded Robert Henry Hendershot, the “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock,” who gained a great deal of fame for his exploits, was subsequently denounced as a fraud, then reinstated as deserving of his honors; Gerry, Camp Fire Entertainment.



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Last modified on Thursday, 07/03/2019

James A. Davis

James A. Davis is Professor of Musicology and Chair of the Music History Area at the State University of New York at Fredonia.  His research focuses on the music and musicians of the American Civil War; he has also published in the area of music history pedagogy. His book featuring the letters and diary of four brothers who served in the same regimental band was just released by McFarland, and his book on Civil War soldiers, music, and community identity is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press.  He is also the editor of The Music History Classroom, just released by Ashgate.

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