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Civil War Re-enacting for the Bugler

CIVIL WAR RE-ENACTING FOR THE BUGLER

Re-enacting the American Civil War is a popular hobby not only in the United States but also around the world. The following information has been gathered from many sources and is meant to be a guide for those who wish to portray a Civil War bugler. Bugling is a much needed art in Civil War re-enacting.

Through-out this article you will find information and links to CW Bugle Call Manuals, photographs, and sound files.

INTRODUCTION

Of all the memories veterans recalled of their Civil War experience, countless reminiscences of music can be found in thousands of letters and journals of soldiers who fought on both sides. Music played such a large part of the war and the field music of buglers was not only necessary for telling the time of duties in camp but also guided the actions of troops in battle. These buglers were not part of the brass bands that were common at the beginning of the war, rather musicians who along with fifers and drummers enlisted with a regiment of infantry or cavalry. Most of these musicians were young boys (some who lied to get in under the 18 year age requirement) who played bugles, fifes and drums. Army regulations of 1863 allowed recruiters to enlist those “such as the recruits as are found to possess a natural talent for music, to be instructed on the fife, bugle, and drum, and other military instruments…care should be taken to enlist those only who have a natural talent for music.

Three Boy CW Musicians

A school (The School of Practice) for the training of these young musicians existed at Governor’s Island in New York and manuals were available for the learning of fife and drum music. Among these were Ashworth’s Fife Instructor, Howe’s Instructor for Drum and Fife, and Bruce and Emmett’s The Drummer’s and Fifers Guide. Included in many of these manuals were bugle calls.

The bugle has been most associated with the cavalry and artillery while the drum and fife was greatly used in the infantry. The many accounts of moving to the “tap of the drum” and “falling in at the long roll” are found in many diaries and certainly many pictures show a drummer standing next to infantry companies. But as the war progressed, it was demonstrated that drum beats and fife tunes were hard to hear over musket and artillery fire. In previous wars troops were massed in large groups and met the enemy as large units in open fields. The drum was effective in keeping cadence but in the Civil War it was hard to hear the beats in the fighting that took place in the woods and hills that characterized warfare during that conflict. And as most of these musicians were under age they were ordered to the rear or to ambulance duty as hostilities broke. Commanders found that the bugle was heard over a greater distance and many would have them by their sides at all times. Gustav Shurmann (“The little bugler”) rode with General Philip Kearny and later Daniel Sickles and Oliver Norton rode next to Colonel Strong Vincent.

Gustav Shurmann

By 1863, most commanders recognized the futility of using drums and relied on the bugle to maneuver skirmishers. Many of the officers knew the calls as required by regulations “Every officer will make himself perfectly acquainted with the bugle signals: and should, by practice be enabled, if necessary, to sound them. This knowledge, so necessary in general instruction, becomes of vital importance on actual service in the field.” -Hardee, William J., “Instruction of the Battalion,” Rifle and Light Infantry tactics, Volume I, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1855.

In skirmish fighting the bugle became indispensable. Ralsa Rice of the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry wrote: “With the sound of the bugle our men deployed at once, and in line behind the trees, awaited the signal. With the bugle sounding the charge we ran forward and did not stop to gauge our speed with those on either flank…We sprang out, the Sergeant took aim and fired. I heard the bugle again sounding “forward!” -Rice, Ralsa Yankee Tigers, pp. 100-102

Regulations called for the assignment of field musicians in each company and a principal musician (Chief Bugler) to be assigned at regimental level. The Chief Buglers were responsible for the training, appearance, and performance of buglers under them. They sounded calls from headquarters which in turn were echoed by the company buglers. The Chief Bugler occupied the same position and status of Drum Major or Principal Musician of a band. Chief Buglers found life a little easier than that of regular soldiers. They were exempt from guard duty and other ordinary duties but were used as orderlies. Oliver Norton wrote home about his duties:

Stoneman Station A.C.& F.R.R., Va.,
Sunday Jan. 25, 1863

Dear Sister L.

I thought the subject of bugler was exhausted, but I see you want to know more about it. I am chief bugler of the brigade. My duties are, in camp to sound the calls for roll calls, drills, inspections, guard mounting, etc., at regular hours each day; on the march, to attend on the general in command and sound the calls to march or halt and rest, strike tents and form in line, etc. In short to act as mouthpiece for the general. So much for duties. As to privileges-one, I’ve nothing to do but bugle; two, my luggage is carried in the headquarters wagons; three, I get better rations than in the regiment, and more of them; four, I get my wood hauled, and in the regiment the men have to carry all they burn a long distance. Well, there are four, perhaps that’s enough, but I might add others.


Company buglers served as messengers, surgical assistants and on ambulance crews. They also performed fatigue duty such as wood hauling, feeding horses and picket and guard duty. Many of the buglers carried rifles and fought with other members of their company. But their primary duty was musical. They were required to memorize all the calls that were sounded in camp and on the march. By today’s standards this seems like a lot (25 general calls and 24 skirmishers calls in the infantry alone) but it must be remembered that these calls were sounded every day for months on end and words or ditties were given to the calls so that they could be easily recognized.

There are fifty bugle calls that are in the Infantry manuals of the time. The soldiers of Civil War knew all the calls based on months of repetition and their constant drilling. I believe to improve our impression we can learn some basic calls that would really make us stand out. In nearly every type of tactical unit wherein an officer was involved, a bugler could be found. Obviously buglers were used in the larger formations –brigades, regiments and battalions, however even if a small recon patrol was sent out–maybe a platoon, or even 10-12 privates, a sergeant and an officer –a bugler was frequently included. Why? Perhaps because there would have been no other way to keep the group together if they spread out too far or to communicate with the main body once out of voice range. On a quiet night with flat terrain, a bugle can carry several miles. This is really one of the ways that communication was maintained during the war, and in nearly every scenario, a bugler was involved somehow. A re-enactment, even a small one, without a bugler, would be just as almost incorrect as a re-enactment without any guns, and it is almost always appropriate for a bugler to be involved, even in a small scale scenario/re-enactment.

Whereas fifers and drummers were often younger than the average soldier, the buglers, particularly Chief Buglers, more often were typically closer in age to the officers, and in many cases mature men. It seems that most of the chief buglers were quite literate and better educated than the average soldier. Perhaps many would have been officers if things were different. Many did become officers. The officers and their buglers developed very close and special relationships. Two cases that come to mind are the relationships shared by bugler Oliver Willcox Norton (83rd PA) and Colonel Strong Vincent and bugler Ferdinand Rohm (16th PA Cav) and Colonel John Robinson. They were together all the time – sometimes the bugler was also the officer’s orderly or as in the case of Norton, the colonel’s guidon bearer.

There were many instances when buglers acted on their own, in the absence of their officers, to maintain organization, rally the troops, etc. (Bugler William Carson received the Medal of honor for doing just this) The sound of the bugle coming from behind the ranks was a comforting sound for the men. Hearing it meant that they were still an “army” – that there was still someone in control. Imagine the feeling of being in a terrible battle scenario where people are getting slaughtered all around you and then suddenly NOT hearing and bugle signal from behind the lines. Pretty lonely, deserted feeling. Like everybody went home and left you out there. Buglers seemed to know this, and in many cases, after the officers were down, and the unit in a panicked unorganized state, the bugler sounded “to the color” or a unit prelude call and managed to salvage many bad situations. Just as often, a bugler would grab a rifle, or man a gun crew, when the circumstances warranted it, and do whatever had to be done.

Just think of this- The company commander would just nod to the bugler at the appropriate time and without shouting a command have the entire unit get ready and “couter” up for a battle (Attention), fall in on the company street (The Assembly), prepare to march to the battalion line (To The Color), and actually march (Forward) and then stop at the designated spot (Halt). Just the way they did it then!

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2 Responses to “Civil War Re-enacting for the Bugler”

  1. JohnnyReb says:

    Seeing as the confederate army was modeled exactly the same way as the union army, regulations are the same.

    They use the same calls for EVERYTHING.
    You must remember most if not almost all officers in the Confederate Army resigned from the Union army to join the confederates.

  2. Kate says:

    Hi Great article and quite informitive. Do these regulations apply for the Confederates as well as the Union? Are the calls mostly the same? The type of Buge? The Uniform? Do you know if there is a list and music of Confederate calls?

    Thanks!

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