This weekend, Northfield, Minnesota, has been host to the 2010 Vintage Band Festival. The four-day festival draws brass bands from as far away as Helsinki, Finland. One of the highlights of the weekend was a reenactment of a Civil War “battle of the bands,” with two bands in historical costume facing off across the Cannon River, which flows through the middle of Northfield. On the east side of the river was Newberry’s Victorian Cornet Band, from Maryland, which specializes in music from the period 1870 to 1900. On the west side of the river was the 1st Brigade Band, from Watertown, Wisconsin, which specializes in music of the Civil War era. The band members play “over the shoulder” instruments, the bells of which face backwards toward the soldiers who were marching behind the band. You can see an over the shoulder bugle in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art here.
During the Civil War, a “battle of the bands” generally took place in the evening, when two opposing armies had gone into bivouac, and the bands on either side played back and forth across the lines. Sam Seay, of the 1st Tennessee Infantry, described one especially poignant “battle of the bands”on the eve of the Battle of Stones River (the Battle of Murfreesboro) on December 30, 1862:
Just before ‘tattoo’ the military bands on each side began their evening music. The still winter night carried their strains to great distance. At every pause on our side, far away could be heard the military bands of the other. Finally one of them struck up ‘Home Sweet Home.’ As if by common consent, all other airs ceased, and the bands of both armies as far as the ear could reach, joined in the refrain. Who knows how many hearts were bold next day by reason of that air?
The modern 1st Brigade Band was founded in 1864, one hundred years after the original 1st Wisconsin Brigade Band marched to the sea with Gen. William T. Sherman. During that campaign, the band found itself in a hard-fought “battle of the bands” with another Union brigade band from Michigan. Here’s how bandmaster E.O. Kimberly described the “battle”:
“They were a very fair band: they would play a piece and then we would. After playing 3 or 4 pieces, we then played a new piece we had just learned, a fine thing; after finishing it ,they struck up with the same thing, which of course was considered an insult. Our boys then swore they would run them out, determined to play the last piece, and the other band also made the same determination that they would play the last piece and run the d….d Badgers out. Of course on such occasion both bands had been drinking pretty freely and were excited and maddened to no low pitch. We kept on, as soon as they finished a piece we were ready to start in, playing every piece they did if we had it. They sent a man over to see what we had to play and we had done the same. Their colonel was with them and swore that he would hang the first men that gave out. The whole affair was just like a hard contested battle. At one o’clock we were still going at it, as quick as they would stop, we would start right in. We were determined to play until 8 o’clock in the morning if necessary. The Doctor said he would get us some breakfast. Liquors were set out on a table for the boys to drink just when they had a mind to. Both bands kept on until 3 o’clock: it was their turn to play but they failed to come out; we waited patiently. Our spy came back and informed us they had given up. We played ‘Yankee Doodle’ double quick. The boys shouted Victory! We had whipped them and forced a retreat.”
In Northfield this weekend, the Newberry Victorian Cornet Band retired from the field after a rousing rendition of “Dixie,” which you can listen to here.
You can find a history of the 1st Brigade Band on the modern band’s website, and photographs of the original band members in the digital collections of the University of Wisconsin. The Library of Congress American Memory collection has an excellent online exhibit of “Band Music from the Civil War Era,”including audio files of some of the music and downloadable scores.