Bands battled on eve of Stones River clash

As published in the Murfreesboro Post, Mike West, Managing Editor Writer, December 26, 2006

Union regimental band. (Library of Congress)
Union regimental band. (Library of Congress)

One of the most unique moments of the Civil War occurred on the eve of the Battle of Stones River.

Let us set the scene.

Both the Federal Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee had settled in for the night. A no-man’s land of only 700 yards separated the 83,000 combatants on Dec. 30, 1862. At some points, the lines were within 300 yards of each other.

It was a typical Middle Tennessee winter – cold, damp and wet. The day of the 30th had been sunny, but cold.

“Every soldier on that field knew when the sun went down on the 30th that on the following day he would be engaged in a struggle unto death, and the air was full of tokens that one of the most desperate of battles was to be fought,” said Brig. Gen. Henry M. Cist, Army of the Cumberland.

Much of that day had been spent on the final alignment of the armies with some skrimishing and artillery fire. The area’s unique terrain proved both a blessing and a problem.

Slightly undulating farm fields were fringed by cedar brakes and limestone outcroppings. The dense cedar forest could mask troop movements’ “but were almost impervious to artillery,” Cist wrote. While the rock could provide some protection for infantrymen, it would soon prove an impediment to troop movement.

As dread deepened, the various military bands attached to both armies tried to lift the oppressive mood by playing some of their favorite compositions. A musical battle between the bands soon ensued with Union and Confederate bands trying to drown out the other side.

The Confederate’s “Bonny Blue Flag” was answered by “Hail, Columbia.” “Yankee Doodle” echoed “Dixie”.

Eventually, lively patriotic tunes faded away as one brass band began the lonesome strains of “Home Sweet Home.”

“To thee, I’ll return, overburdened with care,
The heart’s dearest solace will smile on me there.
No more from that cottage again will I roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”

Then bands from both sides ended the North-South competition and joined in on the mournful song with thousands of troops stopping to sing the chorus:

“Home! Home! Sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”

It was a restless night with soldiers getting little sleep shivering in their wool blankets on the cold, wet ground. The Confederates were to attack at daylight and adjustments continued through the late hours.

Union Brig. Gen. Joshua Sill grew nervous. Spotting activity behind Confederate lines, Sill correctly feared that troops were massing for an attack on the Union’s right.

Sill’s brigade of troops from Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin were assigned to Brig. Gen. Phillip Sheridan’s division, which was part of Maj. Gen. Alexander McDowell McCook’s corps.

McCook, an Ohio native, was a West Point grad, who taught infantry tactics at the military academy. He was one of the “Fighting McCooks,” 14 members of the same Ohio family (seven brothers, seven cousins) who fought for the Union.

McCook was first assigned to the defense of Washington, and then fought at First Battle of Bull Run. He led a brigade of the Army of the Ohio at the Battle of Shiloh. McCook was promoted to major general on July 17, 1862, and led troops at Perryville and Stones River.

After talking amongst themselves, Sill and Sheridan sought out McCook. They discovered him asleep on a pile of straw near the Gresham house.

Awakened, McCook spoke confidently of Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ battle plan.

“General Rosecrans is fully advised of the fact that the enemy is massing troops on my front, but he explained to me that his attack upon their right in the morning will be so vigorous that they will be compelled to withdraw their forces to support that portion of the line,” he said.

Ironically, it was Sill who paid the price for McCook’s over-confidence.

The Confederates were to strike first … and decisively against McCook’s wing.

While the commanding officers prepared their plans, the troops were left to their own thoughts triggered by the melancholy music. As for the Union soldiers, they were far from their home sweet home. However, many of the Confederates were practically on their own doorsteps. A number of the men were from Rutherford and Cannon as well as a number of other Middle Tennessee communities.
The temptation for them to slip home for a visit must have been nearly overpowering.

Consider the men of Col. Joseph Palmer’s 18th Tennessee Infantry. Taken prisoners at Fort Donelson, the men had reformed into a fighting unit just in time to defend their hometown from Northern aggressors. Palmer, a former Whig, had served as mayor of Murfreesboro.

“Home, sweet, home” had a far more intense meaning for Palmer and his men and their responsibility to protect both home and their families.

While military bands were more of a Union phenomenon, there were Confederate bands including those at Stones River.

Nighttime concerts were a way of breaking the tension while subtly reminding soldiers of their commitment. Brass bands were a popular form of mass entertainment during the 19th Century. Small towns across America had band rostrums or pavilions and their own community brass ensembles. This love of military-style marching bands continues to this day at American high schools and colleges.
When volunteer regiments and brigades were formed, in many instances, a band was included. Band recruiting was so successful that, by the end of 1861, the Union had 618 bands and more than 28,000 musicians.

The duties of bandsmen varied during the Civil War. They played for concerts, parades, funerals, executions and for troops marching into battle.

General Sheridan, who was at Murfreesboro for the battle of the bands, was a great believer in the magic of music.
“Music has done its share, and more than its share, in winning this war,” he said.

Later in the war, Sheridan would mass his band on the battle line with the order to “play the gayest tunes in their books …. Play them loud and keep on playing them, and never mind if a bullet goes through a trombone, or even a trombonist, now and then.”

Gen. Horace Porter in Virginia “encountered one of Sheridan’s bands, under heavy fire, playing Nellie Bly as cheerily as if it were furnishing music for a country picnic.”

When not performing their musical duties, bandsmen generally helped the Union medical corps by gathering wood, transporting patients and by helping set up field hospitals.

President Abraham Lincoln was another fan of military music. “Hail, Columbia” was played when he appeared in public. That particular song was written for George Washington’s inauguration. But he especially loved lively songs like “Dixie.”

“I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize,” Lincoln said in 1865.

But just like many of his soldiers, Lincoln was deeply moved by “Home, Sweet, Home.”

Italian opera star Adelina Patti was invited to the White House in 1862 to perform for the Lincolns who were still mourning the death of their 12-year-old son, Willie, from typhoid fever.

Patti, who along with Jenny Lind was one of the most popular sopranos in the world, performed her usual repertoire, ending with one of the saddest songs of the day, “The Last Rose of Summer.” Concluding that number, she saw Mrs. Lincoln in tears and the president covering his face with his hands. When she offered to perform a cheerful song, Lincoln requested “Home, Sweet, Home,” as the only song that could give them any solace from their grief.

“Home, Sweet, Home” had such an impact on homesick troops that many Union commanders banned it.
Despite the popularity of military bands, a cost-conscious Congress didn’t want to bear the cost of funding a band for all the regiments of the Union army and ordered an inquiry.

Secretary of War Simon Camero reported the average cost of maintaining artillery or cavalry band was $9,161.30 and the cost of maintaining the larger infantry band was $13,139.40. It was also reported 26 of 30 Regular Army regiments and 213 of 465 volunteer regiments had bands.

To that point, the War Department had spent $4 million on bands with 618 bands in service, Camero said.

Congress voted to eliminate the bands of volunteer regiments and to muster out those musicians within 30 days. While it didn’t eliminate the bands in the regular army, it did act to replace the regimental bands with brigade bands (one for every four regiments.)
But whether they sounded like the braying of jackasses, as one Confederate said, or soothed the pain of wounded soldiers, military bands would remain a fixture until this day.

For further reading:

Cozzens, Peter, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River, University of Illinois Press, 1990
Daniel, Larry J., Days of Glory, the Army of the Cumberland, 1861-1865, LSU Press, 2004
Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001
Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian, Random House, 1958
Hattaway, Herman, and Jones, Archer, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War, University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Horn, Stanley F., The Army of Tennessee, University of Oklahoma Press, 1952
McWhiney, Grady, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Columbia University Press, 1969
McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States), Oxford University Press, 1988
Rosecrans, William S. Official Report from the Battle of Stones River, February 12, 1863.
Lamers, William M., The Edge of Glory: A Biography of General William S. Rosecrans, U.S.A, Louisiana State University Press, 1999
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