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Buglers in the Civil War

By 1863, most commanders recognized the futility of using drums and relied on the bugle to maneuver skirmishers. Many of the officers knew thecalls 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.

Greenleaf W Metcalfe-Bugler 6th MASS

Musician Greenleaf Metcalfe of the Lowell Brigade Band, 6th MA Infantry. Metcalfe’s military service during the Civil War was short lived as the band returned to Massachusetts on April 22, 1861 after being attacked by a mob in Baltimore, MD. He holds a clairon d’Ordonnance in C.

This piece of music shows an officer with bugle. The officer is sounding a call for skirmishers. The march was dedicated to the City Guards of the Boston Brigade Band. It was composed by Walch and published by Oliver Ditson of Boston in 1835.

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

“On to Richmond”

Moses Ross enlisted in August 1862 at Chester, NY at age 23 and mustered into Co. “A,” 124th NY Vol. Infantry as a private. He was transferred from Co. “A” to Field Staff of the regiment and promoted to Principal Musician 31 October, 1863. He fought at Gettysburg with the 124th. He wears the non-regulation insignia of a Principal Musician.

Luther Hass

Luther Hass, musician with Co. “K,” 46th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Hass is holding a G Cavalry style bugle made by Klemm and
Brothers of Philadelphia.

Regulations called for the assignment of field musicians in each company and a Principal Musician (Chief Bugler) to be assigned at the 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 as 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 Willcox Norton of the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry wrote home about his duties:
“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.”

During the Civil War, 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. Most 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 (25 general calls and 24 skirmishers calls in the Infantry alone). By today’s standards this seems like a lot, 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. Orders were issued by commanders for the sounding of calls.

“Headquarters Vol. Div. Arty. Reserve
May 14th, 1863
General Orders No. 1

Hereafter the principal Bugle Calls will
be sounded at the following hours

Reveille………………………………..5:00 AM
Guard Mounting……………………..8:00
Sick Call………………………………9:00 AM
Retreat…………………………………7:30 PM
Tattoo………………………………….8:30 PM
Taps……………………………………9:00 PM

By command of Major Tompkins
Lt. Chamberlin”
(From an original copy of orders)

This order issued by Major Tompkins of the Volunteer Artillery Reserve shows the times for bugle calls in camp. Note the reference to the bugle call Taps only a year after its introduction by General Butterfield.

Nicholas Ziesse was a member of the 5th Michigan. He was wounded at Perryville and lost a leg. He is shown here with a keyed bugle in this post-war photograph.

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