Press "Enter" to skip to content

Bugles and Bugling prior to the Civil War

The Evolution of Trumpet and Bugle Signals in the United States Military from 1798-1874


Armies have used signaling instruments ever since there have been organized militaries. Trumpets and bugles have always been utilized to relay important information and as a function in everyday military life. The calls, sounded on predominantly brass horns, were crucial as they contained, with their musical notes, important commands to troops preparing for battle and were essential for maneuvering bodies of soldiers on the battlefield.

Since bugles and trumpets were an effective way to communicate over long distances, it was natural that they were adopted for military use. During the time of the Napoleonic Wars, these signals or calls were written down in the infantry manuals of the day.  As the American military came into existence, first British, then French bugle/trumpet calls were borrowed for use in the United States infantry and cavalry.  The importance of these signal instruments in the U.S. military was evidenced by the adoption of the trumpet as a symbol for mounted rifles in the early 19th century, and of the bugle as a symbol for infantry during the Civil War.

This overview will cover the period of military music in the America armies from the end of the Revolutionary war through the Civil War ending at the consolidation of all service calls into one system and the adoption of new calls that are still used today.


British light infantry files, headed by a horn-blowing musician, retreat from attacking American columns at Germantown, 4 October 1777. (Detail from the painting “The Battle of Germantown” by Xavier Della Gatta [1782 . From the collections of the Valley Forge Historical Society)

There is no doubt that bugles and trumpets were used during the American Revolution.

Early in the morning of September 15, 1776 five British warships with 4,000 troops moved into position at Kip’s Bay, NY. Gen. Washington, alarmed by the sounds of the attack, rode south from Harlem and encountered American troops retreating. The British halted at the base of the Harlem Heights plateau and sounded their bugle horn, as if signaling the end of a fox chase. Washington sent out troops for a frontal assault and another to outflank the British. Aware of the flanking movement, the British fell back repeatedly and were forced to retreat. The victory uplifted the Americans, although they had many casualties.

Joseph Reed, Washington’s adjutant, wrote to his wife explaining how he felt upon hearing the enemy bugles. As he rode up to the action, “the enemy appeared in open view and in the most insulting manner sounded their bugle horns as is usual after a fox chase. I never felt such a sensation before, it seemed to crown our disgrace.”

So, here is an account of a bugle signal horn used in combat during the Revolutionary War. Reed seems to infer that the horns were not only used to signal troops but also as a means of psychological warfare against the enemy. This is something not new-Gideon, in Judges 7.16, used trumpets as he saved Israel from the Midianites, who, had murdered his brothers.  He gathered 300 men and gave each a trumpet.  They crept to the Midianite camp in the dark, and on signal blew all the trumpets simultaneously.  The terrified Midianites fled with Gideon behind them. He captured their two kings. There is a story that this was repeated centuries later during the American Civil War.  A Union army colonel, James H. Wilson used 250 buglers during the battle of Front Royal, Virginia on September 21,1864.  The Union buglers charged the Confederate lines all blowing at the same time.  The Confederates broke and ran in full flight.

Later in our history, the Chinese Army against American troops used bugles, for the same purpose, during the Korean Conflict and who can forget that during the 1989 siege of the Vatican Embassy in Panama music was used to force Manual Noriega out of the embassy where he had sought refuge. Perhaps not bugle music but achieving the same effects. Psychological warfare….

There are accounts of American buglers and trumpeters sounding calls during the Revolutionary War. There are also reports of conch shells being used.

During the summer 1779 two forces, under Major General John Sullivan and Brigadier General James Clinton, rendezvoused at Tioga prior to their advance against the Indian towns in western New York. In the pre-march preparations some thought was given to a method of communication between the army’s columns. General orders, 24 August 1779, Fort Sullivan: “As the Bugle Horns have not arrived, officers commanding columns, to provide two conk shells for their respective columns in lieu of the horns.”

John U. Rees in his “Bugle Horns”, “conk shells,” and “Signals by Drum”: Miscellaneous Notes on Instruments During the American War for Independence writes: “It is interesting to note the measure taken to supply the place of the missing bugle horns, added to which is the fact that conk shells were available at all. Unfortunately, the orders make no mention of the signals used or the specific reason for the use and source for these peculiar instruments.”

The distinction of horns, bugles and trumpets plague historians in trying to categorize the signal instruments of the time. This confusion of terms still exists to this day. Trumpets for cavalry did not change their external long appearance. Bugle horns are another matter-one can assume that the instruments were patterned after the English, French or Prussian bugle horns. The signal instruments of the Revolution may have been hunting horns or the Halbmond or Hanoverian (or Half-moon) horns for the infantry. These were not the folded over shape of the later British Duty Bugles, rather instruments that looked like French Horns. The instrument was made of copper and the straps which formed a “T” shape made it possible to carry the horn.

According to Anthony Baines in his “Brass Instruments-Their History and Development”, the Halbmondblaser (Hanoverian Bugle horn) appears in Hanoverian records of 1758 in association with a mixed corps of Light Troops organized by Captain von Scheiter.  The horn was pitched in the key of D and had a crook to lower the pitch to C.  The instrument was adopted for use by the English Light Dragoons in 1764, by the Grenadier Guards in 1772, and later by artillery and light infantry.  The cavalry used trumpets with crooks which most likely were in the key of E flat.

As pointed out by Raoul Camus in his Book, Military Music of The American Revolution, in 1773 and 1774 bugles found favor in the light infantry companies of the British army over the more cumbersome drums.  A German post-horn is reported in to have been used.

After the Revolution, during the 1790s when the U.S. Army briefly assumed its unique legion structure as opposed to Regiments, Brigades and Divisions Congress authorized one ‘trumpeter” in each of the four company size units of the legion’s dragoon squadron.  In the cavalry volume of an unofficial military manual, “Treatise on Military Art” (Greenfield, MA 1798), American compiler E. Hoyt listed and described trumpet calls, including “Boots and Saddles.”  Hoyt describes signals to be used but does not print music.  Instead he states, “These signals are generally established by custom in camp” which leads one to assume they were made up by the buglers/trumpeters of the army. Hoyt’s 1811 “Practical Instructions for Military Officer” covers trumpets (“Each troop of cavalry has one”) and “Bugle-horns” (“now used by the light infantry and rifle corps…also used by the horse artillery and some regiments of cavalry”).  Again there is no music. There is an explanation that, “The signals must be concealed from the enemy, and may frequently changed by the commander, to prevent their gaining a knowledge of them.”

1798 E. Hoyt Treatise Military Art

1811 E. Hoyt Military Dictionary

Another compiler of military information, William Duane, in his 1809 compendium, proposed a standard system of signals for the army’s field instruments and adapted his music to the bugle. The earliest known bugle signals in the United States is found his “A Hand Book for Riflemen“ published in 1812 in Philadelphia. Duane’s manual has detailed information on the bugle signals and usage and includes music for 61 “Bugle Horn Signals” The manual also includes signals to be played on the whistle. An indication on the music shows that the signals may have been for a bugle in the key of G. Duane borrowed some calls from the British-most notable No. 57. “Officers’ Dinner” (“The Rouse”) and  No. 58 “the Tattoo-1st Part” (“Retreat”) these are from “A Complete Preceptor for the Trumpet and Bugle Horn” by J. Hyde printed in London in 1800. There of the calls nos. 36. “Form Companies”, 38. “Form Column” and 39. “Form Square” are trumpet calls. Trumpet calls because they are written in the trumpet scale which includes the 2nd line E. They are recognizable as “About”, “Boots and Saddles” and “To Horse.”

1812 Handbook for Riflemen William Duane

There is little hard proof in pictures or drawings of these signal instruments, though the Hanoverian horn seems to be the instrument of choice for the military. The symbol of the hunting horn is used as the emblem for the US Rifle Regiment. This emblem featured a “Bugle surrounded by stars” when adopted in 1814.

The plain hunting horn becomes the insignia for United States infantry by the Civil War and is used though the 1870s until replaced by the crossed rifles. What to do with all the insignia? Why, use them to indicate bugles and field musicians, of course.

What horns did they use? The hunting type horn seems to be the one of choice after the revolution but by 1812 the British had adopted a folded-over pattern bugle horn that had been in use since 1800. According to Baines, The Halbmond was remodeled in bell-front trumpet form, perhaps by William Shaw of London. Pitched in C with a crook to B flat, it also is the model for the Clairons found in Europe. An excellent example is found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Engravings on the bell indicate that the bugle was made in the year 1811. Also engraved on the bell is the name Major Drummond of the 104th Regiment, who presumably was the first owner of the instrument.

The popularity of this folded over (usually of one twist) bugle horn is evident in the creation of the keyed bugle of 1811 that used the pattern. After the Crimean War, a smaller double twist pattern bugle in B flat becomes the British Duty Bugle (known in many circles as the M1855)  that is still in use today.

A double twist pattern bugle is found in an exhibit at Fort Benning, GA where a bugle horn that was claimed to be used at the Battle of North Point resides.

After the war of 1812 attempts were made to reform the tactics used by the United States Army and divest it from the English practices. In 1814 Congress resolved to form a Board of Officers to modify the French infantry regulations “As to make them correspond with the Organization of the Army of the United States, with such additions and retrenchments as the Board may deem proper.” Winfield Scott was named president the board, a choice made no doubt because of his hero status and the fact that he had used French tactics (the 1791 Manual of the French revolutionary Army) in his camp of instructions that lead to the victories at Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane in July 1814. Scott goes on to visit Europe and study French Tactics close up (as does George McClellan later) and is to influence the use of French Calls in the US military.

Scott, Winfield, 1786-1866

Despite the new tactics, there was no music included in the 1815 “Rules and Regulations for the Field Exercises and Maneuvers of Infantry.”

Subsequent manuals between 1815 and 1825 use music plates from previous editions and new militia publications included new calls for infantry derived from British Light Infantry manuals. A case in point is the Gardner Compendium of 1819 “Compendium of United States System of Infantry and Riflemen” and some state militias manuals (Pennsylvania 1824 and New Hampshire 182?). Most all of the bugle signals found in these manuals come from the British “Instructions for Light Infantry and Riflemen“, Neil Campbell, London 1813

1819 Light Infantry Gardner

New calls based on the French (an assumption is made because some of the calls extant are found in French manuals)-are not introduced until 1825. And in the new 16 calls found in the 1825 manual, one call is introduced that still remains in today’s military-“Assembly.” The calls remain in service until a major revision of the Tactics Manual in 1835 by Scott.  The 1835 Scott’s Tactics, ordered into use April 10, 1835 includes 19 beats for drum and fife and 22 sounds for the bugle. These are all taken from the French with the exception of a new Tattoo which I refer to as the “1835” or “Scott’s Tattoo.” It is important to note that this is the basis of the call Taps that appears after 1862, first in performance, then written (as “Extinguish Lights”) then finally printed in US manuals as “Taps” in 1891.

1835 Light Infantry Scott


Historically, music for the trumpet and bugle were written in two different scales. The trumpet notation was one octave lower than the bugle notation. The trumpet notation can be easily recognized in any classical symphony trumpet part and in the notation for cavalry trumpets pitched in E flat and D. Both British and French notated their trumpet music using the “Trumpet” Scale and also so did the United States when they incorporated the music written. Original publications of music in the old trumpet scale for the United States can be found between 1813 and 1839. In some cases the same trumpet scale pates were reprinted into manuals through 1861. Randy Rach, in his “The Music Imprints Bibliography of Field Bugle and Field Trumpet Calls Signals and Quicksteps for the United States Army, Navy and Marine Corps 1812-1991” notes on the history of the scales that that the US cavalry changed from the Trumpet to the Bugle scale in 1841 and that the writers were familiar with the old scale notation and quoted: “To economize space, the music is written an Octave higher than the trumpet scale and is adjusted to the bugle scale.”

Much more was done to Cavalry calls than just writing them an Octave higher. Many were actually changed so the call would fit better if played on a Bugle or a cavalry trumpet pitched in the key of G. Why??

1.  I believe the United States started using G trumpets in the 1840s in the Cavalry. Indeed, the first known regulation or “pattern” bugle incorporated by the U.S. military appeared around 1835. This instrument had a large single coil copper bugle in the key of “C.” By 1861, there were three basic regulation patterns specified for trumpets and bugles, a large “C” bugle with our without “B-flat” tuning crook, a “G” trumpet and an “F” trumpet. There were many variations of these instruments and until the end of the 19th century, the United States used various types of trumpets and bugles pitched in a variety of keys!

Clairon (bugle) in C with crook to lower into B Flat
Trumpet in G

2.  The music in the manual is notated as music for Trumpet OR Bugle leading on to speculate that it did not matter what type of instrument was used to sound the signal or in some cases, the writers may not have known the difference.

This confusion of trumpet versus bugle in the United States military does not get any easier in the years following. From the U.S. Army Military History Institute Aug 84 “Bugles A Working Bibliography“:

“During the late 19th century, some interchangeability or possible confusion existed in terminology or definition of trumpets and bugles.  For example, Army Regulations, 1863 (Paragraph 232) cites drum and trumpet signals (no bugles mentioned), while the War Dept’s Cavalry Tactics, 1864 (UE160A5) contains a section of music notes entitled “Bugle Signals.” Although the first 1867 edition of Upton’s Tactics for infantry contains a section entitled bugle music, the 1874 edition changed the section title to “Trumpet Signals–Infantry.”  Thus, trumpets for infantry and bugles for cavalry seemingly reverse the previous arrangement.  Adding to the apparent confusion is War Dept General Order 48 of 1877 (mentioned previously as the first post-Civil War reference specifically to bugles), which directed the Quartermaster’s Department to “supply bugles to foot troops, in addition to drums and fifes.” Five years later, GO 12 (21 Jan 1882) directed that issues for field music should be confined to “trumpets, drums, and fifes” (no bugles!). Furthermore, the order authorized the “F” trumpet with a “C” crook for mounted troops and the same trumpet without crook for foot troops.  Although AR1889 confirmed the trumpets-only situation, amendments soon appeared in GOs 9 & 35 of 1892 to furnish “small brass Bb bugle” for light artillery.  No change in this pattern of crooked trumpets for cavalry, trumpets for infantry, and bugles for light artillery was found through 1910. Incidentally, if the Army’s orders and regulations in fact were followed, does this mean that the popular 20th century image of a cavalry charge could be erroneous?  No bugles sounded “Charge.” Trumpets did.”

In 1861 the calls were found in four manuals of the times

Naval Service

Generally the Infantry used the calls adopted from the French Infantry, the cavalry were a mixture of French Cavalry and the Artillery used some of the Cavalry signals adapted to their own usage. The American Civil War proved to be the zenith for bugle and trumpet call usage. To be sure over 50 calls in the Infantry and over 30 each in the cavalry and artillery. The 1860 manuals of Casey and Hardee present instructions for the Chief Bugler and Drum Major, provide music for beats of the drum and fife and music for 25 general bugle calls and 23 calls for skirmishers

1861 Light Infantry Tactics Hardee

After the war, attempts to once again revise the military tactics brought new manuals. General Emory Upton was instrumental in bringing about new set of Tactics based on lessons learned during the Civil War. In 1867 a new manual is introduced with most of the older calls but changing a few signals like Assembly, The Charge and Retreat, which was taken from the Cavalry manuals.  Uptons’s manual undergoes many editions between 1867 and 1874. In 1874 under the guidance of General Truman Seymore, the calls from all services are combined into one system. Most of the French calls are eliminated and new calls are introduced. Familiar ones we know today-Attention, Adjutant’s Call, To arms, Flourishes, Generals March, To the Color, are but a few signals added into a new system of calls making them at last truly American, although the vestiges of British and French class are still evident in some of our calls like Assembly (French) and the modern Tattoo which has it’s roots in British and Prussian calls.

1874 Infantry Tactics Emory Upton

Regulations and specifications for bugles and trumpets were written in 1865, 1879, 1892 and 1894


Mention should be made of buglers of the the United States Navy. When one thinks of bugles and buglers in the military, thoughts are of bugle calls in the Army sounding calls in garrison or of the bugler on horse back in battle. There is not much thought about buglers in the United States Navy. Yet, bugles have been part of the Naval service since the early 19th century. Buglers were part of shipboard life for generations as were the calls sounded to regulate daily routine on naval vessels.

The buglers also alerted sailors during battles and sounded calls to honor the colors, flag officers, and regulated life aboard ship.

Ships of the line in the years leading up to the Civil War had buglers who sounded calls. Most notable are the bugle calls found in an old “Station-Book” of the USS Concord discovered in the archives of the Naval Academy Library by Louis H. Bolander, the chief librarian in the early 20th century.  This book has colored drawings of a list of bugle-calls sounded on the ship, in musical notation, including, besides the more usual ones, a particular call for each boat. Many of these calls are unique to the ship. Some were borrowed from other sources such as the British.


-Anthony Baines, Brass Instruments-Their History and Development, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1981)
-Raoul Camus,  Military Music of The American Revolution, (Integrity Press, Westerville, Ohio, 1975)
-Allan J. Ferguson, Trumpets, Bugles and Horns in North America 1750-1815, (Military Historian & Collector Vol. XXXVI, Spring 1984)
-Randy Rach, The Music Imprints Bibliography of Field Bugle and Field Trumpet Calls, Signals, and Quicksteps for the United States Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps 1809-1991, 3d revised edition  (Hartford, MI: Field Music Books, 2000)
-John Ress, “Bugle Horns,” “Conk Shells” and “Signals by Drum”: Miscellaneous Notes on Instruments during the American War for Independence. Published in The Brigade Dispatch (Journal of the Brigade of the American Revolution), vol. XXVI, no. 4 (Winter 1996), 13-15.
-Bernardus Swartout, 2nd New York Regiment, Diary 10 November 1777 to 9 June 1783; Bernardus Swartout Papers; New York Historical Society,
-General orders, 24 August 1779, Order Book of Lt. Col. Francis Barber, 26 May 1779 to 6 September 1779, Louise Welles Murray, ed., Notes from Craft Collection in Tioga Point Museum on the Sullivan Expedition of 1779, (Athens, Pa., 1929), p. 81
-Curt Sachs, Musical Instruments, (W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.)
-Stanley Sadie, The New Grove Dictionary of Music And Musicians, (Macmillan Publishers LTD, London, 1980)
-USAMHI, Music-Bugles A Working Bibliography, (Reference Branch dv Dec 87
-Edwin H. Pierce, “On Some Old Bugle-Calls Of The U.S. Navy” Published in The Musical Quarterly, Carl Engel, Editor, G. Schirmer (Inc.) New York. Vol. XVIII, 1932 (pps 135-139)

Some books and sources on Music from American Revolution

“A Military Journal During the American Revolutionary War: from 1775 to 1783
Describing Interesting Events And Transactions of This Period”

By James Thacher, MD Surgeon. Published in 1827 Published by Cottons and Barnards, Boston

The GoogleBook can be downloaded HERE

June 22, 1781:
22d.-Our division of the army crossed the Hudson at West Point-landing yesterday, and reached Peekskill at night. We have left our cantonments in a woody mountain, affording a romantic and picturesque scenery of nature clothed in her wild and winter attire, having scarcely the appearance of vegetation. A splendid world is now open to our view, all nature is in animation – the fields and meadows display the beauties of spring, a pleasing variety of vegetables and flowers perfume the air, and the charming music of the feathered tribe delights our ears. But there is a contrast in music. What can compare with that martial band, the drum and fife, bugle-horn and shrill trumpet, which set the war-horse in motion, thrill through every fibre of the human frame, still the groans of the dying soldier, and stimulate the living to the noblest deeds of glory? The full roll of the drum, which salutes the commander-in-chief, the animating beat, which calls to arms for the battle, the reveille, which breaks our slumbers at dawn of day, with “come, strike your tents, and march away,” and the evening tattoo, which commands to retirement and repose; these form incomparably the most enchanting music that has ever vibrated on my ear.

“The Music of the Army…”
An Abbreviated Study of the Ages of Musicians in the Continental Army By John Rees
(Part 1 of 2)

“The Music of the Army…”
An Abbreviated Study of the Ages of Musicians in the Continental Army By John Rees
(Part 2 of 2)

John Rees resides in Solebury, Pennsylvania, with his wife Linda and their two sons. He has been writing since 1986 on various aspects of the common soldiers’ experience, focusing primarily on the War for Independence. His current works include monographs on Civil War soldiers’ campaign shelters, the military use of wagons and watercraft in the Revolution, and the evolution of American soldiers’ rations, 1756 to 1945.

In addition to providing research to Monmouth Battlefield State Park and the Yorktown Victory Center, Mr. Rees’s work has appeared in the ALHFAM Bulletin (Association of Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums), The Brigade Dispatch (Journal of the Brigade of the American Revolution), The Continental Soldier (Journal of the Continental Line), Military Collector & Historian, Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, and Muzzleloader Magazine. He is currently a regular contributor to Food History News writing about soldiers’ food from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

“Trumpets, Bugles and Horns in North America 1750-1815”
by Allan J. Ferguson

You can download his article here:
Trumpets Bugles and Horns in North America 1750-1815 Allan Ferguson

“Trumpet and Bugle Sources EASMES” (Early American Secular Music and Its European Sources)-A listing of manuals compiled by noted music historian Raoul Camus

You can download the list here: Trumpet and Bugle Sources EASMES

The EASMUS website can he found HERE

“U.S. Army  Quartermaster General specifications for United States Bugles, Trumpets, and Accoutrements.” Compiled by Randy Rach, Corresponding Seceratary, Institute of American Bugle and Trumpet Collectors

You can download the list here:
USQM Specifications for Bugles Trumpets and Accoutrements

Bugle calls from 1812

You may download the music here:1812 Handbook for Riflemen William Duane

Here are some Bugle Calls from the 1812 Handbook for Riflemen


Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)