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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.

American Revolution

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

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