Music, Military

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Music, Military

MUSIC, MILITARY. Military music was essential to the Revolutionary armies, contributing greatly to discipline and order both in camp and on the battlefield. Specialized drum and fife signals called musicians or officers to assemble and detachments to gather wood or informed the men when it was time to receive rations. Music provided a cadence to regulate the marching rate, and transmitted or supplemented officers' commands in battle.


George Washington early on recognized the value of well-trained musicians, as indicated in his 4 June 1777 general orders: "The music of the army being in general very bad; it is expected, that the drum and fife Majors exert themselves to improve it…. Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music; every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it." He then outlined the musically regulated daily routine. "The revellie to be beaten at day-break—the troop at 8 o'clock in the morning, and retreat at sunset." Two days later he ordered, "The morning gun at day-break to be a signal for the revellie; and the evening gun at sun-set a signal for the retreat." To these calls can be added the end of day "taptoo," when "all lights must be put out at 9 o'Clock in the evening, and every man to his tent."

The routine was altered for an army on the move, General Washington giving details on 16 August 1777:

  1. When the army is to march, the General (and not the Revellie) is to beat in the morning.
  2. At the beating of the General, the officers and soldiers are to dress and prepare themselves for the march, packing up and loading their baggage.
  3. At the beating of the troop, they are to strike all their tents and put them in the wagons.
  1. At least a quarter of an hour before the time appointed for marching, the rummers are to beat a march, upon which the troops are to march out and form at the head of their encampment…. Precisely at the hour appointed for marching, the drummers beat the march a second time, at that part of the line from which the march is to be made … upon which the troops face or wheel … and instantly begin the march.

Further orders, tinged with criticism, were issued for the march through Philadelphia later the same month:

The drums and fifes of each brigade are to be collected in the center of it; and a tune for the quick step played, but with such moderation, that the men may step to it with ease; and without dancing along, or totally disregarding the music, as too often has been the case.

Whatever the musical quality, the daily schedule often changed to fit situational needs.

Several works have discussed battlefield drum signals, most notably Raoul Camus's Military Music of the American Revolution (1976), but there is much yet to be learned on their practical use. William Windham's Plan of Discipline for the Use of the Norfolk Militia (1768) provided twenty drum commands for everything from "Fix bayonets, marching" to "Form Battalion!" Other manuals followed suit. In actuality, battle and maneuver signals varied. During Major General John Sullivan's expedition against the Iroquois in 1779, orders for 4 August stipulated signals for marching in files, advancing by sections and platoons, closing columns, and displaying into line. By comparison, Major General Friedrich Wilhelm de Steuben's Regulations (1779) gives only three different signals for marching forces: the "Front to halt," "the Front to advance quicker," and "to march slower." In 1780 British Captain John Peebles of the Forty-second Regiment noted the "General Rules for Manouvring the Batt[alio]n. by the Commanding Officer," appended to which are "Signals by Drum":

  1. Preparative to begin firing by Companies, which is to go on as fast as each is loaded till the first part of the General when not a shot more is ever to be fired.
  2. Grenad[ie]rs March to advance in Line.
  3. Point of War to Charge.
  4. To Arms to form the Batt[alio]n. (whether advancing or Retreating in Column) upon the leading division.
  5. Double flam to halt Upon the word forward, in forming, the Divisions to run up in Order.


Another instrument, the bugle horn (also called the French, hunting, or German post-horn) was commonly used by light and mounted troops. Horns were especially associated with the British light infantry. Massachusetts Lieutenant Joseph Hodgekins wrote of the Battle of Harlem Heights (16 September 1776), "The Enemy Halted Back of an hill and Blood [blowed] a french Horn which whas for a Reinforcement." Xavier della Gatta's painting, The Battle of Germantown (1782), shows a horn-blowing musician at the head of two files of British light infantry, and the song "A Soldier" (1778) begins with the lines:

    Hark! hark! the bugle's lofty sound
    Which makes the woods and rocks around
    Repeat the martial strain,
    Proclaims the light-arm'd British troops.

It is uncertain when American light troops first used horns, but during the Monmouth campaign in June 1778, New York Lieutenant Bernardus Swartwout noted,

  • [25 June] The Horn blowed (a substitute for a drum in the [light] Infantry corps) we marched about four miles …
  • [26 June] At the sound of the horn we marched eight miles and halted.

Bands of music, playing orchestral instruments, were also present with some units, serving a largely ornamental purpose. Most British regiments had their own bands at one time or another, several surrendering at Saratoga and Yorktown. Only a few Continental units followed suit, most notably the Third and Fourth Artillery, Second Virginia, and Webb's Additional Regiments.

Proficient field musicians (drummers, fifers, and for light troops and cavalry, buglers) were hard to find. That was because they were expected to learn many tunes, from popular melodies like "Roslyn Castle" to practical beats such as "Water Call" or "Roast Beef."


Recognizing musicians' special duties, efforts were made to provide them with regimental coats with reversed colors based on European practice. In May 1777 the Continental clothier general informed Colonel Elias Dayton of the Third New Jersey that "there is 395 Blue coats faced red on the road from Boston … which I design to furnish your regmt…. I have also … sent you 12 Red Coats fac'd with blue of the clothing taken from the enemy for your drums & fifes." This variation was not always possible, as some units wore un-dyed linen hunting shirts, while in the autumn of 1778 Washington's army was issued French-made coats of blue or brown with red facings, with no distinction for musicians.


Because of their responsibilities, musicians were relatively mature, in the Continental army on average 18.5 years (the average age for drummers was 19 years, for fifers 17). Youthful musicians were sometimes kept out of harm's way. Drummer James Holmes of the Eleventh Pennsylvania Regiment, 13 years old when he joined in 1778, stated "he was not in Any engagements not being permitted by his Captain, [and] on account of his Youth was generally ordered to the rear." Younger and smaller musicians were more likely to play the fife, with some fifers changing to the drum as they matured. In 1782 Congress decided to take new musicians from the ranks, causing some difficulty, as a Tenth Massachusetts officer testified, "we want three Drummers and two Fifers but at present can find but one Fifer and two Drummers who have natural Geniuses for music … they are men of small stature and I believe will answer the purpose."

Musicians sometimes experienced duty-related hardships. Revolutionary fifer Samuel Dewees also served in the Fries Rebellion of 1799. Sent to recruit troops in Northampton, Pennsylvania, he stayed "two or three days … I had played the fife so much at this place, I began to spit blood…. By the aid of the Doctor's medicine and the kind nursing treatment … I was restored to health again in a few days and able to play the fife as usual." Fifer Swain Parsel of the Third New Jersey Regiment had a similar experience. He "enlisted in the beginning of [1776] … as a fifer for one year." Reenlisting in the same regiment, "the practice of fifing being injurious to his health, he entered the ranks as a private soldier."


Prospective pensioner John McElroy of the Eleventh Pennsylvania had a unique story to tell, stating in his pension deposition, "As to my ocupation I have none being nearly blind by reason of my eyes being nearly destroyed by the accidental bursting of cartriges in the year 1779 at Sunbury Pennsylvania." Despite his injury McElroy was appointed fife major in 1780. John McElroy and Aaron Thompson of the Third New Jersey both retained mementos of their military service well after the war. The former wrote in 1820 that "I have my old Fife and knapsack yet," while a friend of Thompson noted after his death that he "had heard him [Thompson], often say so, and mention, the fact of his, having mutilated his fife in order to prevent its being stolen and that he might preserve it, as a relic, of his services in that Struggle."


Camus, Raoul F. Military Music of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1976.

Dewees, Samuel. A History of the Life and Services of Captain Samuel Dewees. Compiled by John Smith Hanna. Baltimore: R. Neilson, 1844. Available online at

Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745–1799. 39 vols. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931–1944.

Katcher, Philip R. N. Encyclopedia of British, Provincial, and German Army Units 1775–1783. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1973.

Rees, John U. "'The Musicians Belonging to the Whole Army': An Abbreviated Study of the Ages of Musicians in the Continental Army." Brigade Dispatch 24, no. 4 (Autumn 1993): 2-8; and 25, no. 1 (Winter 1994): 2-12.

――――――. "'The Great Neglect in Provideing Cloathing': Uniform Colors and Clothing in the New Jersey Brigade during the Monmouth Campaign of 1778." Military Collector & Historian 46, no. 4 (Winter 1994): 165; and 47, no.1 (Spring 1995): 18.

――――――. "'Bugle Horns,' 'Conk Shells,' and 'Signals by Drum': Miscellaneous Notes on Instruments and Their Use during the American War for Independence." Brigade Dispatch 26, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 13-15.

Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm de. Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States Part I. Philadelphia, Pa.: Styner and Cist, 1779.

Strachan, Hew. British Military Uniforms, 1768–96: The Dress of the British Army from Official Sources. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1975.

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