This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

A Lady Bugler for the G.A.R.

27 January 2017

Whether paintings or photographs, good portraits should describe a complete person. A skilled photographer arranges the camera to capture a personality more than just an image. The details of clothes, hats, props, and even body posture can covey special significance about the subject. But the rivers of history sometimes wash away those connotations, and what was once obvious is now hidden. This is a story about that kind of portrait photograph.

The photo shows a striking young woman dressed in a handsome dress jacket and wearing a smart homburg hat. With her high collar and black bow tie, it's a mannish fashion partly feminized with puffy shoulders. She is standing and the hat with her long neck and torso give her a tall appearance, almost a military bearing.

She also holds a silver cornet.

A closeup reveals gleaming engraving on her cornet with mother-of-pearl on the valve buttons. This prop is a symbol of pride, an instrument of an accomplished musician. But the photograph has no name or date marked on it.

More significant than the cornet is the badge pinned to her jacket. It is a fringed satin ribbon with embroidered lettering.

Post No. 15
G. A. R.
Bristol, R. I.

The G. A. R. stands for the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal group for Union military veterans of the Civil War. It was founded in 1866 to provide former soldiers and sailors fellowship and assistance during the post-war period. It quickly became the predominant advocate for veterans and also a political base for Republicans who in the decades of reconstruction controlled Congress and the White House. In Rhode Island there were 27 G.A.R. Posts. This was of course a men's society so it is odd to see a symbol of the G.A.R. pinned onto a woman. But it does offer a clue where the photo was made.

The mount is on a large cabinet card with a single embossed logo of the photographer.


In fact there was a photographer named Lyndon Anderström who lived in Bristol, RI at the turn of the 19th century. He was born in Rhode Island while his father, a cabinet maker, came from Sweden.

Bristol is a New England port city in Rhode Island, the smallest state in geographic area of the 50 United States. In 1890 it had about 5,478 citizens living there who worked at various maritime industries. Though not large it was a very cosmopolitan place where many immigrants from around the world passed through. It was also an important port for the early American slave trade. 

Chicago Daily Tribune
17 August 1900
It's not often that search terms can bring up an instant identification, but "Babbitt Post, Bristol" with "bugle" instead of "cornet" brought up an exact match. A small report in the Chicago Tribune from August 17, 1900 had the headline:


Babbitt Post, G.A.R., of Bristol, Mass.(sic) is the only G.A.R. organization in the country which boasts the possession of a woman bugler. It is expected that the comrades of the Grand Army will have a chance both to see and hear her during the coming encampment in Chicago.

Miss Munro is a pretty young woman of 25. She has always been fond of music and took the post of bugler for the local Grand Army post because of the fact that her father, who is a veteran of two wars, is no longer able to take an active part in G.A.R. work. She made her first appearance as the official bugler of Babbitt Post on last Memorial day, and the veterans declare that they have never answered to such inspiring calls as those which came from her bugle.

The report includes a crude woodcut illustration that exactly matches my photograph with cornet, homburg, and ribbon. The caption reads:

Bugler Mary Munro

* *

The August 26, 1900 Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune placed her at top right of a giant collage of Unique Men and Women at G.A.R. Encampment. This was a major convention event for Chicago which despite the Great Fire of 1871, was rapidly becoming the Midwest center for industry and commerce. In 1900 it boasted of a population of 1,698,575. By 1910 it would rise to 2,185,283.   

Besides Bugler Mary Munro, we can read about Mrs. Philena T. Carpenter of Chicago, the oldest surviving army nurse; Gilbert Barnes, a veteran of Pennsylvania Cavalry and long distance pedestrian; James A Rappe, age 85 and a veteran of three wars who rode a bicycle to Chicago from Marinette, WS via New York; George W. Sutherland and his stuffed eagle who marched ahead of the G.A.R. for fifteen years.

And don't miss the long sidebar article on the history of men wearing corsets.

Chicago Sunday Tribune
26 August 1900

It was 35 years since the end of the War between the States, but the Union soldiers' memories and friendships endured. Despite the natural attrition of death, the Tribune article cited a 1900 membership of 288,000 veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic. Chicago's national reunion event was expected to attract around 50,000 old soldiers. Of course there would be parades, speeches, honor guards, bands, and even mock battles, but the highlight seemed to be the soliders' favorite part of their war years, sleeping in military style tents at 147 campgrounds scattered around Chicago.

Boston Sunday Journal
9 September 1900

A week later in September 1900, the Boston Journal published a better rendition of Miss Munro's photograph. They corrected the Chicago newspaper's mistake on Bristol's location and captioned the image:

Rhode Island's
Girl Bugler.

Miss Mary G. Munro Occupies
a Unique Place in the Hearts
of Bristol's Grand Army Post.

 * *

Boston Journal
9 September 1900

The accompanying article explained that the photograph was taken especially for the Journal. Miss Mary G. Munro had received her appointment as bugler to the Babbitt Post on January 19, 1900. She had studied the cornet for five or six years but only recently taken up learning bugle calls. Her tutor was William F. Livesey, leader of the Hedley-Livesey Band of Bristol, RI. Mary was also proficient in vocal music and piano. (I should point out here that a cornet is perfectly capable of playing bugle calls which require only a simple overtone arpeggio. But a bugle can not play the complete musical scale of a cornet and therefore can't play any real melodic tunes.)

Military buglers in Bristol, all men of course, came from the naval militia which had a tradition that understandably would not accept a women bugler. Miss Munro however won them over with her proper renditions of "assembly", "recall", "retreat", "taps", and "Adjutant's call". She does not find that it calls for much physical exertion to blow a bugle. She says that it is not at all difficult. Her services are given gratuitously to Babbitt Post where she is an honorary member. Her principal musical service would be to play "taps" at a veteran's burial.

Her father, William H. Munro, a veteran of two wars, was 77 years old. He served three years with the Second Rhode Island Volunteers Regiment during the Civil War. Before that in 1841-42 he marched as part of the state militia force used against the so-called Dorr Rebellion, a small civil strife particular to Rhode Island which had important implications for the Secessionist efforts 20 years later. (The instigator, Thomas Wilson Dorr, sought a major change to the Rhode Island state constitution mandating universal male suffrage.)

William H. Munro also claimed descent with the Indian Chief know as King Philip of the Wampanoag tribe.

The 1900 US Census for Bristol listed Munro, William born 1823, age 76. A widower, Munro lived with a son, William, age 31; a daughter Sarah, age 34; and another daughter, Mamie, age 24. Mamie being short for Mary G. Munro.

Munro, William H.
1900 US Census Bristol, Rhode Island

The story of
Mary G. Munro, bugler for the G.A.R.
might end here.
But as any regular reader of my blog knows
there is always more
if you dig deeper
into the archives of history.

At age 25 in 1900, Mary was old enough to also be included in the 1880 census, as all the 1890 U.S. censuses were destroyed by a fire in 1921. William H. Munro, a H(ouse) Carpenter is listed in Bristol, age 56; along with his wife Charlotte, age 46; daughter Sarah S., age 14; son Frank W., age 11; and daughter Mary G. Munro, age 5.

Munro, William H.
1880 US Census Bristol, Rhode Island

 The dates were right. The ages were fit with the 1900 census. The middle initials were there. Frank W. was certainly the brother William. Ironically the census enumerator was even named Bennett G. Munro.

 It all added up.

Except for one thing.

The color of their skin.

In the 1900 census, the Munro family were W – white.
In the 1880 census, they were M –  mullato

The newspaper reference to the Second Rhode Island Volunteers led to finding the name of Munro, William H. in the 1863 Consolidated List of soldiers of Class subject to do military duty for Newport and Bristol, RI.  William H. Munro is described as age 38, occupation Carpenter, M for married, and marked Col – colored. The remark place him in the 2nd Regt. R. I. Vol.

1863 Union Army Enlistment for Bristol, RI 

William H. Munro's veteran's reference card confirms his service in Companies C, G of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry. The date on the consolidated list is June 27, 1863. Just a week later on July 2-4, the Second R.I. Volunteers were at the battle of Gettysburg.

From Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, to Appomattox, the Rhode Islanders saw it all. The regiment lost 9 officers and 111 men killed or mortally wounded, and 2 officers and 74 men died of disease, for a total cost of 196 lives.

* *

In 1904 the Journal of the G.A.R.
Annual Encampment of the Department of Rhode Island
published its annual page of
Comrades reported Deceased during the Year 1903

Post No. 15 lost
William H. Munro,
Private, Co. G in 2nd R. I. Inf. and 1st R. I. Lt Battery
on March 10, 1903

He would have been nearly 80 years old.
1904 Journal of the G.A.R.
Annual Encampment of the Department of Rhode Island

We can not know,
but when the casket
of William H. Munro
was lowered into his grave,
I imagine that
the sound of
his daughter's bugle
filled the air.

In 1956,  Albert Woolson, the last surviving member of the G.A.R. died,
and the Grand Army of the Republic was formally dissolved.


I believe the portrait of Mary G. Munro shows a confident woman who wanted her musical skill to honor her father's service and his comrades-in-arms. Undoubtedly she knew something of the hardship of racial prejudice, segregation, and discrimination. Whether she and her father considered their family to be white, black, native American, or mulatto must remain unknown. It was a different time and they needed to fit in as best they could.

It's actually not difficult to imagine that beautiful Miss Munro's heritage was a mix of every kind of ethnic group. Consider that all of New England was once the home to the original native peoples. In the 18th and early 19th century, Bristol sea captains made profit on the importation of African people to America and the Caribbean. Rhode Island was also known as a destination for Portuguese immigrants whose ancestry included Africans from even earlier centuries. Even in sepia tone we can see bits of several racial types in her face.

The divisive perception of race and color still resonates a century later in America. It was founded on an evil called slavery that implicated people in its nefarious trade from Georgia to Rhode Island. It led to arguably the greatest event in American history, the Civil War. Today that same struggle for civil justice and racial equality continues to generate a bitter acrimony that corrodes American politics. In 1863 Mary's father, William H. Munro, like thousands of men in other Northern states,  volunteered save the union for Abraham Lincoln. They may not have understood the problems that would come, but they knew that slavery was wrong. It was why the old soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic were proud of their service to their country.

Yet in 1900 Mary G. Munro seemed to bridge another difficult divide in American society. Her Chicago G.A.R. performance was proof that a woman was just as capable a musician as any man. Playing her cornet/bugle may have been just a small demonstration, noteworthy for just a few summer weeks in 1900, but it still made a strong statement for female equality. Was there also a hidden statement about a woman of color too?   Can you see that in her hint of a smile?   

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
Where It Don't Mean a Thing
(If It Ain't Got That Sepia Swing).


La Nightingail said...

Oh my goodness, do I have links to this post! Firstly, one of my great grandmothers, Ella Chase Smedley, was secretary in 1909 of a G.A.R. post in either San Francisco or Oakland, CA. She did not play an instrument of any kind, however - so far as I know. Secondly, another great grandmother, Elizabeth Bradley, emigrated in 1885-86 to the U.S. from Blackburn, England via Rhode Island - and probably Bristol if that's where most emigrants entered the county - with six of her 12 children including my grandfather, Frank, who was 5 years old at the time. How's that for a couple of surprising links? :)

Deb Gould said...

Hurrah for Mary Monroe...what a great post!

tony said...

Yes.Mary look looks purposeful & handsome.
I think the photographer may well have have spent some time composing her.
She looks very comfortable with the situation.
(as usual!) my regret is not hearing her play!

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

She has the bearing of a Queen. What a beauty...and talented too. Another great
unraveling of clues.

Little Nell said...

A fascinating and fact-filled post about an amazing young woman.

Tattered and Lost said...

She's stunning and the story is fascinating. I think of the military officers magazine my father gets that each month has a list to those who have passed. Even the small group of pilots he belongs to has dwindled from a membership of close to 300 to around 8. I always value those luncheons and I think they value me being there.


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