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 }

Mr. Lincoln's Bandsmen

08 May 2021

At first glance it seems an absurd design for a brass instrument.
A trumpet-like horn is twisted around 180°
so that its bell faces backwards
over the player's shoulder.
It makes no sense.
Why would a musician
want their sound to go behind them?
Yet in the 1860's
as American soldiers, North and South,
marched off to war
this was the style of instrument
that they heard at the head of the column.
It was over-the-shoulder cornets and saxhorns that led them
and defined the sound of an American military brass band.

Today I present four over-the-shoulder brass players,
two of them bandsmen in Mr. Lincoln's Union Army.


My first musician stands proudly next to his upturned over-the-shoulder bass horn. He wears a long dark frock coat with a single row of brass buttons, and has removed his hat. His trimmed mustache and chin beard were the fashion popular with gentlemen from this era. He is likely a member of a regimental or brigade band in the Union army. 

The reason we can know this, even though his name is unknown, is because of where and when his photo was taken. On the back is the photographer's imprint, the Whitehurst Gallery, 434 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D. C., located across from where the National Gallery of Art is today. Carelessly pasted above it is a blue 2¢ U.S. Inter. Rev. Proprietary stamp. This shows that the bandsman duly paid a 2¢ tax for his carte de visite photograph.
This tax on "photographs, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes or any other sun-pictures" was enacted by Congress in 1864 and renewed in 1865 and 1866. It was effective from 1 September 1864 to 1 August 1866, and the tax was adjusted according to the retail price charged. In this case, the musician paid an extra 2¢ because the cdv cost 25¢ or less. Typically a photographer might offer a dozen copies of a cdv for $2.50, which would require a 2¢ revenue stamp. If the client only bought a single cdv for 40¢, then the tax charged was 3¢. Larger formats or framed photos added a higher tax.
The photographer cancelled the stamp with a handwritten X to indicate that the tax was recorded, though sometimes a rubber stamp with a place name and date was used.  More information on this interesting philatelic history can be found at Civil War Taxed Photographs 1864-1866. It's a terrific website with lots of examples of dated photographs and explanations on the stamp variations.
The bandsman's instrument is nicely displayed to show its three side-action rotary valves and how the tubing was arranged to place the bell behind the player's head and ears.

It is a B-flat bass, longer than the B-flat tenor but shorter than the E-flat bass. In 1868 the catalog of the Isaac Fiske Musical Instrument Co. of Worchester, Massachusetts offered one in brass for $100 or in German silver (nickle) for $25. A novel feature was an adapter with a 90° bend that allowed the player hold the instrument against his chest with the bell pointed upwards.
E-flat Tenor and B-flat Bass Horns
1868 Isaac Fiske Musical Instruments Catalog
Worcester, MA

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My second bandsman is dressed in a similar long uniform coat but with dark trousers. His forager cap has been placed on the newel post of the studio's faux railing prop. He holds his over-the-shoulder tenor horn at a parade rest position. In all the examples that I've seen of over-the-shoulder brass instruments, the keys were played with the right hand and the bell branch rested on the left shoulder. In contrast, my instrument, the French horn, has left-handed keys and the bell is supported by the right hand to keep it in tune.
This musician probably did not play for President Lincoln as this photo was taken a few years after the end of the war. But his uniform and instrument conform to the era's style for a regimental band, so I believe he was a member of a military band attached to a state militia, a guards unit from the state of New York.
His cdv was taken at the studio of C. C. Sherwood, Photographist, Main St., Peekskill, New York. Mr. Sherwood's full name was Crystepher C. Sherwood, but he later changed to Christopher Columbus Sherwood. He was born in New Hampshire in 1828 but as a young man moved to Peekskill, New York which is on the Hudson River above New York City, only 10 miles down from West Point. In the 1860s Sherwood worked in Peekskill as a jeweler. In about 1868-71 he branched out as a photographer, so this photo probably dates from this time, roughly 1871.

In the 19th century, just like in ancient times, a soldier's primary form of locomotion was marching. In the 1860s the roster of most units, both North and South, included field musicians who played drums, bugles, and fifes to keep the soldiers in step. They also served an important military function during battle and in camp by playing short signal commands which could be heard outdoors over the clamor. 
For formal parades and entertainment, the larger regiments and brigades retained a full brass band of between 16 and 24 musicians. At the start of the Civil War nearly every Union volunteer regiment brought along its own band. But as the war continued longer than expected, the cost of maintaining hundreds of non-combatant musicians proved too expensive and most were decommissioned in July 1861. 
The brass bands of this era had a variety of instruments to chose from. Beside the over-the-shoulder style with bells backward , some came with bells frontward and others with bells up. But generally when soldiers were assembled in parade formation the band in the lead. With the over-the-shoulder instruments, their sound, especially that of the basses who played a walking beat, could be heard by the units that followed. All of these instruments, sometimes called saxhorns, followed a design created by the Belgian inventor and musician, Adolphe Sax (1814–1894). These conical bore instruments came in numerous sizes, soprano to contrabass, and though originally imported from Europe, by the 1860s many were made in America. An 1867 catalog page from the Gordon & Slater Musical Instrument Co. of New York illustrates several kinds of brass instruments with special offers for the purchase of a full instrumentation.

1867 Gordon & Slater Musical Instrument catalog
New York City

* * *

My third photo is a young boy dressed in a superior bandsman's uniform with a tail coat, fringed epaulets, three rows of brass buttons and a plumed shako hat. He is holding an over-the-shoulder tenor horn, that, I think, is very like the previous bandsman's instrument. The photographer has penciled in the pupils of his fair eyes which unfortunately makes him appear a bit cross-eyed. But his mother probably loved it.

Like the previous photo, this bandsman dates from after the war. But his location and dress place him in a band that would have played for parades of the Grand Army of the Republic and other political groups. The photographer was J. S. Saurman of 43½ N. Queen St.,  Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Mr. Saurman was one of five photographers in the 1877 Lancaster city directory, one on German St., two on Queen St., and two on King St. He doesn't appear in any of the earlier 1860s directories, nor in any of the later ones, so I estimate this photo was taken in around 1876-78. My bet would be 1876 because there were a lot of bands marching in the summer of America's first centennial year.
The back has a note written years later:
My Father
Aaron M. Dicken (?)

It's too bad that the last name has ambiguous letters. The D might be P and the last three letters could be hin instead of ken.  In any case, I was unable to find anyone in Pennsylvania by that name or any variable, so we will just have to call him Aaron.


* * *

My last photo is definitely one of Mr. Lincoln's bandsmen and was the opening image at the top of this post. It's a musician dressed in a typical bandsman's uniform from the war years, a long dark frock coat with simple piping on the collars and cuffs, pale trousers with a stripe, and the classic Civil War forager cap. Frustratingly the camera lens could not capture enough detail to identify his cap badge which looks like either initials or numbers, or both. His uniform resembles a regimental bandsman's outfit from the Union Army. His instrument is a B-flat cornet, a lead instrument pitched like a standard B-flat trumpet, that would typically be played by a band's principal musician.
The photo is very worn with a bad crack across middle and a pinhole at the top, but I think this adds an authentic historical patina. On the back is an imprint: R. W. Addis, Photographer, 308 Penna. Avenue, Washington D. C. Mr. Addis's studio was also near where the National Gallery of Art is today, roughly a third of the way up on Pennsylvania Ave., between the Capitol and the White House.

Robert W. Addis was a popular photographer with Washington's many politicians and military officers. A number of his carte de visites are in the Library of Congress archives which help date my photo of  the cornet player to the war years.
Assistant Surgeon Walter B. Morrison
of Co. K, 3rd Michigan Infantry Regiment
R.W. Addis, photographer
Source: Library Of Congress Public Domain Archive

In this cdv, identified as Assistant Surgeon Walter B. Morrison of Co. K, 3rd Michigan Infantry Regiment, you can see the same carpet that my cornet bandsman stands on.

Dog "Jack," attached to
the 102d Regiment Pennsylvania Vols.
R.W. Addis, photographer
Source: Library Of Congress Public Domain Archive

Even better is this souvenir cdv of Dog "Jack," attached to the 102d Regiment Pennsylvania Vols. Not only is the carpet the same but Jack is lying in front of the same faux railing prop used behind the bandsman. It's fun to imagine that he and this heroic dog, (veteran of numerous battles, wounded, and once captured and exchanged!)  came from the same Pennsylvania unit. Perhaps like my dog, Jack liked to "sing along" with the band.

Regimental Band of Union Army
possibly of 12th Indiana Infantry.
Source: LOC

Back in March 2018, I featured a medley of over-the-shoulder bass horns in The Big Brass. These wacky but impressive instruments were once common in early American brass bands, but they have limitations that led them to become obsolete by the 1880s. The directional sound quality worked fine for a band leading a parade, or while standing in a circle with the bells pointed outward. But they didn't work so well with musicians seated indoors, and couldn't be played in an orchestra.  The German/Bohemian style rotary valves were also difficult to maintain and repair. By the 1880s the French piston valves were easier and cheaper to manufacture and they quickly became the dominant mechanical system for most brass instruments in America. 

The Civil War, the War between the States, was a pivotal point in American history that produced profound changes in our society and collective culture. Over the remaining century, in both the North and South, military brass bands became an important influence on the development of popular music. These instruments and their sound shaped the public's growing taste for marches, dances, and songs.

In order to best appreciate this music, here is the Frontier Brigade Band performing as the 1859 Marine Band at the 150th Anniversary Reinactment of the Battle of Shiloh in 2012. They are dressed in the 1859 uniforms of the U.S. Marine Band and are using a number of over-the-shoulder saxhorns.

* * *
* * *

This smaller ensemble of six musicians is a recent video from 2020 with superior sound and good closeups. They are playing  Reel - Boston Turns by The 8th GM Regiment Band at Manassas National Battlefield Park. In addition to their period instruments they are dressed in fine uniforms that resemble the ones in my photos. Their black gloves add a nice authentic touch too.

* * *

* * *

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where pictures don't always tell the full story.


kathy said...

I have never seen or heard the over the shoulder horns before. Certainly makes sense under the right circumstances. I loved the last band. Fine triple tongue-ing! I played cornet, but was ill-suited for that particular instrument! I also learned about the tax stamp on photographs today. Always more to learn!

Molly's Canopy said...

Fascinating history of over the shoulder horns during the U.S. Civil War -- and excellent photos/videos to illustrate their use. Learned something new: I had not previously heard of horns being used during battle to help with troop formation and as signals. I also loved the female re-enactor walking past the camera in the first video, lending some humorous realism to the scene.

La Nightingail said...

Over the shoulder horns certainly make a lot of sense if you're leading an army who needs to hear the sound as much as possible! Nice photos and identifications - as always! :) And videos always add that extra touch! :)

Wendy said...

Was an over-the-shoulder horn ever featured in a Civil War movie?
There was an Aaron M Dicken in Lancaster, PA in the 1910 census. Could the family have lived in Maryland or other state before then?

Chris Troiano said...

Thank you for including a link to my group, the 8th GM Regiment Band, at the end of the article! We wear green uniforms to aesthetically match bands of the era with how they wore uniforms to match the regiment they were attached to. For us, we wear green to match the school colors of George Mason University. The Irish Brigade Band for uniforms with green trim, but to our knowledge no band actually wore green coats with black pants and black gloves. We wore the gloves to protect the instruments on a warm day. Many bands today do the same, but they usually wear white gloves. My period photo collection shows most bands went without gloves, but I have 2 photos that show a band wearing white gloves and a band wearing a mix of gloves including white gloves, cavalry gloves, and maybe something else.

Chris Troiano said...


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