Battle of the Bands

  • By Philip Gerard
  • Illustration by Joseph Edwards

Musicians attached to the 26th North Carolina regiment rouse patriotic spirit, bolster flagging morale in the face of gruesome casualties, and are vital to the regiment’s command and control system. (Volume 2, Part 1)

Civil-War-Bands

As war fever spreads across North Carolina in 1861, a 27-year-old accountant named Julius A. Leinbach mulls his options. He’s slightly built, stands 5 feet 5 inches tall with brown hair, brown-gray eyes, and a fair complexion. He’s a native of the Moravian community of Salem, where antiwar sentiment runs high.

Leinbach is already in the habit of confiding his thoughts to a pocket leather diary that tucks closed with a flap. He writes on pages 2½ inches wide by 3¾ inches long, in a miniature hand of elegant cursive.

Leinbach writes, “Volunteers for both armies were being called for, and drafts were being made, and the indications seemed to be that all able-bodied young men would sooner or later be compelled to enter military service.” (Story continues below the video.)


March into battle with field musicians from the 26th North Carolina Regiment during a Civil War
reenactment at Fort Macon. Learn more about the role of music and musicians during the war in this
Our State exclusive video. Click to find stories from Our State‘s series The Civil War: Life in North Carolina. Video produced exclusively for Our State magazine by Jonathan Weaver.

A musician, Leinbach performs with his brother, Edward, in Salem’s brass band — a cadre of talented players trained from a rich heritage. The ensemble began almost a century ago as a quartet of trombones that played sacred music. By now, it has expanded to a mixed wind and brass ensemble, touring the state to receptive audiences.

Leinbach finds an answer to his predicament. “I was not wanting to shirk any duty that called me; at the same time, I was not anxious to become a target for bullets fired by any one. I was open for some other engagement and therefore when an offer came to me to become a member of a band that was being organized in Salem, N.C. to go into service with some No. Ca. regiment, I accepted, resigned the situation I held as book keeper of Haw River Mills, in Alamance Co., came home, and became one of the ‘Band boys.’ ”

Proud and hardy

The “Band boys” are attached to the 26th North Carolina Regiment, the largest in the Confederate Army, commanded by Col. Zebulon B. Vance. With his fellow musicians, Leinbach departs Salem on March 5, 1862, for Camp Branch at New Bern. Along with their heavy instruments, they haul with them a mess chest packed with cooking utensils, a coffee pot, a stove, and other essentials for camp life. Leinbach boasts, “We had uniform suits of Frie’s best Cadet jeans, with brass buttons, of which we were very proud.”

The Band boys reach camp after two days of travel, bed down outside the guard lines to have freedom of movement after dark, and wake to a light dusting of snow. They are issued tents and buy capes to complete their handsome uniforms.

The original roster is thin, just eight players, among the smallest in either army: Abe P. Gibson, Joe O. Hall, William H. Hall, Alex C. Meinung, August L. “Gus” Hauser, Dan T. Crouse, Leinbach, and Sam Mickey, who organized the band and arranged for its inclusion in the 26th. Later they are joined by Julius Transou, Charles Transou, Ed Peterson, Henry Siddall, James M. Fisher, Bill Lemly, Edward A. Briedz, and Gus Reich. Reich, who performs under the stage moniker Guss Rich, is known as The Wizard of the Blue Ridge because he performs magic tricks in camp and during concerts.

Their instruments include B-flat and E-flat cornets; trombones; horns; and tubas in tenor, baritone, and bass.

Leinbach, the most diminutive man in the outfit, draws the bass saxhorn with a large bell facing over the shoulder for the benefit of marching troops. It travels in a long, black box. In camp, he is hazed by one of the hospital orderlies, who inquires if Leinbach brought his coffin with him.

In a photo taken in the summer of 1862, the Band boys stand solemn and proud, backs ramrod straight, holding their brass instruments like weapons. Leinbach is lanky, mustachioed, dwarfed by Fisher and Crouse on either side — looking hardly able to hold up his own instrument, the largest by far in the band. “It did not take me long to figure out that the big E-flat bass horn was not the instrument for me,” he confides. “I did not have sufficient lung power to fill it properly, and the large mouth piece was not suited to my lips, which, being somewhat chapped, would crack open and bleed, so that after every piece we played I could pour a spoonful of bloody water from my crook.”

He trades with Joe Hall, and from now on, Leinbach is happier marching with the B-flat cornet.

Though they are the smallest band in the Confederate Army, they will soon be lauded as the best. But they must meld the corps of experienced musicians with the novices, so at first, the band plays relatively simple, popular tunes.

They set aside time in the afternoons for practice and marching drill, one of the special challenges of playing in a military rather than a concert band. Leinbach notes: “One of the most difficult requirements was to ‘keep step’ as we marched up & down the lines at dress parade. Our natural gaits were very dissimilar, and as our attention must necessarily be given to the music, we would sometimes forget our feet.” The uneven parade ground often presents obstacles to trip the players as they focus on their music.

A popular cause

The Confederacy fields more than 150 military bands, the Union twice that number. The bands are essential to arouse patriotic spirit during recruiting drives. In garrison and in camp, they perform concerts to liven the tedium of repetitious training, drill, and guard duty. On the march, they strike the cadence and keep the troops moving together at the right pace for a long haul.

In camp, the 26th Band plays every morning at 8 o’clock for the mounting of the guards and every evening at dress parade, when the regiment musters by companies. It gives a short concert every night and plays at regimental inspection on Sunday mornings, at brigade reviews, and on special occasions. Like musicians in other regiments, the Band boys are the first awake and the last to sleep.

Some of the band members in a regiment are considered “field musicians.” These include drummers; fifers; and, in the cavalry and artillery, buglers. The field musicians perform several crucial functions. Reveille is an ensemble performance of drums, horns, and fifes that begins with a single drummer calling out the other musicians. In cavalry and artillery units, the bugler relays the commander’s orders through a series of calls. In the infantry, the drummer controls the movement of troops into battle formation and plays them through the evolution of loading and firing. Thus the field musicians become an integral part of the command and control system — and therefore high-value, usually stationary targets.

When the fighting begins, the bandsmen either keep playing to rouse the troops, or they retire to the rear to assist the surgeons. After the battle, they serve as stretcher bearers, clearing the field of the wounded, acting as medics, later picking up shovels and burying the dead. The bands also play the dead march, escorting fallen comrades to their graves with muffled drums. And they play for executions.

The drummer of the 26th is Harrison Miller, who enlists at age 15. He lies, tells the recruiter he is 19. Boys as young as 9 run away to join regiments in both armies, and many have no musical training prior to enlistment.

The 26th Band soon becomes a favorite of Gen. James Longstreet and of Gen. Robert E. Lee himself, who declares, “I don’t believe we can have an army without music.”

Flickering limelight

After the Battle of New Bern — the first engagement of the 26th — ends in defeat, the band evacuates to Goldsboro and is rejoined by the rest of the regiment. At Camp Rest, it plays its first Brigade Review, a grand affair with six regiments, more than 7,000 men, mustered on a single field.

Many of the soldiers have enlisted for only 12 months, for it was unthinkable that the war would last any longer. Now the enlistments are almost up. Colonel Vance addresses his own regiment, urging them to sign on for three more years. The band provides rousing musical accompaniment, and in the end, nearly all of the soldiers re-up.

His superiors are impressed and ask Vance to make a similar plea to the other regiments in the division. Vance knows the crucial role of the band in exciting the patriotic emotions of the soldiers, and he requests their help. Leinbach records, “Of course we felt flattered, and gladly consented to blow as much war spirit into the men as we could, however little of it we had ourselves!”

The regiment moves on to Kinston, where the band serenades the ladies of the town as they present a new flag to a fellow regiment, Col. John Sloan’s 27th North Carolina, including the Guilford Grays. When Hattie Vance visits her husband at his quarters five miles from town, they stage an impromptu concert in her honor.

With much of the division moving north to Hanover Court House, the band takes over a cabin at recently vacated Camp Magruder on the outskirts of Kinston. Members have all they want to eat, including hams and molasses, and they pass their most pleasant interlude of the war, an idyll in advance of a storm to come.

Ever craving the limelight of the concert stage, the band offers a series of benefit concerts at the Methodist Church. The opening night brings a packed house, and when soldiers outside can’t get in, a near riot ensues. Only when an officer assures them that there will be repeat performances do the men retire to their quarters.

The band plays the regiment into battle at Malvern Hill with “The Marseilles.” The losses in the brigade are appalling, more than 500 killed and wounded. After the battle, the bandsmen act as medics, help with the gruesome task of amputations, and work through the night to exhaustion. Leinbach walks the battlefield past dead horses and men. Many of the wounded are still lying where they fell, and the giant shells lobbed by the Federal gunboats on the James have left an astonishing scene of devastation: “In one piece of pine woods, the trees had been cut off by shells as though the ground had been cleared. It seemed miraculous that any one should have escaped annihilation.”

One odd battle trophy is a Yankee brass horn, which is presented to the band. Its tone is of such a superior quality that the Band boys use it for the remainder of the war.

A tune of slaughter

When the Band boys return to Petersburg, Virginia, Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew, the beloved brigade commander, gives them the piano sheet music for “The Rifle Regiment Quickstep,” his favorite tune, so they can arrange it for brass. The band stages a hospital benefit concert at Phoenix Hall. The program is made up of 14 pieces, including “Annie Laurie,” “Irish Emigrant’s Lament,” the polkas “Louisa” and “Carolina,” a medley of “Thou Art Gone From My Gaze” and “Be Kind to the Loved Ones at Home,” finishing with a rousing medley of “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

All too soon the regiment moves north, bound for Pennsylvania. As they approach Gettysburg, a spirit of foreboding descends on the Band boys: “It was evident that there were two very large hostile armies in close proximity, and that there could, under the circumstances, be but one thing to be expected, a collision that would be terrible in its results … We were filled with anxious thoughts as we considered the possibilities of this day’s encounter.”

The 26th North Carolina goes into action on the first day of battle and has 14 color bearers shot down. On the second day, the band plays to keep up morale. As it plays, British Col. Arthur James Fremantle, observing on the Confederate side, remarks, “When the cannonade was at its height, a Confederate band of music between the cemetery and ourselves, began to play polkas and waltzes, which sounded very curious, accompanied by the hissing and bursting of shells.”

The next day, the remnants of the 26th North Carolina join the disastrous assault on Cemetery Ridge that will come to be known as Pickett’s Charge. They reach the Yankee stronghold at “the Angle,” plant their colors, and are driven back with horrendous loss of life. Eight hundred men of the 26th go into battle on July 1, and by the evening of July 3, just 64 privates and three officers are left. They have suffered the greatest loss of any of the 700 Confederate or 2,000 Federal regiments on any day of the war.

As the survivors of Pettigrew’s Brigade return from the slaughter of Cemetery Ridge, bandsmen greet them with a sorrowful rendition of “Nearer My God To Thee.”

Endings and memories

The beaten Confederates retreat south. Leinbach and his comrades endure the sustained bombardment of Petersburg, only to learn of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender. Now that they will become prisoners, some of the Band boys attempt to escape. Three succeed, though their instruments are confiscated or left behind. Two others, Alex Meinung and Julius Transou, are on sick leave.

The rest — Sam Mickey, Abe Gibson, Henry Siddall, Charley Transou, William Lemly, Dan Crouse, and Leinbach — march out of the city and are taken into custody by Yankees. They are crowded aboard a steamer at City Point, Virginia, and taken to a prison camp in Maryland.

Leinbach and the others are soon moved to a more permanent camp. “In a few days we were transferred to a larger pen, surrounded by a high board fence, at the top of which negro guards with loaded muskets marched back and forth,” he writes with disgust. “Guarded by niggers!! Could anything be more humiliating?”

Conditions are squalid and unsanitary, the food rotten, clean water withheld from the prisoners despite several nearby wells. Though the war is over, men despair and die every day.

One by one, the Band boys are freed. Julius Leinbach is the last. On June 28, 1865, he is granted his parole and arrives home on July 1 to find his mother deathly ill, hanging on in hopes of seeing her son one last time. She embraces him. Three days later, on July 4, she slides into a peaceful death.

“And now, what of the 26th Band?” Leinbach wonders. “Where was it? The boys were here, but only two horns, Sam’s and Alex’s, had been saved. Should we never play together again?”

Long after the war, Julius Leinbach will receive a letter from his old deputy commander, Colonel Lane, who reminds him, “We did not only have a good regiment, but we did have the very best band in all of Gen. Lee’s great grand army. Gen. Lee said so on the 1st of May 1864, the night before we started out to meet Gen Grant at the Wilderness. Your band did its full whole duty.”

The Band boys have accomplished one other feat, something no other band in the Confederate Army has managed to do: They have brought home with them all their music. It will be played again.

Selected Sources

The author is grateful to the following sources: Music of the Civil War by Steven H. Cornelius (Greenwood Press, 2004); A Pictorial History of Civil War Era Musical Instruments and Military Bands by Robert Garofalo and Mark Elrod (Pictorial Histories Publishing Co.); Musket and Music by Kenneth E. Olson (Greenwood Press, 1981); J. A. Lineback Papers, circa 1861-1863; circa 1914 at the Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC Chapel Hill; the 26th North Carolina Regiment: 26nc.org. Thanks also to the Moravian Music Foundation, Salem, N.C.

Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

To view all stories from Our State‘s Civil War Series, visit http://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series

This entry was posted in Civil War Series, January 2012, Military, Music and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Battle of the Bands

  1. Taylor Brownfield says:

    I hope this helps me with me trying to organize a fife and drum corps in Louisiana and me only being 13!

  2. Tapsbugler says:

    We are the 26th NC Band-The real band with brass horns!!!
    Ahort history of this great band from Salem:
    https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=342867443848

    I’m surprise the author did not reference “the” book on the band
    “A Johnny Reb Band from Salem:The Pride of Tarheelia” by Harry Hall-A great source of information.

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