I recently attended Evansville, Wisconsin’s annual Civil War commemoration event. In addition to reenactors portraying soldiers and civilians of 150 years ago, the event also featured the 1st Brigade Band. The band took part in a parade and an outdoor concert / program. In addition to entertaining at reenactments and commemorative events , the 1st Brigade Band plays several concerts on its own every year , which is where I first saw the band a few years ago.
Although they wear Civil War military band uniforms, the 1st Brigade Band isn’t a reenactment group that sleeps in tents at these events. Instead, they are historians of Civil War era music. The band plays actual antique band instruments from the 1860s and not reproductions. Many of these instruments aren’t found in modern brass bands, and have over the shoulder and upright configurations. A lot of the horns are E-flat, as opposed to the B-flat horns of today. As someone who can only play the radio, I’m not quite sure what that means, except that the band’s sound is a little different than that of a modern band.
Besides authentic instruments, the band also uses music taken directly from the music books and sheet music that military bands of the time used. Although the band leans more towards Union Army music (one of its signature tunes is “Marching Through Georgia”), it does play music that was popular with southern bands as well.
The 1st Brigade Band was formed in 1964, and was inspired by a Civil War band that was originally formed as a town band in Brodhead, Wisconsin in 1857. In 1858, the Brodhead band played at the debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in nearby Freeport, Illinois. When the Civil War began three years later, the entire band enlisted and was assigned as the regimental band for the 3rd Wisconsin Infantry. The band was issued poor quality instruments that broke easily, and spent an unhappy year in the army, culminating with getting chased around the Shenandoah Valley during Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign before being discharged in July of 1962.
In early 1864, the band enlisted again. Learning from the mistakes of the past, the band went off to war in tailored uniforms and with top quality instruments, along with a full selection of music. The band was assigned to the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Division of the 15th Army Corps, part of General William T. Sherman’s army as it advanced on Atlanta. It quickly gained a reputation for fine music making and became quite popular and was a favorite of Sherman’s. The band did not partake in the March to the Sea, but did march with the army on the Carolinas Campaign in 1865. The band also participated in the Grand Review of the Armies, the North’s victory parade in Washington D.C. in May of 1865.
These days, in addition to playing at events in Wisconsin, the modern 1st Brigade Band plays at events in several other Midwest and Southern states. With the interest in the Civil War Sesquicentennial, the band has a busy schedule these days. The band also has recorded much of its music.