The Armies of the Revolutionary War
Role of the Musicians in Continental Army
Musicians played a key role in the functioning of the Continental Army as they communicated the officer’s orders to the soldiers over the din of battle. The overwhelming cacophony of cannon and musket fire, the clang of swords and men shouting or cursing while shrouded in smoke during an intense conflict made passing orders by voice or signal impossible. Soldiers could, however, hear the sound of the fife and drum over the sounds of battle. Officers could relay quickly orders to fire, advance, retreat as well as other battlefield commands. The musicians also relayed other orders as well, as the entire life of a soldier was regulated by the sound of fife and drum. Musicians signaled when it was time to get up in the morning, eat, form up for drill and go to bed. The cadence of the music during a march regulated the speed the soldiers moved. Military accounts at the time indicate that the people could hear the music produced by a band playing on fifes and drums over artillery fire three miles away.
German and Swiss armies in the Fifteenth Century are believed by many historians to have originated the practice of using a military band to communicate on the battlefield. It was common practice during this time for other nations to hire Swiss and German armies as mercenaries, thus the practice spread. It was common to assign each regiment two fifers and two drummers. When regiments were united on parade or maneuvers, the bands were detached from their units and “banded,” together, thus giving us the origin of the term “band,” as it applies to a group of musicians.
The musicians were considered non-commissioned officers and received payment as such. The drum-major and fife-major led their respective units and received more pay. Generally, the musicians were men that were older and not considered fit for regular army service, however that was not always the case. Many were young boys that were too young to serve in the regular army. The uniform the musician wore also differed somewhat from the uniform of the regular army. Enemy forces did not consider musicians, who were unarmed, as combatants and generally would not shoot them. The musician had to learn scores of songs ranging from popular tunes to the tattoos played at dawn and reveille, which played at day’s end. Musicians also played an important role in maintaining the morale of the army.
Similar in appearance to a piccolo, the fife is generally made from a single piece of hardwood. Hardwoods favored for fife construction include blackwood, grenadilla, rosewood, mopane, pink ivory, cocobolo, boxwood, maple and persimmon. The fife has six finger holes along the tube that allow the player to produce different sounds. The player produces these sounds by blowing across a hole near the bottom of the instrument called an embouchure. The high pitched sound produced by the instrument in accompaniment with the drum creates a sound audible to soldiers engaged in battle.
The snare, or side, drum is the most common type of drum used in a military band. This drum has two heads, the batter head and the snare head. The drummer beats the batter head with two drum sticks to create the drumming sound and uses the snare head, which consists of gut twine, to produce the “buzzy,” sound. Prior to European use of drums certain African tribes used the drum in war as well as in certain regions of India. Islamic forces invading Europe used kettledrums to create unease in European armies’ horses, which had not been exposed to drums before. The Swiss had the first recorded drums armies for military use in the 13th Century.
At the beginning of the war the music played by the various bands varied from place to place, causing a great deal of confusion, especially during a battle. In 1777 Prussian General Baron Von Steuben came to the colonies. He played a key role in standardizing military drill, discipline, camp sanitation and procedure. He also assigned fife major Lieutenant John Hiwell to standardize the music played in the Continental Army.