Delevan S. Miller, author of Drum Taps in Dixie (1905) Frontispiece, “A Wartime Photograph.” Author’s collection.
Although contemporary first-person accounts are preferred over memoirs when it comes to accuracy, detail, and reliability, Ten Years in the Ranks U.S. Army and Drum Taps in Dixie are two candidates for the exception to this rule. The authors, Augustus Meyers and Delavan Miller respectively, penned their memoirs early in the twentieth century, when leaders of the Grand Army of the Republic thought it wise to preserve memories of the Civil War by encouraging veterans to publish them. Miller, himself a G.A.R. official who had served in the New York Second Heavy Artillery, was 55 when he authored Drum Taps in 1904. He also wrote A Drum’s Story and Other Tales (1909), a lesser-known series of anecdotes that, while interesting, lack the charm of his earlier work. Meyers’ Civil War experiences were predated by several years of service on the western frontier, but the most fascinating part of the story he told in Ten Years (1914) is of his antebellum training at the army’s music school on Governor’s Island. He wrote about this at age 72, some 60 years after the fact, but did so with amazing clarity nonetheless.
The appeal of both Ten Years and Drum Taps arises from the candid recounting of what it was like for a couple of boys from New York to train for and serve in the Yankee army — not so much as fighting men but as musicians. Because of their youth (they were just over 12 years old), both Meyers and Miller ended up in the field music. Since fifers and drummers seldom saw actual field service (they had “nothing to shoot back with,” Drum Taps p. 83), musicians were seldom on the field, although there was the occasional “fight in which it was all “front” and no chance for the musicians to get to the rear”(Drum Taps, p. 142). In any event, immediately upon enlisting Meyers was directed to the music school:
We reported to Sergeant Hanke, who was in charge of all the non-commissioned offices and music boys in that battery. . .Sergeant Hanke, after looking me over, asked whether I desired to be a drummer or a fifer. When I expressed a preference for the former, he made some remarks about my slim and very youthful appearance and advised me to think it over for a day or two (Ten Years, p. 1).
This proved to be sage advice:
I watched the boys practicing and noted how difficult it seemed to be for some to hold the drum-sticks properly and beat the first exercise, called “Mammy-Daddy,” without hitting the rim of the drum as often as the drum-head, which would bring down upon them a reprimand from the instructor or in some cases a rap across the knuckles of some persistently awkward boy. When I took note of the exceeding large and heavy drums used in the service at that time, which the drummers were obliged to carry, I resolved to become a fifer. . . (Ten Years, p. 6).
The training Meyers received utilized both note reading (he reports struggling to “understand the meaning of the notes in my music book”) as well as rote learning. He found that Sergeant Henke
had a habit of taking a boy’s fife out of his hands and playing part of the piece for him to show him how it should be done. As he was an inveterate tobacco-chewer this was very disagreeable. Wiping the fife on the sleeve of the jacket did not remove the strong odor. In my case I used soap and water as soon as I had the opportunity to do so (Ten Years, p. 11).
Otherwise, Meyers remembered his instructor fondly, “He often listened painstakingly to our complaints and forgave us for many minor transgressions,” such as when he noticed “a pipe stem protruding between the buttons of [Meyers’s] jacket” (Ten Years, pp. 11, 14). He had no such memories, unfortunately, of Michael “Daddy” Moore, the drum instructor:
I once threw a basin full of dirty water out of a window and inadvertently dashed it over Sergeant Moore, who was passing. He saw me and immediately got his rattan and gave me a good whipping (Ten Years, p. 14).
Miller, too, was destined for the field music. His enlistment in New York’s Second Heavy occurred at a pivotal time:
. . .only one company [had] got their guns and horses when it was decided that no more light batteries were wanted. So the balance of the regiment was turned into heavy artillery (heavy infantry). This change called for fifers and drummers. . . (Drum Taps, p. 19).
Illustration of the drum corps of NY 2nd Heavy, from Drum Taps in Dixie (Author’s Collection)
Miller “was the first drummer the regiment had” and recalled with pride how his drum was “a present from the officers at Forth Worth” (Drum Taps, p. 19).
Evidently Miller was already a proficient drummer, since his first assignment, participating in dress parade, occurred the day after he received his instrument. Not so for Meyers, however. His first dress parade was still weeks away while he toiled with the other “music boys” at the Island in learning the basics:
I was handed a “B” fife, the kind that was used at that time, and was shown how to hold it and place my fingers over the holes and my lips over the embouchure. I found it difficult to make a sound at first, but after a time I managed to produce some noise. I struggled with the gamut for a week or more and spent another in trying to play a bar or two of music correctly. After that I got along faster and commenced to learn some of the more simple calls and to understand the meaning of the notes in my music book. . .after about two months I had made sufficient progress to take my part in playing the reveille, retreat and tattoo. After that, I learned to play marches and other pieces (Ten Years, p. 11).
Both authors recounted the particulars of their military service, which extended beyond learning and playing music. Meyers’s 10-year career began in 1854 with his assignment to Carlisle Barracks. This was followed by several stints at various forts on the western frontier before the outbreak of the Civil War forced his unit’s return to the east. They were attached to the Army of the Potomac, where Meyers set aside his fife to serve in the commissary department. He described either witnessing or participating in a number of battles including the bloody Seven Days of the Peninsula Campaign. One instance in particular “made such an impression. . .that I had no difficulty in recognizing it many years afterward when I revisited the scene.” We can almost feel his terror as he recalled that day.
I noticed a great cloud of dust which seemed to be approaching, and when it neared the gap I could make out that there were horses, but was not sure whether it was cavalry or artillery. . . My doubts about this were dispelled in a few minutes when I saw a sudden puff of smoke and heard the familiar sound of a shell passing over our heads. We heard the command to lie down and obeyed it promptly. . . Each time I heard the scream of a shell coming our way, I hugged the ground so close that I broke the crystal and hands of an open-faced watch which I carried in my pocket. . . (Ten Years, pp. 228-229).
Miller’s record with the Second Heavy is less clear as he wrote in a more random, spontaneous fashion. His story is admittedly anecdotal (“[m]emory awakened furnished material. . .each article recalling faces, forms, scenes and incidents from out of the misty past” Drum Taps, p. vi). He remained a musician throughout his service with Grant’s army at Fredericksburg (1862), Cold Harbor (1864), and during the Petersburg siege (1864-65). The carnage of war so clearly described by Meyers is sometimes lost, since Miller recalled soldiering as a secondary duty. He was, first and foremost, a musician.
. . .my precious drum was put out of action by a piece of a rebel shell at Bull Run and was among the trophies gathered up by the Confederates in the stampede that followed. Its loss I regretted exceedingly, for its equal in tone and other good qualities I never tapped the sticks to again. It was a beauty, too, and was my first drum (Drum Taps, p. 20).
Card found in Author’s copy of A Drum’s Tale and Other Stories (1909).
These memoirs are important for several reasons. The historian can rely upon them because so much of what the authors remembered is confirmed by genealogy, military records, and published chronologies. Additionally, both the academic and amateur scholar of historic military studies, especially those interested in field music, will find an accounting of just how the fifes, drums, and those who played them related to the overall function of the mid-nineteenth century army, proving how closely the dictates of the period military manuals were followed — or not. Using standard music bibliographies, they can prove that tunes cited by Miller, such as “Yankee Doodle,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Rory O’More,” and “The Campbells Are Coming,” remain part and parcel of the Ancient core repertory. It is perhaps these latter interests that resulted in both Drum Taps and Ten Years being reissued by modern presses long after they had been out of print.
What this writer found most important, though, is their empiricism. The authors clearly define an additional, emotional connection to the music. This is not something that can be easily detected, much less verified, in other historical sources, and it takes a close reading of both Drum Taps and Ten Years to discover it as an underlying theme. It is more obvious perhaps in Miller’s work — it is, in this writer’s opinion, what makes Drum Taps so charismatic. Both Miller and Meyers internalized the music they played, making it a part of their own personal identity. Because other fifers and drummers did the same, the field music was more than a functional military necessity; it was also a social community, binding its members together with an affinity for the music that rose above its physical nature and thereby enabled its survival long after it had been deemed old-fashioned by others. A like assimilation occurs with Ancient fifers and drummers; maybe that is why so many remain in the community lifelong. It also accounts for why the core repertory, although old, is never stale. It is a bit surprising to discover, via Meyers and Miller, that this identity was not created by the Ancients but was inherited by them.
This phenomenon might be partly explained by the power that music attains from its emotional baggage. Briefly, “emotional baggage” is what the late music historian Arthur Schrader identified as “a nonmusical factor in our perception of songs or melodies that consciously or unconsciously affects our thinking and rhetoric about them.” Certainly Miller recognized the intensely patriotic baggage carried by the old military music when he declared, “there is nothing like martial music of the good old-fashioned kind, such as inspired the continental heroes at Lexington, Yorktown and Bunker Hill, and rallied the boys of ’61, and later led them in all the marches through the South” (Drum Taps, p. 23). Emotional baggage is what makes parade-goers “go wild” whenever the Ancients play “Yankee Doodle” while marching up Monument Street in Boston toward the Bunker Hill Memorial on the Fourth of July, much as the old veterans did when they heard it played by a continental-styled drum corps at the 1892 G.A.R. convention (Drum Taps, p. 24)
Drum Corps Family (and Friend) at Deep River Ancient Muster, 2012. Author’s Collection.
Emotional baggage notwithstanding, there are other ways that Ancients “feel” the music just as Miller and Meyers did. Much of this is an unconscious process that is seldom articulated, only sensed. However, it is the reason Ancients plan weddings and vacations so as not to interfere with muster season. It explains the communal satisfaction of playing music together, which allows for friendships to develop while new players improve their skills and more experienced players indulge in theirs. It also explains the muster etiquette that demands, as a mark of respect, no spontaneous playing while others are “on stand” and mandates enthusiastic applause for both the experienced player and the newbie, simply because both are fellow Ancients who deserve accolades for doing what they can to perpetuate the craft. It is why Ancients preface their signatures with the phrase, “In the Ancient Spirit.”
“My drummer was a tall, haggard man with a sallow face. I was still a few inches short of attaining five feet, and when my tall drummer and I marched at the head of the company we were called the “long and the short of it,” which greatly annoyed me. . . (Ten Years, p. 38). Apparently the old joke stuck around for many years, judging from this whimsical postcard dated 1905. Author’s Collection.
Meyers demonstrates this kind of feeling but with subtle understatement. He laments that his first companion was not “a drummer-boy of about my own age, with whom I could chum” (Ten Years, p. 38). Worse, he could hardly hope to enjoy sharing music with him since “he was not a very good drummer, and would not take the trouble to learn any new and fancy pieces” (ibid.). Like the Ancient who suspends his-or-her own musical interests in favor of playing pieces that all can enjoy, Meyers’ drumming companion forced him to “content myself with the old repertoire” (Ten Years, p. 39). Later, while serving on the frontier, Meyers found other ways to share music with others of like abilities, such as when he
. . . bought a flute from a member of the band, and took lessons from him. As I understood something about music and played on the fife, I made rapid progress on the flute and had become a fair player when Lieutenant Curtis asked me to come to his lonely cabin and play duets with him. He was an excellent player, and had a lot of music books. . .[and oftentimes] we played music until tattoo. . . (Ten Years, pp. 101-102).
The East Hampton Ancients, [ca. 1922?] Author’s Collection.
Meyers also encountered what would become an Ancient custom — but in reverse. He relished how, as a fifer, he called the musical shots, since “the fifer was considered to [out]rank the drummer and in the absence of special instructions could order the drummer to play such tunes or marches as he chose” (Ten Years
, p. 38). This would change in Ancient practice, as tune control was, in the absence of the drum major, relegated to the drummer, who now was considered to outrank the fifer. So it was that the fifers remained silent while old Ed Palmer, drummer and then drum major of Connecticut’s East Hampton Ancients called the tunes, something he was overheard to do at a field day in 1946 in his inimical, “swamp Yankee” way:
Drummahs play Golden Slippahs, Fifahs play whut ye hev a mind to.
Miller was much more ebullient than Meyers in his recollections, perhaps feeling the musical emotional connection more keenly. His fondness for the old-fashioned military drum corps of his youth jaded his later view of anything contemporary:
Martial music seems to have gone out of fashion in these up-to-date days, and what little there is, is but a poor apology, with the bugle blasts interjected between the rub-a-dub-dubs of the drummers who hardly know their a b c’s about snare drumming (Drum Taps, p. 23).
Perhaps what was missing was as much psychological as it was musical:
[R]ight here it may be proper to say that an old army drum corps in the sixties could make music. A boy would not “pass muster” in those days unless he could do the double and single drag with variations, execute the “long roll,” imitate the rattle of musketry, besides various other accomplishments with the sticks. And when a dozen or more of the lads, with their caps set saucily on the sides of their heads, led a regiment in a review with their get-out-of-the-way-Old-Dan-Tuckerish style of music, it made the men in the ranks step off as though they were bound for Donnybrook fair or some other pleasure excursion (Drum Taps, p. 19).
Miller, too, experienced a musical custom that was destined for the Ancient community:
The first two years of the war we were brigaded with a certain Massachusetts regiment…Their drum corps was a good one, too, but of course the boys of the Second New York thought they were a little better than the Bay State fellows, consequently quite a little rivalry existed between the organizations, and when the regiments were out for a review or brigade drill the stalwart drummers from down East would always try to drown out the lads of the Second Heavy (Drum Taps, p. 26).
What the Massachusetts men were doing became, in Ancient parlance, “bearing on.” The purpose of bearing on was to play with enough vigor and volume to confuse the target corps until their music became disorganized, forcing them to stop. Bearing on continued in Ancient practice until at least 1885, when one newspaper reported an incident that occurred between the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps and the Portland Regimental Band, both of whom had attended a G.A.R. event in Maine. “The keen rivalry [that] existed between each organization” resulted in a contest from which only a skilled and enthusiastic Ancient drummer could emerge triumphant:
It was considered great sport to attempt to drown out all other opposition bands or drum corps. The Moodus Corps were overwhelmingly victorious upon this occasion. It appears that the Portland Regimental Band was playing before General Headquarters as the Moodus Corps arrived and marched alongside of them. With their big powerful instruments the Moodus Corps were so dominant that the Portland Band was unable to hear themselves play.
The losers did not take their “derision and defeat” lightly. They protested with “one blast with their horns in the ears of the Moodus players” before breaking ranks.
The antique drums (and drummers!) of the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps, 2009 (Author’s Collection).
The Moodus Drum and Fife Corps continue to carry the “big powerful instruments” that they did in both 1885 and 1935, when the incident was reported. Nearly all of these, which date between 1818 and 1846, were produced by the Brown family of Bloomfield, Connecticut. They are “square” drums; that is, their width equals or nearly equals their length, and are perfect for performing in the thunderous, slow-tempoed manner that was once common throughout New England but is now uniquely preserved by Moodus drummers. Miller referred to this style as “chunks of pudding and pieces of pie” but attributed it to age, not region:
[The Massachusetts regimental drum corps] were all full grown men while our drum corps was made up of boys all under eighteen years of age. Their music was always of the “When the Springtime Comes, Gentle Annie,” and “Chunks of Pudding and Pieces of Pie,” style, played in 6/8 time, just suited to the stalwart men in their ranks; while ours was more of the “Rory OMore,” “Garry Owen,” and “Get-out-of-the-way-Old-Dan-Tucker” sort, which we played 2-4 time, better adapted to the quick-stepping New Yorkers behind us (Drum Taps, p. 26).
At the time of this writing, an online search yielded no findings for Ten Years and only two copies of Drum Taps in original issue. However, inexpensive modern reprints were located in quantity. Drum Taps in Dixie is also available through several online book sites, including the Smithsonian (https://archive.org/details/drumtapsindixiem01mill) and The Gutenberg Project (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41608/41608-h/41608-h.htm/0, as is Ten Years in the Ranks U.S. Army (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/45949 and https://archive.org/details/tenyearsinranksu00meyerich).
 Augustus Meyers, Ten Years in the Ranks U. S. Army. New York: The Stirling Press, 1914. Hereinafter Ten Years. Delavan S. Miller, Drum Taps in Dixie. Watertown [NY]: Hungerford-Holbrook Co., 1905. Hereinafter Drum Taps.
Arthur Schrader, “Emotional Baggage and Two National Anthems,” The Bulletin of the Society of American Music Founded in Honor of Oscar G.T. Sonneck. Vol 28, No 2, Spring 2002, p.17.
 Edmond Palmer, “Interview with Ed Palmer,” Edward Olsen, ed. Collected September 24, 1952.
 “New England Traditions Fostered by Village Drum Corps.” New Haven Register, September 17, 1935.
Copyright, History of the Ancient, 2014. All rights reserved.