Middle-brook Order, June 4, 1777: What It Really Says about the Quality of Revolutionary War Field Music

The Middle-brook Order, June 4, 1777:  What It Really Says about the Quality of Revolutionary War Field Music

On June 4, 1777, General Washington issued an order to the American troops stationed at Middlebrook, New Jersey, reading in part:

The music of the army being in general very bad; it is expected, that the drum and fife majors exert themselves to improve it, or they will be reduced, and their extraordinary pay taken from them.

This order has often been quoted to support the theory that American fifers and drummers serving in the Revolution were poor musicians.  In Military Music of the American Revolution (University of North Carolina Press, 1976) Raoul Camus, noted researcher and champion of today’s Ancient community, wrote “The general level of ability of the drummers of the period was not of a high standard,” and when comparing two drum beatings entitled “The Roast Beef,” he designated one a Revolutionary War survival because it is “simpler in execution than the second.”  Mediocrity evidently extended to the fifers as well.  Camus’ examination of orderly books and other military papers reveals that fifers as well as drummers were often required to practice twice daily under the direction of the fife and drum majors, some for as long as 4 hours, and he further tells of the 9 drummers and fifers who in 1777 were “Confined. . .for not doing their Duty beter,” being released only after “they Promised to Doe Beter for the futur.”  However, muster rolls, returns, and lists preserved at the Connecticut State Library indicate that of nearly 28,000 men from that colony who answered the calls to arms issued between 1775 and 1783 approximately 870 were fifers or drummers.  Were these nearly 900 men (and their comrades from 12 other colonies) so inept that they could not play even “simple” music?  To answer that question, let’s examine the status of music in the mid-eighteenth-century society.

I.

Singing and dancing were popular American pastimes prior to the Revolu­tion.  Around 1720 the question of whether to sing “by rule” or “by rote” had become a controversial church issue that led to the establishment of singing schools where students learned note-reading.  McKay and Crawford (William Billings of Boston, Princeton University Press, 1975) attribute the dramatic increase of tunes in the American psalm repertory that occurred between 1760 and 1770 to the success of the singing-masters:  “The increase in the printed repertory indicates that note-reading was no longer a rare skill.”   Singing was not confined to religious occasions, however, for presses on both sides of the Atlantic turned out broadsides with the words and sometimes the music to popular ballads.  As an “old man,” Park Holland (b. 1752) wrote to his “dear nephew,” recalling his youth in rural Petersham, Massachusetts.

Our books of amusement were likewise very few, Aesop’s fables and occasionally some ballads brought us by a strolling pedler. . .they were read with great pleasure, and not read merely but often committed to memory — I recollect even now a few lines of one. . .

Sir William once more pulls off his gloves,
To weed in his garden so dearly he loves,
which threaten the breaking of liberty’s bones
Hurra! my brave boys! Hurra! Hurra!
 
 

Ballad opera, beginning with the huge success of The Beggar’s Opera in London in 1728, was another vehicle through which songs were circulated in colonial America.  Theater performances (and attendance) were widely reported, and the accompanying music, if not already familiar, soon became so.  One researcher, writing about the “Disappointment” (1767), identified the 19 songs and one country dance named in therein, one of them being the ubiquitous “Yankee Doodle.”

Dancing, too, required musical knowledge, both for the dancers and the musicians who provided the accompaniment.  American bookstores stocked the London-issued dance collections which contained “Proper Tunes” as well as “Directions to Each Dance.”  These collections were updated annually, some of which contained as many as 200 dance/tune combinations.  Surviving examples include those published by Longman, Lukey, & Broderip and Rutherford, and Skillern; publish­ers who also produced fife instruction books that found an equally ready market in the colonies.

Also available to the amateur musician were printed collections for such instruments as the flute, violin, or keyboard that contained tunes for the fashionable country dances as well as songs from broadsides and ballad operas and other favorite airs.  Modern indexes such as A Bibliography of Early Secular American Music (18th Century) (Sonneck/Upton, Da Capo Press, 1964) and the online Early American Music and Its European Sources (“EASMES,” http://www.colonialdancing.org/Easmes/Index.htm) contain thousands of entries describing eighteenth-century musical survivals gleaned from the original printed and manuscript sources.

By 1775, then, it is likely that most people, even those residing in rural areas, were familiar with music and note-reading, either through the efforts of the local singing-master or their own participation in secular musical activities of singing, dancing, or performing.  This population included those who eventually became fifers and drummers in the Revolutionary War, where the skills and repertory they learned as civilians proved useful in the military environment.

II.

The correct performance of martial music was vital to the proper function of the entire military unit.  Briefly, fifers and drummers were expected to provide music for the several purposes:

1.   Marching Music established the cadence while on the march.  By 1778 soldiers marched at seventy-five 24″ steps per minute in common time and nearly double that (120 steps per minute) when marching in quick time.  Cadence, once established and maintained, kept the men moving in an orderly and fairly predictable manner.  While military marches were published in the British-produced fife method books, examination of handwritten tune books compiled by American fifers reveal a preference for adopting popular dance or song tunes for this purpose.  This was easily and naturally done, since marchers (like dancers) require music with two strong pulses per measure.   The marches often attracted spectators, such as when Nathan Hale’s regiment traveled through Providence, Rhode Island “with music” early in the war or when Abner Stocking joined the Canadian expedition in 1775, “This morning we got under way with apleasant breeze, our drums beating, fifes playing, and colors flying.”   Enoch Anderson, however, described a more serious situation in the aftermath of the Brandywine battle.  In a letter to his nephew he described how

“. . .The British were on the march, bearing northwardly.  We marched on all this day, keeping near the British army.  When they marched, we marched; when they stopped, we stopped.  Our guide was the beating of the[ir] drum.”

2.   Maneuvers Short, easily-recognizable drum beatings were used to give signals o the troops.  These “points of war” varied over the years, but by 1779 nine standard “beats and signals” or “camp duties” were listed by Baron von Steuben:  The General, The Assembly, The March, The Reveille, The Troop, The Retreat, The Tattoo, To Arms, and The Parley.  Although he refers to the camp duties as the “beats of the drum,” fife music has been located in eighteenth-century sources for all but one.

3.   Morale The value of music to lend strength during periods of discour­agement was quickly and easily recognized.  Trooping of the colors, a ceremony used to instill recognition and respect for the regimental standards, was a musical ceremony.   Music of the fife and drum was used to set the solemn tone of funerals and a derisive one for punishments.  Even the retreat, which closed the soldiers’ workday, was associated with specific fife and drum music.

One needs not experience a military ceremony in order to appreci­ate the power of music.  Albigence Waldo, a soldier at Valley Forge on December 14, 1777 observed in his diary,

“See the poor soldier when in health–with what cheerfulness he meets his foes and encounters every hardship.  If barefoot, he labours thro’ the mud and cold with a song in his mouth extolling War and Washington.  If his food be bad he eats it notwithstanding with seeming content–he blesses God for a good stomach and whistles it into digestion.”

Surgeon James Thacher also endured hardships at Valley Forge but wrote several times in his diary of the “favorite music afforded by the drums and fifes.”  An even more dismal situation was that suffered by Jeremiah Greenman while a prisoner in Quebec in April, 1776.  He confided in his diary that

“our people keep a Continual fire in the lower town wich we are very glad to see hoping we shall be redeem’d very soon but [we are] almost ready to give up fearing thay will not come / but we keep up our hearts with a puter fife that we made out of all the button that we could git off our Cloths wich made us some mery”

4.   Merriment During those periods when not threatened by the enemy, field musicians might be requested to supply music just for the fun of it.  While moving northward after the successful conclusion of the Yorktown siege, Lieutenant William Bell Tilden described an episode that occurred on November 17, 1781 while still in Virginia.  “The troops halted yesterday an hour to play a number of tunes on ye drum and fife, for some country girls, a dancing same evening.”  Similarly, Benjamin Gilbert wrote in his diary how, on October 1, 1779, “…about 12 of the Sixty fourth Brigade went to a House to learn a few Country Dances under the tuition of D[rum]. Major Tyler.” The notebook of tunes kept by Fife Major Nathaniel Brown of the 4th Connect­icut Regiment while garrisoned at the New York Highlands in 1781 contains 9 tunes identified specifically as country dances, and another fife major, Aaron Thompson of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment, wrote directions for country dances beneath 6 of the tunes in his notebook.

It is clear, then, music served essential military functions and would require some talent and training of the fifers and drummers who performed it.

III.

There is evidence that at least some American fifers were musically competent and able to perform their duties to the satisfaction of their companions.  Letters such as the one written by Robert Lattimer from New London to Connecticut’s Captain Nathan Hale at the Boston siege on March 6, 1775 confirm this.  “You write sr that you have got another fifer, & a very good one too, as I hear.”  Other evidence is found in the handwritten tune books compiled by American fifers during this time.  Henry Blake, a fifer for a different Captain Hale in Colonel Stark’s New Hampshire Regiment early in the war, wrote out nineteen tunes on blank pages in his diary during the retreat from Canada.  All are written in the proper register for the fife rather than the customary one octave down, even though this required the use of 3 or more ledger lines.  Further examination of his tune book reveals not only his sophisticated writing skills but also his good ear for the music he played.  Giles Gibbs, 17-year-old fifer for the Ellington [CT] Parish Train Band in 1777, was not as skilled a writer but apparently had a similarly good ear.  He often had trouble barring the measures in the tunes he wrote out, sometimes omitting the bar lines entirely, and his manuscript is rife with quarter- and eighth-notes improperly joined.  But closer scrutiny reveals that what appear to be beaming errors are actually phrasing indications, vitally important to the proper performance of tunes like “Morning Are [Air].”  Still more clues to musical profi­ciency are evidenced by the amount of tunes in these notebooks.  Nathaniel Brown’s fife book, which contains tunes in two- and three-part harmony, has 88 tunes.  Massachusetts fifer Thomas Nixon also wrote out harmonies for some of the tunes.  He was only 13 years old in 1775 when he joined David Moore’s militia company from Sudbury for the march to Boston.  Three years later while in Danbury, CT, he acquired Joseph Long’s fife book and eventually enlarged it to contain 140 different tunes.  Aaron Thompson wrote out melodies for 99 tunes (some with harmonies) as well as three song texts, including the 16 verses to Hopkinson’s “Battle of the Kegs.”

Unfortunately, information concerning military drummers is not so easily found.  No American drum instruction book printed at the time of the Revolu­tionary War has been discovered, although two were known to have been pub­lished in London, one c. 1758 or 1768 and another c. 1785; only the latter survives and in a single known copy.  Nor have any Revolu­tionary War manuscript collections for the drum been identified, although one was compiled in 1797 by a former Revolutionary War drummer named Benjamin Clark.  Twenty-two of the tunes associated with Clark’s 36 drum beatings are found in the tune books kept by American military fifers from 1772-1781. Two of these fife manuscripts are especially important, however, for an extra bit of information they provide about the drummers.  Nathaniel Brown entitled several tunes simply “Double Drag” as did fifer Aaron Thompson.  These generic titles suggest that the double drag beatings, despite their technical difficul­ty, were played by American drummers during the Revolution, so much so that the beatings were readily recognized by the fifers.  Both single and double drag arrangements are found in Clark’s 1797 manuscript, but whether the specific beatings found in Benjamin Clark’s Drum Book can traced back to the Revolutionary War depends upon discovery of appropriate documents which, at this point, have not been found.

What do survive, however, are testimonials to the competency of the military drummer.  Chaplain Ammi Robbins of Colonel Burrall’s Litchfield Regiment heard fife and drum music while serving in the Canadian expedition in 1776. He wrote in his diary that “Sometimes Tibbals, who strikes the drum admirably, gives it a touch at the right time when we are singing.  It is beautiful harmony.”  Thomas Tibbals was a Connecticut drummer in Captain Woodbridge’s company and received 16 shillings for his Canadian service.  George Hulbert wrote to Connecticut’s Nathan Hale at Winter Hill in January, 1776, frustrated at his inability to enlist a good drummer since another recruiter had already filled the position with a mediocre one.  “I have Inlisted a Fifer and Could have Inlisted a Genteel Drummer if it had not have been for Remblington   I wisht Chapman further of[f] for Inlisting of him. . .” Despite his bad humor, he ends the letter optimistically, “. . .I am in hopes Remblington will Learn the Ravilee yet–”  The poor drummer, Remmenton Sears, completed his term of enlistment with Hale’s company and served further with Colonel McClellen’s [CT] militia in 1778.  I have not discovered whether he ever did learn the reveille.

Once completing their military service, drummers as well as fifers profited from their musical proficiency.  On March 14, 1780, Roger Manning placed the following advertisement in a local newspaper,

ROGER MANNING PROPOSES (provided suitable encouragement offers) to instruct young gentlemen in every rule appertaining to the DRUM.–He flatters himself that such as have a genius suited to music, will, in a very short time, be instructed to beat almost any tune or march, with exactness and propriety, that is now in vogue in the Continental Army.–He has acted as Drum-Major, for several years, in the service of the United states. . .

This service began at the siege of Boston and continued in General Huntington’s 1st Connecticut Regiment in 1777.  Manning eventually became a drummer in Washington’s Life Guards.  Twenty-six-year-old Benjamin Clark drummed at the Battle of Bunker Hill and was one of the six-weeks men present at the Battle of Trenton “when ten-hundred Hessians were taken prisoner.”  After his term of enlistment was over, he made his home in Royalston, Massa­chusetts, where he gained local renown as the singing-master.  Timothy Olmstead served as fife major in the Suffield, CT militia and later in the band associated Samuel Webb’s Regiment.  His post war accomplishments extended into both the secular and sacred musical realm.  In 1807 he compiled Martial Music or a Collection of Marches, Harmonized for Field Bands. . .

IV.

If a sizeable number of the field musicians were able to play their instruments well, some so well that they utilized their musical talents to earn money once their military affiliations were over, then why did Washington chastise the drum and fife majors in the summer of 1777 and threaten them with loss of pay?   The answer lies in reading more of the Middle-brook order.  After establishing practice times, it reads:

The reveille to be beaten at day-break — the troop at 8 o clock in the morning, and retreat at sunset.  For the sake of regulari­ty, the drum of the regiment, on the right of the line, to give three taps, allowing a sufficient equal space between each, as a warning to the drum of the one next on the left; which is to do the same, and so on, through the whole — the second line taking it by the right from the regiment in front, and the advanced Brigades, by the right from the regiment in the rear — These taps over, and a proper interval allowed for the warning to become general, the drummers’ call must be given as a signal for what is to follow; and then the whole music of the line begin in concert — the reveille, troop, or retreat, as it may happen.”

Thus, it wasn’t bad musicianship that angered General Washington, it was bad timing.   The drum and fife majors had failed to coordinate the proper sequence of playing the signals, a necessary task if one was to maintain military order but a difficult one when up to 20 musicians were scattered throughout the camp.   The cacaphony and confusion resulting therefrom had annoyed the General as early as the siege of Boston when he complained in general orders, “Certain Drums. . .very improperly beat the Reveille this morning before day. . .The Reveille is to beat when a Centry can see clearly one thousand Yards around him, and not before.”  The 1777 order lists specific times for the performance of three of the camp duties and then designates a coordinating signal, the “Three Taps” in an attempt to prevent the chaos caused by improperly timed signals.  Less than a year later Washington changed the taps to rolls, and the coordinating signal became “Three Rolls,” the title Nathaniel Brown applied to the harmonized fife accompaniment he wrote in his notebook in 1781.

But something else was making the music “very bad,” and that was insufficient instruments.  Drums and fifes were in short supply, even very early in the war, and what was available wasn’t always very good.  Jonathan Twiss, a drummer from Woodbury, CT records August 15, 1775 as the date he “Went to Whathersfie­ld and Drawd a New drum,” but the next day “we Marcht into Colches­ter Where We dinde and where I brok my Drum head.” Appar­ently he was still without a serviceable instrument three months later, for on November 8 he describes a skirmish that occurred at Lechmere’s Point “. . .and I haveing no drum that was fit to go I Went to Prospect Hill and had a fare site of the Enemeys fireing.”

The passage of time did not allay the situation.  On August 19, 1778 Washing­ton appointed John Hiwell from Crane’s Regiment of Artillery as Inspector of Music.  Camus notes that the order creating this position does not specify Hiwell’s duties, but as Inspector he no doubt tackled the problem of insufficient instruments.  His efforts to procure an adequate supply were hampered by military bureaucracy and rampant inflation and reveal yet a third factor contributing to the army’s “very bad” music.  In August of 1780, following the arrival of a major shipment of drums and fifes, they were distributed to the fife and drum majors at the Park of Artillery, but not before the fifes had been “. . .properly sorted to the same keys.”  A=440 being a relatively modern convention, the pitches of the fifes varied according to maker and/or whim, and acquiring enough fifes made in identical pitch was a very real obstacle to improving the military music.

In our endeavors to accurately portray the field musicians of the Revolution­ary War, let’s strive to become the best fifers and drummers that we can be.  Authenticity is no justification for mediocrity.  Our efforts will be rewarded by the only sentence that we haven’t examined from that important Middle-brook order:  “Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music; every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.”

Paper read at School of the Musician, Brigade of the American Revolution, April 4, 1989.  Revised February 12, 2011
Copyright 1989, 2011 HistoryOfTheAncientsDotOrg.  All rights reserved.

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