Ancient History Unraveled, Part 2: How the Ancients Got their Uniforms

Just mention “ancient drum corps,” and images of reincarnated Revolutionary War soldiers flood one’s mind, yet it was not always that way.  Early photographs feature solemn-looking men clad in a variety of uniform styles, most trimmed in frogwork and nearly all topped by fancy caps, none of which resemble the regimental-style coat and tricorn sported by so many ancients today.  So, when and how did the ancients get their uniforms?  What made them change?  The short answer is the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps, but the longer, more interesting one predates Moodus by about 6 years and goes beyond the Connecticut River Valley to a mill town in New Hampshire and a little-known group called the Amoskeag Veterans.

Just about anyone who has visited Connecticut has heard of the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps and knows that it was founded in 1860 by the Percival brothers.  While Orville was the more inventive of the two, it was Hezekiah who had been taught to drum some years earlier by Samuel Wilcox of Middletown Upper Houses (now Cromwell).  We don’t know if Wilcox ran the “drum school of some renown” located there or if he was associated with Captain Partridge’s military academy, but we do know that he was a drummer of some ability who eventually played for the Putnam Phalanx of Hartford, CT, and here is where the story of ancient uniforms begins.

The Putnam Phalanx was a private militia founded “to perpetuate the memories, customs and traditions of the American Revolution…,” but a more pressing desire was to participate in upcoming ceremonies honoring a local politician, Thomas Seymour.  One hundred fifty men enrolled at the first Phalanx meeting held on August 20, 1858, including some of Hartford’s most prominent citizenry.  Outfitting such a large group could have been problematic, but this was happily averted by a trip to Manchester, New Hampshire to visit friends in another independent military company, the Amoskeag Veterans.  The Veterans received the Phalanx “with distinguished courtesy [and] generously tendered the use of their uniforms…” to the fledgling group.  This was no mean gift, as the uniforms were quite costly and still very new.  In any event, the Seymour reception was a success, and the Phalanx welcomed Connecticut’s ex-governor in their borrowed uniforms with the “soul-stirring music of their own Drum Band.”

Putnam Phalanx of Hartford, CT, 1860. Detail showing drum corps, front, left, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Author’s Collection.

The Phalanx immediately sought a more permanent solution to their uniform problem.  In 1908, Captain Lucius Bartlett recalled how this was done:

“A number of influential members obtained from the Historical Department of the Government at Washington a loan of General Washington’s uniform.  It was brought to Hartford and a complete copy made, so that the uniform of every member of the Phalanx, except the Drum corps, is a fac-simile of a Major-General’s uniform of the Continental Army…”

The uniform discrepancy was explained by Captain Bartlett as “the difference between the officers and privates,” and thus the drum corps was not supplied “the insignia of rank—Epaulets, Sword-belt, Sword and Sash.”  Their research, however, had brought them full circle inasmuch as its results produced garments that were uncannily similar if not identical to those worn (and lent to them) by the Amoskeag Veterans.

The Amoskeag Veterans at the Bunker Hill Centennial, 1875, as depicted in special issue of Harper’s Weekly. Courtesy New York Public Library.

Encouraged by the warm reception from the Seymour festivities, the Phalanx embarked upon a long and distinguished career of public appearances, including periodic ceremonies honoring their hero, Israel Putnam, and participation in a succession of parades (“processions”) and historical commemorations.  As members of the Centennial Legion of Loyal Military Commands, they formed friendships with other independent militias, attending their dinners, speeches, and excursions, and inviting them to attend their own.  They even took several trips abroad.  Eclipsing all of this, however, was their “Pilgrimage to Bunker Hill,” an event so memorable that it was chronicled in Excursion of the Putnam Phalanx to Boston, Charlestown and Providence (1859), and seconded only by a return trip some years later to attend the spectacular events marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

In the meantime, the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps, while not as large or illustrious as the Putnam Phalanx, began compiling their own list of accomplishments following their humble beginnings in 1860.  The style of drumming taught to Hezekiah Percival by Samuel Wilcox in 1821 was adopted corps-wide as a treasured survival of Revolutionary War-era technique, something that was soon emulated by other ancient-style corps that sprang up, Moodus style, throughout Connecticut’s Valley Shore in the decades following the Civil War.  However, in these early images the old-fashioned corpsmen, although clutching old-fashioned wooden fifes and surrounded by old-fashioned rope-tensioned drums, are wearing uniforms of a surprisingly contemporary fashion.

The Westbrook Drum Corps shortly after their founding in 1910. By 1918 they were wearing Continentals; however, today their uniform is a reenactor-style regimental coat alternating with a “summer uniform” (sleeveless tunic).

The Stony Creek corps (1886) posing with drum instructor, Enoch Sawyer (center, first row) before they could afford their first (band-style) uniforms. They wore Continentals for only a short time, ultimately adopting a “summer uniform” (sleeveless tunic) and tricorn hat. Author’s Collection.

It was likely the Centennial celebrations of 1875-76 that spurred the Moodus corps to consider achieving a more appropriate uniform.  While the historical record is silent on these matters, it is entirely likely that they recalled their connection to Samuel Wilcox, Hezekiah’s former teacher, who was actively drumming with the Putnam Phalanx.  Both Moodus and the Phalanx had attended the centennial festivities at Bunker Hill in 1875, and it was not long afterward that the Moodus men showed up at a drumming contest in Rockville, Connecticut clad in nearly identical Revolutionary War attire.

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Moodus Drum and Fife Corps in “new” uniforms. U.S. Cook, second from left (standing), could not prevent the Mattatuck Drum Band from copying the Moodus Continentals, “boot-tops and all.” Undated tintype; image courtesy of Amy Armstrong, Moodus Drum and Fife Corps.

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This created a quite a stir, and as late as 1879 press reports continued to comment favorably on the new “Continentals” sported by the “gentleman drummers of Moodus.”

Detail of print “Staff and officers of the Putnam Phalanx”, by Kellogg and Bulkeley, Hartford, currently for sale (02-03-2011) at Nadeau’s Auctions, http://www.nadeausauction.com/lotdetails/?lot=24050. These are the garments that Bartlett identified as “a fac-simile of a Major General’s uniform of the Continental Army.”

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Eventually, Continentals were adopted by nearly every ancient corps in the Valley, but it was a process neither easy nor quick.  Uniforms of any style were expensive.  One Moodus old-timer recalled how the corps “played many years in their street clothes, or work clothes” before they could afford uniforms.  Even then, it is possible that they  ordered and paid for them piecemeal, which could explain why it took Moodus  2 years to completely outfit their 20 members.  Most of the corps located in the Valley towns of Deep River, Chester, Stony Creek, Killingworth, Madison, Westbrook, and Clinton started out with the more economical band uniforms before setting their sights on Continentals.  One determined corps outside the Valley, the Mattatuck Drum Band (1881), spared no expense, though, and acquired the original Moodus design:

“Some leader of their group [probably Charles S. Miller, below] . . . came to see Dr. U.S. Cook, drum major for the Moodus Corps, and wanted to borrow one of their new uniforms which were first made up in 1879.  Dr. Cook was reluctant to let him have it, so he thought if he asked him for a deposit of $50.00, this man would refuse.  But evidently he came prepared and immediately ‘peeled off’ the bills and gave the deposit.  ”

Ruefully, we are reminded that “$50.00 those days was a lot of money,” enough to enable Mattatuck to “copy our style of uniform, boot-tops and all.”

Seven surviving members of the Wolcott Drum Band, October 15, 1922, 4 wearing street clothes and 3 wearing early uniforms, flanked by Arthur Harrison (left) and Charles Miller (right), of the Mattatuck Drum Band in their Continentals. Miller formed the Band in 1881, was a member for 65 years, and its leader for 50 years. He died in 1943. Photo courtesy of the Mattatuck Drum Band.

A gift that traveled from a hardly remembered social military club in a mill town in central New Hampshire to the corps that started it all in the Valley Shore. Where would we be without it? Thanks, Moodus!

 
Copyright 2011, HistoryOfTheAncientsDotOrg.  All rights reserved.

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