Strange and Fascinating Musical Facts of the Civil War
Thank you for inviting me to your Noon series. When Becky invited me to tell I was so honored. But then I realized…I had some work to do. With the 150 year anniversary of the Civil War upon us – April 1861 – I had to do some reading. I quickly realized that there is a plethora of books and websites out there. But, to my good fortune the first book I chose was thee book. It was written by the Civil War author Burke Davis and it is called "Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts – just what a storyteller needs.
There is so much information in this book. But one of the interesting series of facts is the list of firsts. Did you know that it was in the American Civil War that periscopes were used in the entrenchments? Or that machine guns were invented? Or that the first calcium flares came from the rifles of marksmen so they could see at night? Or that they used air reconnaissance – hot air balloons that is…which led to blackouts at night. And, since this is April, I will tell you it was the dawning of America’s first… income tax. Well, I could go on, but then we’d have no time for the stories.
I did notice that there are a lot of opinions about so called "facts" so I will preface the veracity of my stories in the words of Burke Davis, " the book ranges from strictly factual bulk of it to half legend, pure legend…and even high fantasy. No documentation of the usual sort has been attempted."
One of the facts that most of us know about or at heard about was that the civil war was anything but civil as it tore families apart. Brothers fought against brothers; Fathers against sons…our House of Brothers became known as "The Brothers’ War." You’ve heard that. But did you know…
Four of Lincolns brothers-in-law wore the Confederate uniform – one of them being Lt. David Todd who was charged with brutality to prisoners at the Battle for Richmond. Mary Todd’s brother, Dr. George Todd was quoted as saying that Lincoln, "was one of the greatest scoundrels unhung!" Lincoln’s wife’s family was so entrenched in the Rebel Cause that the senate met to consider charges of treason against Mary Todd Lincoln.
To make this fact more relevant to us today…During the Battle of Vicksburg, Missouri furnished 39 regiments – 17 Confederate and 22 Union.
And strangely enough both sides – Yanks and Rebs fought using the same tactics from a book written by a Confederate soldier…none other than General WJ Hardee.
One of the facts of the war that I found fascinating and a bit startling was the use of music in the war. Not only in parades, not only the bugle blaring out a hidden messages, not only the drummer marching the troops into battle, not only the revelry around the campfire…no – music being played by full orchestras with as few as 6 or as many as a 22 instruments being played as the battles waged on. Both Blue and Gray had musicians – military and professional to play classical music to inspire the troops. I guess the old adage is true "Music to soothe the savage beast."
Now, these musicians were well-paid. It was believed that playing music inspired the men. But, even so, these musicians were laying their lives on the line – both literally and figuratively – especially if you were the bugle or cornet player whose music relayed messages or led the charge. There was one instance where a bugle player was knocked from his horse during a charge…his bugle suffered 3 bullet holes.
But music was also a peacemaker of sorts. In the fighting before the fall of Atlanta, the confederate brass band had an expert cornettist. Each evening after supper, the brass band came to the front line and played for the Confederates along the entrenchment. But, when firing was heavy, the cornettist failed to appear.
Across the trench, a Federalist would shout, "Hey Johnny, we want to hear the cornet player."
"He would," came the response, "but he’s afraid you’ll spoil his horn."
"We’ll hold fire."
"All right then, Yanks."
The cornettist would then take his place and play songs from operas and sing tunes in his fine tenor voice.
A certain Captain Nesbit remembered it well. He said, "Oh, how the Yanks would applaud. Then their fine cornet player came forward and would play – the two alternating tunes until finally the strands of their two horns entwined in perfect harmony."
But, alas, when the concert was over, the firing began.
There is another story about a famous cornet player during the Civil War. This story was first sent to me as an email…maybe you got it as well. This is my version of the story and I call it, "Day is Done."
This is a letter dated October 14, 1860 to Lieutenant Robert Ellicombe:
My first two years at the University of Virginia have opened my eyes and ears to the world. I have made many excellent friends and have attended diligently to my studies.
The professors have had me in good counsel and after much consideration and prayer, I have decided to forgo any thoughts of pursuing a military career as you had hoped. Instead, I will concentrate my studies in music. I am eternally grateful for the years of classical training I had as a youth, but now I wish to extend my music into learning the intricacies of brass - most specifically the cornet and trumpet.
Father, you have always taught me to be a free thinker, but I fear my choices will disappoint you. However, I feel in my heart that is the right decision for me.
I remain your son…faithfully.
And, so it began - his son exerting his independence by defying his father. It was true Robert Ellicombe had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. He wanted him to go to West Point, but he chose the University of Virginia. The University was known for its Southern sympathies and there were rumors of war. Now this – Music! And…brass! What was he thinking! He was so young and so impetuous. What next!
The Lieutenant tried several times to write back, but feelings of anger, frustration, and pride mixed with the love he had for his son prevented the words from flowing on the page. Each time he wadded up the paper and threw it away. Then, in April of 1861, the war did come and there was no time for letter writing.
In July, 1862, Lieutenant Ellicombe was assigned to Harrison Landing as part of the failed Penninsular Campaign. One night after a particularly bloody battle, the silence seemed deafening. After listening all day to the staccato sound of the machine gun, the cannons booming, the inhuman cries of war…all was silent…except the occasional heaving of the hydrogen balloon. Because the balloon was Confederate, there was a blackout. With no moon there was no light except for the occasional calcium flare from a marksman. Then he heard another sound. It was the lone cry of a soldier in the trenches. It tore at his heart. Perhaps, he could get him to safety. So he grabbed a blanket and an unlit lantern and made his way across the bloody field. The stench of blood and death permeated the ground. Finally, he reached the sound of the soldier. He put the blanket over his own head and lit the lantern. There, in the circle of yellow light, he saw a gray coat. He turned the soldier over and to his amazement he was looking into the eyes of his own son. His cornet was lying next to him. His son looked up and uttered his last word, "Father." As his life slowly left, Lieutenant Ellicome finally found the words he couldn’t write were now flowing freely from his mouth. And, they weren’t words of frustration or anger or pride… but simply the words of love.
The next day, he was granted permission to choose one musician to play at his son’s funeral. In honor of his son he chose a bugler. He gave him a slip of paper he had found in the pocket of his son’s uniform. On it were scribbled some notes. That evening, as the sun set, the bugler played those notes. The strands reached to both sides and filled the evening with peace and a sense of promise. That haunting melody is still played at every military function and burial around the United States. It is the song that we now call "Taps."
Day is done
Gone the sun,
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well
Safely rest…God is nigh.
But classical and Brass bands weren’t the only kind of music played during the war. At night, there was a form of folk music that was to eventually give rise to blue grass, jazz, and country music. Around the campfire the men would bring out their instruments that they had squirreled away in the supply wagons – fiddles, bones, squeeze boxes, and most of all banjos. Long ago a form of banjo was used in Africa and then used in America by the slaves. Eventually, it underwent some more changes and by 1840, everyone, it seemed, played the banjo. It was very popular and gave rise to the Southern anthem, "Dixie" which, by the way, was a favorite song of President Abraham Lincoln.
Another famous musician, a banjo and fiddle player, was a young 17 year old from Company K, 42nd North Carolina Regiment. He went through illness, prison guard, the bloody battle of Petersburg and Cold Harbor, and the fall of Fort Fisher before his capture in March, 1865. He survived prison but they made him sign a loyalty oath. But he had to sign it two ways since the Yanks insisted on spelling it incorrectly and that’s how Tom Dula (DULA) became Tom Dooley (DOOLEY) of the famous song that was written about him after he was hanged for the murder of Laurie Foster.
But, did he really kill his sweetheart? In the hills of North Carolina and on the internet they still argue about it. Here is my side of the story, called
"Annie Foster Melton…Tom Dula’s One True Love."
Hang down your head Tom Dooley, Hang down your head and cry
Hang down your head Tom Dooley, Poor boy you're bound to die.
How many times have you heard that song? Sung over and over. Just about the time it's ready to die out along comes a fresh faced trio comes along and changes the course of musical history. But, I get ahead of myself, here. Let me introduce myself. My name is Anne Foster Melton. And I was Tom Dula's one true love. Some people believe that Tommy kilt Laurie Foster and that’s why he was hanged. But Tommy didn’t kill Laurie. He never kilt nobody. And I knowed that for a fact.
You see, we grew up together on Wilkes Mountain in North Carolina. Tom was tall and handsome - chestnut brown hair that curled at the nape of his neck and blue eyes the color of the midnight sky. People just naturally thought we were made for each other. You see, I was a looker myself back then...prettiest girl in Wilkes County. I was a few years older than Tom so I helped him learn to read and cipher. He never was one for writin' though. When Tom got old enough we were goin' to get married.
Then that war broke out and Tom's two older brothers enlisted in the Confederate Army right off. Now, Tommy was only sixteen but he went and signed up for the Rebel Cause. Nobody guessed he was underage. I said to Tommy, "Tommy, you’re no killer. Why you signin’ up?"
And he says, "Why Annie, I don’ need to kill nobody. You see, they know I’m musically inclined, so I’m gonna be the drummer that leads our men into battle. Don’t you worry none about me. Why I’ll be home in no time." Back then, why we thought our boys'd whoop those Yankees and be home in a coupla weeks. But, the war went on and on. Weeks, months, years passed and nary a word from my Tommy. Well, I told you he didn't like to write.
I wanted to wait for Tommy, but my mama kept nagging me to marry Mr. James Melton "James Melton," I cried, "James Melton is an old man – 35 years old!" But, he had a home and property...a respectable farmer. "He's not a no-count n’er- do-well like that Tom Dula!" she'd say. "Mark my words. Your good looks ain't gonna last forever. Better pick whilst the pickin's good!" So, I settled and married that man...but I never loved him.
Then we got word that the Dula boys were killed in the Battle of Petersburg. I thought my heart was gonna break into a million pieces. Just as I started to put those pieces back together, here comes Tommy marchin' home - a war hero! I ran up to him and put my arms around him. I said, "Tommy, my Tommy, we thought you was kilt."
"Oh. Annie, my brothers did die but because I was beaten the drum for the 42nd Regiment during the war, they didn’t shoot me, they put in prison." See, I told you he wasn’t into killin’. Tom saw much death, especially at Cold Harbor and Petersburg. But now he was home.
I was expectin' we'd take up right where we left off. After all, my "marriage" was just a convenience. James and I slept in separate beds for heaven's sake. But Tommy came home a changed man with an eye for other women. Even heard that he was sweet on one in particular and they were plannin’ on running off together. At first I couldn't believe it. Then, I saw it for myself.
I'd heard that Tom was playin' his fiddle and banjo at barn dances. Now, you and I know that if'in there ever was two instruments of the devil...it was the fiddle and banjo! Well, I went to one them barn dances. I saw Tommy up front burnin' that fiddle. I swear you could see flames comin' out of those strings. And the women - all swooning and moonin' over Tommy. It made me so mad. Then, I saw there was one young woman in particular that Tommy kept eye'n. Why, it was my own cousin Laurie Foster. She was a cute little thing...she came by her beauty naturally, but heavens, she was only 16 years old. I saw the two of them makin' eyes at each other. And knew, oh, I knew what was goin' on.
I told you Tom was a changed man and war does change a man, but this was more. This was somethin' else. I started thinkin' about it - Tom comes home a war hero, all the lady-folk are fawin' over him, and he's playin' devil music. There was only one explanation...Tom was in league with the devil! He wanted fame and he made a pact with Satan!
I didn't know what to do. Rumors started flyin' that Laurie and Tommy were gonna run off and get married. I had to do somethin'. So, I figured what was good for the gander, was good for the goose. So, midnight by the dark of the moon, I went up to Devil's Point to make my own pact with the Big Boy. I said, "You want my soul? You can have it! Just make Tommy profess his undying love for me...his one true love!" A cold wind whipped up outa nowhere, and a voice whispered in my ear and told me what I had to do.
I came down off that mountain and my head was clear. I knew for certain what I had to do next. I had to go and talk some sense into that cousin of mine. So I went to see Laurie.
She was busy packin' some bags when I got there. "Where you headin' off to?" I asked (like I didn't know).
She looked at me with those big blue eyes of hers and simpered. "Why, haven't you heard? Tom Dula and I are runnin' off tonight to get married."
I held my temper...even smiled. "Is that right? Well, I don't think that's such a great idea."
"Didn't think you would. But, Tommy loves me now, and so what you think doesn't matter."
"Laurie, I always liked you. So, I'm gonna tell you somethin' about Tommy that may be hard to hear. You see, when Tom was up North, he came back a changed man. I'm sure you noticed it. And it wasn't just because of the war neither. He is in league with the devil."
And do you know what that little wench did? She laughed. She laughed and she said, "Oh Annie, poor washed up Annie. Spent her youth married to that old prune, James Melton...now you makin' up lies so you can have your cake and eat it too. But, too bad cause Tommy loves me! And once we're married, he won't have nothin' to do with a dried up old biddy, like you!"
Now, I lost my temper. Tears burned my eyes, when I saw a butcher knife just layin' on the block. And I remembered that voice and what it told me I had to do. I don't even remember pickin' it up. The next thing I knew Laurie had stopped laughin' and was lying on the floor covered with blood, her blue eyes staring up at me…but not seein’ nothin’. I dropped the knife, when I heard someone at the door. It was Tom! He came right over and took me in his arms. He said, "It's going to be alright Annie. I'll take care of everything. Don't you worry. You're my one true love. Always was and always will be."
After that, we had to get rid of Laurie's body, So, while I rolled Laurie’s body onto a rug. Tommy went and got a wagon and a shovel. We dug a grave well off the main road. We figured nobody'd ever find it. But rumors started flyin' and people began sayin' that Tommy was involved. They knew they were supposed to get married that night, so it was given that he had killed her. The sheriff just wouldn’t let it be – askin’ all the neighbors if they’d een anything that night. So Tommy ran off to Tennessee until things cooled down. Finally, an old farmer said, "You know, Sheriff, I do remember somethin’. Didn’t make nothin’ of it at the time. But, one night, my dogs started to bark. I looked out my window and saw a tall man, maybe that Tom Dula fella you been talkin' about. He come into my barn and took my wagon and a shovel. I followed him 'til I saw him and some woman put somethin' into the wagon. They traveled down the road a piece and stopped. I decided to get back home, cause I’s figured it weren’t none of my business. Next mornin’ my wagon and shovel was back where I left it. I thought maybe I dreamt the whole thing up."
Well, the sheriff had the farmer show them where that wagon stopped and he got some men with some blood hounds and they found Laurie's body. Then that sheriff formed a posse and brought Tommy back to stand trial for the murder of Laurie Foster.
Tom and I were both put in prison and eventually they did find Tom guilty.
I met her on the mountain. There I took her life
Met her on the mountain...Stabbed her with my knife
He wouldn't tell them the truth about what happened. Said that I was NOT involved! He loved me! So, I was set free.
But, Tom? He was hanged in Statesville, North Carolina on May 1, 1868. Over 3000 people came to see the spectacle. I wasn't there, cause I was still in jail awaiting trial, but I heard from others that his sister, Eliza, was there with a wagon and a cedar box to catch Tom after they cut him down. Now, I wasn't there like I told you, but I heard tell from several who were there that they saw Tom sittin' on top of that coffin playing his banjo and singin' that song. That song that had a life of its own making Tom Dula a legend. Not only in his own time but for eternity! It wasn't fame that Tom bargained for...it was infamy!
Hang down your head Tom Dooley, Hang down your head and cry
You kilt Laurie Foster, Poor boy you're bound to die.
But that song's got it all wrong. It wasn't Tom Dula, it was me. They should be singin' about me! I kilt Laurie Foster! Me! Annie Foster Melton…Tom Dula’s One True Love!
Note: There is a plethora of information on Tom Dula that can be gleaned from the Internet.