Historical music haunts author

SUNY Fredonia music professor Jim Davis sees dead people. Well, ok – he doesn’t exactly see them, but he knows their voices, has learned their histories and is haunted by their music – the music of long-gone Civil War infantry musicians.

Davis “met” Herbert George, a Civil War soldier, 15 years ago when a friend of Davis’s was doing research at the Huntington Library in California.

“He just happened to stumble upon a collection of letters by a Civil War bandsman,” Davis says, “and that launched the entire project.”

The project is a book titled “Bully for the Band! The Civil War Letters and Diary of Four Brothers in the 10th Vermont Infantry Band” published in 2012. Davis read, compiled and organized the letters of four brothers: Charles, Herbert, Jeremiah and Osman George, who called Newbury, Vermont home and who played in the 10th Vermont Infantry regimental band. Davis includes an informational introduction in his book and gives the reader helpful notes between the brothers’ letters to put the communications in context. Because of this, readers can understand the backdrop of the letters – what is happening on the warfront, what political movements are taking place, and what life is like in Civil War America for Gray Coats and Blue Coats alike.

Davis began this work for many reasons:

“I felt that I had done about as much as I could with my dissertation topic (philosophy and music analysis) and I wanted to pursue something that was fresh, grounded in historical research, and involved American studies,” Davis explains. “I had always had an interest in military history, and this seemed a perfect opportunity.”

However, finding material over 150 years old is no cake walk, and Davis couldn’t do it alone – or quickly.

“To begin with, I only had Herbert George’s letters at first. So I wrote the book using his letters alone, and that took about five years,” Davis says. “Then, luck set in. I had sent out numerous queries through online genealogy services trying to find more background information. A few hints here and there led me to believe that the letters of the other brothers might still exist. Over the course of about three years, and after a series of correspondence around the country, I finally got my hands on the letters of Charles and Jere. At that point I had to redo the book, which took another year or two.”

All told, the project took a decade and a half. It was all worth it for Davis, though, because he knew that no other book like this existed.

“I knew there was nothing like it out there – the letters of a Civil War musician – and I felt it would be a useful and interesting project,” he says.

The research aspect was great fun for Davis, who calls himself “an old-fashioned archive rat.”

“There is a specific topic you are looking at – a single regiment during a single war – and that helps you focus and limits what you are searching for and where you look for it,” he explains. “I really like primary source research. … I like the investigative aspect. Spotting a name, a place, or an event, then tracking down additional information.”

All of that research reinforced Davis’s conviction that music played a very important role in the Civil War, as the book illustrates and Davis clarifies here:

“Music had a number of functions. Field musicians (bugles, fifes, drums) were used to provide a beat for marching, and to communicate orders in camp or on the battlefield. Bands were used to accompany military ceremonies, and to entertain the troops when possible.”

Things have changed over the years, of course, and our current armed forces do not have need of music in the same way Civil War troops did. However, that doesn’t mean servicemen and women have given up their love of music.

“The functional side of military music has declined; while some bugle calls are heard today (Taps), our modern military does not rely on music to regiment the day or to send signals. Bands, however, still serve much the same way they did during the Civil War,” Davis says.

This book is about more than soldiers marching through snow, rain and mud to drumbeats in the 1860s. It’s about more than four brothers who played instruments to raise the spirits of their fellow servicemen before charges and after bloody battles. It’s about connectivity and the human condition.

“Music was ultimately a bipartisan and uniquely humanizing force regardless of the intensity of the issues that had caused the Civil War,” Davis says. “Despite the separation from loved ones, the carnage of battle, the deaths from sickness and injury, soldiers and civilians were still able to share something special with each other through music. A single piece of music could take the listeners above the devastation and conflict around them, and remind them of the better things in life.”

America has not outgrown war or learned how not to suffer. We have not retired fighting in favor of peaceful resolutions. We are not yet all equals; there are still those without power and voices. But we still have music in its many forms and venues, which means, according to Davis and the George brothers, that we still have a way to connect with one another, and even if just for a few moments, we can rise above our sorrows and together, we can listen.

Davis’s book is available at Barnes & Noble Booksellers and Amazon.com.

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