Antebellum America, 1784-1865

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  • Allie Turner
  • Augustus Kyle
  • Christopher Spencer


  • rope tension snare (side) drum
  • bass drum
  • sticks and beaters
  • wooden handle cymbals
  • leather thong handle cymbals

Manufacturing Areas

  • New York, New York
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Baltimore, Maryland


  • C & F Soistmann
  • Ernst Vogt
  • Horstmann Brothers
  • William Boucher
  • John F. Stratton Co.
  • Union Manufacturing Co.
  • Francis Sauer & Co.
  • Stratton & Foote


  • William Penn Memorial (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania)
  • Fort Ward (Alexandria, Virginia)
  • U.S. Marine Corps (Washington, D.C.)
  • Henry Ford (Detroit, Michigan)

  • Smithsonian U.S. National (Washington, D.C.)

Updated November 12, 2001
© Mark Canada, 2001

Drums in the Civil War Era  

By Marvin Kelly
Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

Drums were an essential part of the Civil War and played a leading role in field military bands.  In his book, Military Music of the American Revolution, Raoul Camus explains that music was an important part of motivation to the troops during, before, and after conflicts on the battlefields (3).  Many soldiers started as field musician drummers at what we would consider to be a very young age.  Kenneth E. Olson, who is a specialist in the study of American music, says: "Parents . . . actually encouraged younger sons to enlist and boys sixteen and under were accepted almost without question as field musicians" (84).  Although drum manufacturing was already a well-established industry by the start of the Civil War, the demand for drums and other percussion instruments greatly increased during the war.  The U.S. Army records showed that over 32,000 drums were purchased between 1861 and 1865.  The profit base of drums became so great that many individuals and companies became involved in the making, distribution, and selling of drums during the Civil War period.  The great majority of the drum manufacturers were located in the Northeastern part of the United States.  Boston, Philadelphia, and New York were three of the major cities that manufactured and established trade centers for drums.  In particular, three of the major drum manufacturers of that time period--C & F Soistmann, Ernst Vogt, and Horstmann Brothers--were based in Philadelphia.  It was not uncommon to see their labels affixed to drums during that period. 

The typical drum section of a Civil War brass band normally had three instruments.  They were the rope tension (side) snare drum, the bass drum, and the cymbals.  The rope tension snare drums were made of the skin of an animal's head stretched over the open end of a cylinder-shaped wooden shell.  The edge of the skin was soaked and then lapped (tucked) around circular flesh hoops.  The flesh hoops were held in place by wooden counter hoops, and the tension of the wooden counter-hoops controlled the tension on the heads.  They used leather braces, known as "ears," to adjust the tension.  The shell of the rope tension drum was made of several different types of plywood.  Ash, rosewood, white holly, and maple are a few examples of the different types.  The top head of the snare drum that is beaten is known as the "batter head."  The bottom of the drum was known as the "snare head."  The snare head of the drum consisted of several strands of catgut or rawhide, which was known as the snare.  There were usually 4 to 6 strands within a snare, and the snare stretched closely together across the center of the bottom of the drum head.  Although both the rawhide and catgut strands were considered good material to make a strand, the rawhide was more preferred because it did not lose any of its effect from adverse weather conditions, whereas wet weather would cause catgut strands to contract and alter the vibrating effect of the snare.  The thickness of the skin head and snares affected the sound of snare drums.  The match of the batter head and the snare head can also be an influential factor in the sound of the drum.  Robert Garofalo and Mark Elrod explain: "Although a properly adjusted drum could be very crisp and taut, the least amount of dampness changes the tension of the head, and it didn't take much humidity to make the drum very deep and soggy sounding" (37).  Another type of tension drum was the "rod-tension drum."  This drum was introduced in the early part of the 1830's in Europe and was extremely rare in the United States during the Civil War era.  Rod-tension drums were not popular in America until the 1870's.  The typical snare drum's shell measured between 15 to 16 inches in diameter and 10 to 12 inches deep.   Snare drum sticks were normally made of dark wood.  Rosewood, ebony, or cocobolo were the main types of wood used in forming the snare drumsticks.  The sticks were usually tapered from the butt end to the tip, or playing end.  Bass drums during the Civil War were large compared to the bass drums of modern time.  During that time the bass drum was referred to as a "barrel drum," mainly because of its bulky size.  It measured about 24" x 24" and normally caused the bass drummer problems when handling it because of its weight and bulky size.   Olson explains: "Wartime bass drum sticks had heavy wooden shafts topped with leather-covered cotton balls"  (260). A military drums usually had a picture of an eagle affixed to it.  The specific size and design of the eagle was different from drum to drum. Army guidelines stated  that the military drums were to be painted with the arms of the United States on a blue field for an infantry unit and on a red field for an artillery unit.  Crash cymbals were also used in military bands during the Civil War era.  According to a yearly band instrument catalogue by John F. Stratton company in the 1860's and 1870's, cymbals used during that time were much smaller than modern cymbals.  The catalogue indicated that the size of the cymbals ranged from 12 to 14 inches in  increments of half  an inch.  Cymbals were attached to wooden handles or leather thongs. 


Garofalo, Robert, and Mark Elrod.  Civil War Era Musical Instruments & Military Bands. Charleston, WV: Pictorial Histories, 1985.

This book is a secondary source written by two well-qualified individuals.  The source provides timely information for the time period of the topic that is covered.  This source has extremely well-established information concerning musical instruments, as well as the different types and manufacturers of these instruments during the antebellum and Civil War eras.  Garofalo is a professor of music, and Elrod is an authority on 19th-century American bands, instruments, and music.
Camus, Raoul F.  Military Music of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC-Chapel Hill Press, 1976.
This book is a secondary source.  It provides timely information and goes into detail about the different aspects of music during the American Revolution.  The author uses many different types of sources, including published work and manuscript materials.  This source also has an appendix with a chronology.
Olson, Kenneth E. Music and Musket. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.
This is a secondary source that gives credit to several established scholars for their assistance in providing relevant and useful information within the text of this book.  This book goes into detail about several regiment bands that served in the Civil War era.  It also gives information about the musical legacy and the different band instruments of the Civil War.