Marching to What Beat, Sir? The Musicians of Washington’s Army

Have you ever played the game of “telephone?” It’s where you sit in a circle and whisper a statement into the ear of the person on your left. Then, the person on your left whispers the statement they think you said to the person on their left. This cycle continues until you reach the last person in the circle and the last person says the statement out loud. Almost always, the statement you whispered in the beginning is not the statement that is blurted out in the end. Why? Because of simple miscommunication.

Now, imagine trying to spread commands by word of mouth in the center of an eighteenth-century battlefield surrounded by the sound of muskets firing and cannonballs plummeting. It’s a nearly impossible task. Fortunately, military leaders at the time had a more efficient form of communication for both on and off the battlefield: music.

Unfortunately for the Continentals, music wasn’t always regulated, which hurt the leaders’ ability to give commands to his troops. There existed no set tunes for marching, retreating, advancing, and firing. Each company and regimental group of musicians often devised their own tunes based on their own musical background. Men like Henry Blake, a New Hampshire musician who fought at the Battle of Brooklyn, wrote down their own tunes in order to help establish some consistency within their own companies. To the knowledge of modern historians, the Continental Army lacked standardized tunes for nearly two years. [1]

The musicians had the same general responsibilities throughout the entire Revolutionary War. They were responsible for boosting morale and providing entertainment, they played during ceremonies and battles. Often times, the musicians even assisted in the punishment soldiers. A common consequence for soldiers who failed to meet the expectations of their commander was discharge from the army. In many cases, musicians marched the discharged soldier out of camp while playing their music in order to embarrass the guilty soldier. Furthermore, musicians were sometimes required to carry out the punishment of flogging the soldiers as well. [2]

Perhaps serving as a musician in an eighteenth-century army doesn’t sound like a dream gig. However, there was at least one incentive to take the job: it paid well. Musicians were considered non-commissioned officers, and were paid more than privates. Each regiment’s fife-major and drum-major received higher pay than a sergeant. [3]

Between 1776 and 1778, rank and pay were the only forms of organization within the “band of musick,” a term used to refer to all of the bands within the Continental Army. Typically, there was one band per regiment and the regimental commander would fund the band. Military musicians included drummers, fifers, and occasionally buglers. The directors of the bands would be the drum-majors and fife-majors.  [4]

At first, the Continental Army didn’t associate many of their failures with a lack of standardization within the band of musick. When Baron von Steuben of Prussia paid a visit to the Continental Army in the winter of 1777, major internal changes occurred within General George Washington’s forces. Von Steuben knew that regulated military cadences were essential to the survival of the Continental Army. So, he assigned John Hiwell, a lieutenant and fife major, to completely revamp the music within Washington’s Army. [5]

Although Hiwell successfully began the standardization of military music, the army was never able to properly fund and equip the “band of musick.” Additionally, musicians were not guaranteed that they would remain non-combatant members of the Army, which was essential according to Hiwell, because his men needed to focus on playing music and not aiming weapons. Until the end of the Revolution, musicians constantly struggled to be recognized as a vital part of the war effort. However, they never struggled to earn approval from was Washington, he understood their importance and enjoyed their entertainment. [6]

In the height of the War for Independence, the Continental Army had a fair amount of fifers and drummers, but not enough to support the entire army. In 1776, in the First Maryland Regiment, there were not enough musicians to supply each company with one fifer and one drummer. There were ten drummers and six fifers, enough to supply each company with a drummer, but not a fifer. The main concern was to provide companies with a drummer since they are obviously loud, therefore, they can spread commands easier than a fife. Shockingly, even though there were a low number of musicians within the First Regiment, men and boys like Private James Marle who attempted to join “as a fifer, or rather to learn to play the fife. . . [were] soon made to carry a musket, and served all the time as a private soldier, not as a musician.”

When Marle enlisted, he was just 13 years old, not the typical age of a musician or a soldier. The ages for these musicians ranged from boys as young as ten, to those who were of fighting age, and even men who were too old to bear arms. Essentially, if you could play the fife or drum, you could claim a position as an Army musician.

It was difficult for the musicians to promote high spirits and facilitate inspiration when they struggled to keep their numbers up. In 1781, it became even more difficult when the “band of musick’s” right to recruit was taken away. Furthermore, men who once served within the band of musick, retired their instruments and enlisted as soldiers. Now, in order to fill their ranks, they had to search for talent within the pool of already recruited soldiers. [5]

Yes, this new policy could have further damaged the corps of musicians, but it ultimately saved them. Now, instead of focusing on recruiting musicians who existed outside of the military, they were focused on recruiting soldiers there were far more able bodied soldiers in the 18th century than musicians. Surprisingly, between 1781 and 1782, the ranks of musicians started to fill as they recruited from within their own camps. [6]

Ultimately, these musicians were responsible for clear communication and maintaining high spirits and there isn’t a lot of credit given to them. Sure, they typically didn’t have to fire a musket. However, their role in the Revolutionary War was vital to Washington’s success and it would have been impossible to repel the British forces without them.

-Elizabeth Cassibry, Washington College Explore America Research Intern, 2018


1. Warren P. Howe, “Early American Military Music.” American Music, vol. 17, no. 1 (1999): 87-116.

2. Harold L. Perterson, “The Book of the Continental Soldier,” (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:  Stackpole Company, 1968), 188-198.

3.”Pay Masters General Dollars,” Maryland Gazette, April 3, 1777.

4. ”Pay Masters General Dollars”; “Rufus London, Rev. War Drummer,” Sons of the American Revolution, accessed June 28, 2018.

5. Howe, 87-116.

6. William Cater White, “History of Military Music in America, (New York: Exposition Press, 1944), 9-18.

7.Howe, 87-116.

8. Howe, 87-116.

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