Drumming into Civil War history

March 23, 1997


Staff Writer

SMITHSBURG - Only the police seemed to take note of the Confederate Fife and Drum Corps' music and marching as they practiced in front of a New York City Holiday Inn.

Tom Law, a 59-year-old Civil War re-enactor, had traveled from Smithsburg to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall.

But with jazz musicians warming up in the room the re-enactors had hoped to use, the 12-member group decided to take their music to the streets.

Until the police showed up. "The police came and told us we couldn't play there on the street," said Law, who lives at 62 W. Water St.


"They were nice about it. They didn't send the riot police out with night sticks."

The police told them they couldn't even play in Central Park. "Or anywhere in public, really."

Law's trip to New York for the Feb. 8 show came thanks to a Carnegie Hall official who is also a fife player for the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

The Carnegie official had heard Law and the rest of the 21st Georgia Volunteer Infantry at the Gettysburg Remembrance Day parade last November.

"He said, `We're going to Carnegie Hall. Would you like to go to Carnegie Hall?'" Law remembers. "What do I say to that? We accepted right then."

Law and his group drove to New York the night before the performance. They practiced that Friday night and most of Saturday.

"We went in the back door," Law said. "For some reason, that's an honor. Even on the program, it said it was some sort of honor to enter from the back door."

"The theater is elegant and subdued," said Law. "Ushers were everywhere. It was a big building - one city block square - and somebody was there all the time to tell you where to go."

The program included a variety of talent in an unexpected order, Law said.

"There was jazz, choral, instrumental, strings - it was really mixed," he said. "Between a symphony and a ballet came the Confederate Fifers and Drummers."

"We started playing in the wings, so the audience heard us before they saw us marching in," Law said.

His group played 10 pieces and three medleys, before joining the other five Fife and Drum Corps for the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" finale.

After the 3-hour show, Law said the 25 fifers and drummers were caught up in a "jollification," - the technical term for a fife and drum jam session. They boldly marched and played music from Carnegie Hall all the way back to the hotel.

"When fifers and drummers get together," Law said. "They want to play."

Some of Law's attachment to Civil War history is in his blood. His great-grandfather, Charles W. Law, fought in the 3rd Alabama Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. His father was a re-enactor, as is his brother.

Law, who jokes he hasn't yet been barred from marching publicly in Smithsburg, combines his interest in the Civil War with his training in carpentry. He also restores antique tools and drums and builds war drum replicas.

Music played a key role in signaling soldiers during the Civil War, which began 136 years ago next month.

Law said officers would tell musicians which duty call to play, letting soldiers know whether to "load and fire," "forward march" or "retreat."

"One hundred men couldn't hear the voice of one officer, but they could hear the music."

Next month, Tom Law presents a lecture on drums' uses in wartime.

The talk and demonstration is set for 7:30 p.m. April 16 at the Smithsburg Historical Society.

Law also shares his drum demonstrations at elementary schools. The 21st Georgia will perform at the re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam this September.

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