No army without music

Musicians re-create emotions of the Civil War

Musicians re-create emotions of the Civil War

May 09, 2002|BY KATE COLEMAN

"Music was a big part of the Civil War," says Antietam National Battlefield Superintendent John W. Howard.

And for the past several years, music of the Civil War period has been the focus of a spring weekend at the Sharpsburg national park site.

There will be musical programs and demonstrations at Dunker Church Saturday, May 11, and Sunday, May 12. A "Grand Concert" will be presented in the Visitor Center theater at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Featured performers will be the Wildcat Regimental Band, a 24-member re-creation of the original Wildcat Band that served the 105th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry from September 1861 until August 1862 when the army discharged all regimental bands.


Potomac Thunder, a husband-wife duo on banjo and fiddle, and Gilmore's Light Ensemble will play a variety of music of the time. Park ranger Colleen Mastrangelo-Clark also will play guitar and sing songs of the period.

The annual music weekend started informally several years ago, Howard says.

"It got on a roll." The weekend attracts a lot of folks - about 4,000 to 5,000, Howard says, and the park receives "delightful letters," especially from visitors who just happened on the event. "The music is great," he says

The music presents an opportunity to learn the history of the period. Many members of the Wildcat Band play on restored instruments of the times.

The band is modeled on the community band - its members coming from all walks of life as did their 19th-century predecessors, says J.R. McFerron, who plays baritone (horn).

Their uniforms are as authentic as the carefully researched music and arrangements they play. There are quicksteps - marchlike music that's not quite as structured as a march, McFerron says. They play ballads, overtures and marches - the same pieces that soldiers and civilians heard more than a century ago.

The band finds bits and pieces of the old music, and McFerron says he's amazed by the amount of music they keep discovering.

Potomac Thunder - Rosemary and Tom Lather - also will be at Antietam this weekend playing music of the Civil War era. Both have been musicians since childhood, and playing the music of the period became a natural extension of the Civil War re-enacting they began in 1994.

The music they perform, which includes songs of Stephen Foster, is very personal says Rosemary Lather, a Maryland Symphony Orchestra first violin for 16 years. "It speaks to the average everyday person. The depth of emotion is very touching," she adds.

Potomac Thunder's music also is researched and is an absolutely authentic re-creation of the times, Rosemary Lather says. The couple plays on period reproduction instruments, and Tom Lather plays his banjo in the minstrel "stroke" style, unique to the 19th century.

The Lathers play in a variety of venues, but there is definitely something different about playing at a historical site such as Dunker Church. "It's very meaningful to be there," Rosemary Lather says.

Other musicians also find themselves tuning in to the antique music.

"I never thought I'd be happy sitting playing Stephen Foster songs," says Stephen Adamski of Gilmore's Light Ensemble, for this event a duo comprised of Adamski on banjo and guitar and Robert "Frenchie" Prosser on accordion. Dulcimer player Melodi Young will not be available for the performance.

"We do music from all the things that were going on at that time," Adamski says.

The 49-year-old Baltimore resident has played music all his life - in rock bands in the 1960s, singer-songwriter gigs, and he still plays a little blues. In 1988 he went to a re-enactment in Bel Air, Md., and discovered the music of the 19th century.

"I didn't even know this music existed," he says.

Now he's been playing it for six years and says he loves it. As a musician he finds the same challenge and same satisfaction in performing the period music. And there's the added dimension of the richness of history.

The band's name, for example, resonates. Patrick S. Gilmore, was the best-known bandmaster of the 1800s. He is credited with writing "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," and setting the instrumentation pattern for modern bands - putting the woodwinds with the brass, Adamski says.

Playing at Antietam has personal significance for Adamski. He's studied his family history and learned that he had six ancestors on each side of the War Between the States. He also learned that his great-great grandfather fought at Antietam with the Jackson Division of the 42nd Virginia.

"It's kind of a thrill for me," he says.

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