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"Bucktails" Bass Drum, USA, ca. 1888

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NMM 10526.  Bass drum, USA, ca. 1888

NMM 10526. Bass drum, USA, ca. 1888. Acquired for a reunion of the Regimental Association of the Bucktail (First Rifle) Regiment of the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps in 1890. Photo courtesy of Tioga County Historical Society. Board of Trustees, 2005.

"Remembering the Civil War  .  .  . 
Bass drum Memorializes the Bucktail Regiment"

by Jayson Kerr Dobney

From National Music Museum Newsletter 34, No. 2 (May 2007), pp. 1-2.

When Abraham Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 recruits in the spring of 1861, men—and boys!—rushed to enlist in the Union army. The conflict would eventually involve millions of Americans and cost the country more than half-a-million casualties, but no one could foresee such carnage during the heady spring days of 1861, when a flurry of parades, brass bands, and public speeches promised an opportunity for glory, excitement, and escape from everyday life.

Within a few years, every community would boast of its local heroes—those who returned from the war and the many others that rested in cemeteries across the nation. In some cases, entire regiments were rewarded with decoration and acclaim.

One volunteer company, the 1st Pennsylvania Rifles (better known as The Bucktails because they each wore the tail of a buck on their caps to prove their prowess and skill), was made up of men from counties in north-central Pennsylvania, a rugged, sparsely populated, mountainous area. Comprised primarily of loggers, trappers, farmers, and woodsmen, The Bucktails were the first of ten companies, known as the 1st Pennsylvania Rifles, that were to form the 13th Pennsylvania Regiment.

When federalized, it formally became the 42nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, but continued to be known as the Bucktail Regiment.

As part of the Army of the Potomac, The Bucktails served with distinction in most of the major battles, including Antietam, Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Spottsylvania, and the Wilderness. Noting their success, Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, asked for two more Bucktail regiments from Pennsylvania.

The Bucktails Reunion Band

Years later, like many regiments around the country, the surviving Bucktails held reunions, beginning in 1887, to commemorate and remember their fallen comrades and reminisce about their war days.

The fourth reunion of the Bucktails was held in Wellsboro (Tioga County), PA, October 14-16, 1890. A group photo shows the veterans in front of a hotel; perched on a balcony above is a stuffed buck in honor of their nickname.

Also present in the photo is a full military band of the period, along with a large bass drum with a painted head that the NMM acquired in late 2004.

NMM 10526.  Bass drum, USA, ca. 1888
Bucktails bass drum, detail from photograph

Bucktails Bass Drum Today

Same Drum As it Appears in 1890 Photo

The Anatomy of the Bucktails Drum

Bucktails bass drum, 3/4-view
Bucktails bass drum, side view
Bucktails bass drum back

Three-quarter view, front

Side view

Back, with drum beater

The Bucktails bass drum has a brass shell, 32-1/4 inches in diameter, but with a narrow width of only 11-3/8 inches. Rosewood rims (hoops), capped with metal bands, hold the calfskin heads in place.

The drum's brass shell is bent around with a folded seam, the rosewood rims are edged with metal bands, and the rods with which the calfskin heads are tightened are supported by a network of wires. The leather strap is used to carry the drum, which is played with a wood mallet with a felt head.

Adaptation of George Van Zandt's Wire-Tension Patent (1888)

Bucktails bass drum, side view
Van Zandt's patent
Wire-tension system

Metal clip
Wire-tension system

Wire tension system

Van Zandt's 1888 Patent

Wires & metal clips

Wire-tension bolt

Instead of the traditional rope tension system used on Civil War drums, this instrument features a wire-tension system, based on a design that George Van Zandt in Chicago patented in 1888. The wires pull down on metal clips attached to the rims, and are adjusted by nuts and bolts mounted in the center of the shell.

Such wire-tension drums, built by makers like C. G. Conn in Elkhart (NMM 2996) and J. W. Pepper in Philadelphia (NMM 2875 and 10143), were popular for just a short time. In the 20th century, the rod-tension system, still used today, became the standard.

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Links to Civil War Era Pages on the National Music Museum Website:

Cabinet Card Photograph and Story of Musician Avery Brown (1852-1904) America's Youngest Civil War Soldier
Civil War Instruments on Exhibit at Museum
Three Civil War Era Drums
Violin Played by Civil War Soldier
Custer's Last Band: Concert and CD Release
Felix Vinatieri Archive
Felix Vinatieri Research Project

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Most recent update:   May 2, 2015

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