Musicians bring Civil War music to life

DiAnne Crown

Talk with Springfield’s Charles “Stonie” Stoneking about the high, bright marches and heartwarming hymns played during the Civil War, and it’s clear that music played a far greater role than to delight and inspire troops.

It was more a lifeline — to hope, honor and home. Some 150 years later, a few dozen area musicians and three talented technicians are making sure the music that comforted and encouraged central Illinois troops throughout the Civil War is authentically preserved and performed.

Civil War-era instruments are hard to find, even harder to maintain and expensive. Most of the instruments have seen both hard wear and years of neglect, making them nearly unplayable when they do turn up in attics, garages and auctions.

Then, because each 19th-century instrument shop produced these cornets, horns and tubas according to its own designs and tuned them to its own preferred pitch, replacement parts are nonexistent. Only the most dedicated collector can assemble a group of instruments and musicians able to create a pleasing, well-tuned and authentic sound.

Nevertheless, for the 33rd Illinois Volunteer Regiment Band, based in Bloomington, and the 10th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Band, based in Springfield, every piece of music, instrument and even instrument case is exactly as it was when Illinois sent its first troops to battle.

This was the goal of both groups’ founding member and driving force, Stoneking, a mechanical contractor in Springfield.

“Those town bands meant everything to these men,” says Stoneking, whose love of this music grew out of a history project he undertook in the mid-1990s. During his research, Stoneking met, and joined efforts with, Bloomington-based Gary Borling, now deceased, to re-create the 33rd Illinois regiment band, which averaged around 17 members throughout the Civil War.

Re-creating this band is fitting, says Stoneking, who describes the unusual longevity of the band when it was formed.

According to Stoneking, the U. S. government initially formed and hired bands throughout the states to accompany troops into battle. But when the war lasted longer than its projected one year, funds ran out and musicians were sent home. Illinois’ bands, however, stayed with their units from the first battle through the end of the war, paid entirely by the officers and men of the unit, to comfort, encourage and inspire the troops.

Starting from scratch, Borling and Stoneking began their work to preserve this important piece of Illinois history. They searched the nation for correctly pitched period instruments and authentic music arrangements. They sought out area residents who could play those antiques with all the wear and tear of age and combat in the instruments’ keys, tubes and bells.

They also needed a first-rate technician. Enter Carl Thacker of Bloomington.

With son Travis, Carl Thacker owns Carl’s Professional Band Instrument Repair in Bloomington. Although the father and son spend most of their time maintaining band instruments for Illinois State University, other area schools and individuals in need of general instrument cleaning and repair, a small segment of the business includes the highly specialized task of restoring Civil War-era brass instruments.

Each one is a detailed, time-consuming investment. At a minimum, they require thorough cleaning. Many are dented, which requires slow, gentle handling to avoid cracking the thin, brittle metal. Usually bent, loosened and weakened, most must also be taken apart and rebuilt.

It’s a painstaking job, because on top of all that, some of these instruments were designed to project music backward to the troops. Modern parts don’t work in these unusually shaped, over-the-shoulder (also known as OTS), bell-up, circular or sidewinder tubas, horns and cornets. Finding suitable replacement parts is impractical if not impossible.

“The restoration process usually involves cleaning and a great amount of dent removal, soldering and fabrication of (one-of-a-kind) parts,” Travis Thacker says. “This can range from making one screw to making an entire lever.”

Even if Thacker could find a close approximation of a needed part, such as a rotary valve from the period, it wouldn’t be worth using, he says.

“They weren’t made to specs,” he says. In the small shops that fabricated these instruments, “there weren’t computer-machined parts and tolerances. So, even in the same model horn, one valve isn’t the same as another valve. It wouldn’t fit even if you could find it. Most of the time, making your own screws, rods, buttons, you’re time ahead.”

Carl Thacker is responsible for the most specialized work, such as reproducing silver finger paddles, reattaching bells, making new pads or patching a four-valve tuning slide.

Some of the instruments need even more than that. Sara Simpson, a music teacher in Bloomington and one of the few women players in either band, plays an E-flat alto horn for the 33rd Illinois. Gary Borling found it in a garage somewhere, she says.

“It was flat as a pancake, but Gary talked to the lady several times and finally bought it,” says Simpson. “Carl Thacker rebuilt it, and Gary (initially) played it himself.”

Now Thacker just checks it over and cleans it about once a year.

Once the 33rd Illinois was well-outfitted and ready to go, Stoneking turned his full attention to recreating the 10th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Band. It took nearly 11 years, but the group’s membership now averages 26 musicians, says Stoneking, and each has an authentic instrument, uniform and music.

“I have personally purchased and donated more than 40 original instruments and more than 200 (music) arrangements over the past 10 years,” he says.

Once instruments are restored and provided with a custom “coffin” box, they are valued between $2,000 and $12,000 on average, donated to the Heartland Music Foundation and shared with the musicians as long as they are active members.

“To safeguard these instruments,” Stoneking says, “the end benefactor of all of the assets is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, if the band or foundation folds.”

It’s rare, but some members do find and play their own instruments. Bloomington musician Roger Shearer found a 148-year-old OTS E-flat tuba at an auction in Clinton about 12 years ago, oxidized red from rust, Shearer says. “It was on a toy table, and sold for about $200.”

Today, back in commission at last, the large brass horn produces a beautiful sound for the 10th Cavalry Band and rests comfortably on Shearer’s living room sofa when it’s not in use. Shearer and Stoneking estimate that it probably is worth between $7,000 and $9,000. “But it’s not for sale,” Shearer says. “I’ve worked to get it this way, and I want to play it.”

It’s not just the brass instruments that carry the mark of authenticity. Each element has a story, including the baton used, every drum and each musical number in the repertoire, which is a combination of overtures and classics usually played for officers, and the short songs and hymns enjoyed by the rest of the soldiers. These included such favorites as “Lorena,” “Listen to the Mockingbird,” “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” and “Battle Hymn,” as well as such favorite hymns as “Abide With Me.” But, he adds, “we also play ‘Dixie.’ ”

Playing these old instruments is its own challenge, says Simpson, who plays an E-flat alto horn in the 33rd Illinois. “Keeping in tune is harder, not only to tune the horn itself, but to match the band. And the valves stick. Pieces fall off. One time, a screw came loose and fell into my lap during a concert.

“Things like that happen with these older horns, and you have to be ready to put it back together or use a spare (instrument) that another player has brought,” she says.

When that happens in the 10th Cavalry band, Stoneking generally calls Randy Langellier, owner of Langellier Band Instrument Repair. His shop is on the lower level of Rolens Bros. Music Store in Springfield.

“The biggest problem I run into,” Langellier says, “is that these instruments are so extremely old, and made with thin metal to begin with, that they’re brittle. When removing dents, the silver or brass can split.”

Overall, Langellier says, there are three objectives. “First, chemically clean about 150 years of pretty nasty stuff from the inside of these horns.” Then do a basic rebuild and then tighten and fine tune.

This includes unsoldering all the joints, repairing the dents, resoldering without the high-lead content of the period, then rebuilding the instrument. To ensure that the instrument is airtight, Langellier says, “it becomes a plumbing jigsaw puzzle. Every section, every piece of tubing, every brace needs to come apart; then, once it all comes together again as an instrument, you need to find any air leaks.”

If a leak can be repaired only by replacing an extremely worn valve, Stoneking takes the instrument to Carl Thacker for replating. The whole thing may take months.

“Two months to two years” in some cases, says Travis, who fits these projects in between other jobs when he has time.

It’s the only way they can provide the service, Carl says. “It takes a lot of time. It’s more of a hobby. I would never make any money doing it (straight through) start to finish on the bench. I may do it over six months an hour at a time.”

But Carl believes in the project. “I believe those period instruments are there to show history and be played in period bands instead of (displayed) in museums. When you can still get music out of an instrument and it’s not totally worn out, it should be played. Then put them in museums.”

For Langellier, the appeal is partly fascination with the instruments’ history and partly a personal connection to the music.

“Some of these instruments are in remarkably good condition considering their age and wartime situations they were exposed to. I haven’t found any bullet holes yet, but most are in pretty rough shape.”

Langellier plays an OTS E-flat alto horn in the 10th Cavalry band. He didn’t exactly volunteer, he says good-naturedly. “Stonie told me I was in it. He brought a (music) folder to the shop and said, ‘There you go!’ ”

For many, it’s the camaraderie of the group and the bright sound of these instruments playing the old songs that’s stirring.

“The sound is completely different,” Roger Shearer says, referring to the lighter instruments and higher tuning frequency of Civil War-era groups. “At A-445, it’s a higher pitch and thinner sound. There is no heavy, dark bass. It’s finer, much lighter.”

When Shearer puts on his uniform, he feels like he’s stepping back in time.

“When I joined the 33rd, I quit shaving and cutting my hair for a time. I looked like I stepped right out of a history book. I fell right into the part, almost like I was living it.”

Stoneking agrees. He is moved, he says, by the memory not only of those who died in the war, but also of the hundreds of thousands who fought and lived through it.

“You put that wool uniform on, and that baton goes up with all that history in it, and no other band comes close to that feeling. You get a feeling of pride just being part of it, part of that era.

“To reproduce the sound 660,000 men left their home and died for,” as Stoneking says, “... is a dream come true.”

DiAnne Crown is a freelance writer who can be reached through the State Journal-Register features desk at (217) 788-1513.