Counting Fifes and Drums in George Washington's Army

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Dec. 10 2013 1:20 PM

Counting Fifes and Drums in George Washington's Army

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

In what was to be the last year of major conflict in the Revolutionary War, Henry Knox submitted this list, tallying numbers of musicians and instruments in the brigades under the immediate command of George Washington, to the Continental Board of War. The letter, and the enclosure, are now in the collection of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

During the conflict, the army used fifes and drums not only to bolster battlefield morale, but also for communication and regimentation. Music, standardized for the army’s purposes by the drillmaster Baron Friedrich Von Steuben, served as signal in battle; the fife has a piercing sound that could carry above a fracas. Fife-and-drum signals also told soldiers in camp when to wake up, go fetch wood or provisions, or show up for church.


As this report makes clear, the chronic supply issues that bedeviled the Continental Army affected its musicians as well. Instrument production was not standardized, meaning that some fifes and drums that the musicians had in hand were usable but unreliable. (Thus, the tally’s separate columns for “good” and “bad” available instruments.)

The survey shows that the musicians were also lacking equipment. Cases, drumsticks, drum heads, blank books, and paper were on their wish list.

Image courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.


Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 20 2014 7:00 AM Gallery: The Red Planet and the Comet
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.