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In 1857, a group of citizens of Brodhead, Wisconsin, decided to form a brass band. They initially called themselves the Brodhead Tin Band, from the set of inexpensive tin instruments that they had purchased. Soon they purchased a set of brass instruments, however, and became known as the Brodhead Brass Band, or "B.B.B." Under that name, they performed at the debate between senatorial candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas on August 27, 1858 at Freeport, Illinois.
During May and June 1861, the members of the band enlisted in the Union Army as the band of the 3rd Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, commanded by Col. Charles Hamilton. The high spirits of the time inspired Edwin Oscar Kimberley, the band's leader, to write a song in praise of Col. Hamilton, "Hamilton's Badger Boys" (the song was later published in 1899). Despite this valiant beginning, the 3rd Regiment participated in the campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia during 1862, suffering from the hazards of battle and losing instruments during retreats. In July 1862, the government decided to reorganize music within the military and the regimental bands were mustered out. The 3rd Wisconsin Volunteers were discharged in July.
In early 1864, the citizens of Brodhead and other nearby towns raised the funds to enable the band to enlist again, as a brigade band associated with the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 15th Army Corps. This time, they bought top quality instruments produced by D. C. Hall of Boston and had proper uniforms made by the Smith and Bostwick Department Store Janesville. They also copied their music into the leather-bound partbooks of this collection, which contain about sixty tunes, including dances, songs, hymns, and marches.
By the end of August 1864, the band was looked upon as a credit to the brigade and their services were sought after. Kimberley wrote:
We continue to improve in playing slowly, and are looked upon as gentlemen and good musicians by the entire division! General Smith is trying to get us at his headquarters, he thinks all the world of us. I think if Brodhead could hear us play, or Janesville they would open their eyes.
(Edwin Oscar Kimberley, to his mother. Undated letter in Wisconsin Historical Society collections.)
After a furlough over Christmas of 1864, the band returned south and participated in Sherman's march through the Carolinas. During a brief respite in the action in April, Kimberley reported that the band had received attention from Gen. Sherman, himself:
Last night, according to previous notice, we repaired to Sherman's headquarters for a serenade. A new song, composed by prisoners [Lt. H. S. M. Byers of Iowa, who wrote the song while a prisoner of war in Charleston, S.C.] is in my possession, entitled When Sherman Marched Down to the Sea. After some rehearsing, I was the first one to sing it before our old hero, Billy T. [Sherman] and his entire staff, after which I sang another and rec'd a very high compliment from Sherman. After playing several pieces the crack band of the army made its appearance, namely the 33d Massachusetts and played several pieces. After all this we played another piece and returned to camp, assured we had done honor to ourselves at least. After getting in camp our Brigadier [Clark] came with a compliment from Sherman to our band, stating we were the model band of his entire army. This, said by a Gen'l of such wide world renown is certainly a big thing!-a great feather in our caps. The Massachusetts Band spoken of has always had the name of being the best band in Sherman's Army - pronounced by Sherman himself at Savannah. Not wishing to boast I will say of ourselves - we are not afraid of any Band in this Dept. of Tennessee or Georgia. During the campaign we done considerable playing and [were] spoken of very highly as good players and a band of gentlemen. We have strived to live up to and merit a continuance of that good name.
(Edwin Oscar Kimberley, to his mother, 7 April, 1865. Letter in Wisconsin Historical Society collections; bracketed additions from 1st Brigade Band website).
At the end of the war, the 1st Brigade Band participated in the Grand Review in Washington, D.C. on 8 June 1865 and, after a brief period in Kentucky, returned home. As a final hurrah, the band was invited to play at the homecoming celebration held by the town of Galena, Illinois, for General Ulysses S. Grant on August 18, 1865.
The band continued in existence with varying membership into the early twentieth century as the Brodhead Silver Cornet Band.
A small collection of photographs was acquired by the University of Wisconsin along with the band books, which contains several carte-de-visite–type images of several of the band members. These are now located in the Wisconsin Historical Society image archives. Along with images of individual members of the band, four of the images are photographs of the wives of band members.
The composite image of metal-framed tintype photographs in the collection likely represents the band at the time of their first enlistment, because of the variations in their clothing and the apparent ages of the men portrayed.
Most of the carte-de-visite images appear to date from a period after the war, since the men appear to have aged from the Chicago Public Library image that appears on the home page of this collection, which likely represents the band at the time of their enlistment as the 1st Brigade Band in 1864.
The handful of miscellaneous photographs in the collection contain images of some nineteenth-century instruments, an image of a band(?) from Mason City, Iowa, and an advertisement from an unidentified issue of the magazine Current Opinion from between about 1918 and 1924. Since this last item appears among the 1st Brigade materials, it seems likely that whoever collected it believed it to be an image of the band (although it is not so identified in the volume of the Photographic History of the Civil War (1911: vol. 8, p. 197) in which it appears), this is unlikely based on details of their clothing and instruments.
The 1st Brigade Band was organized in 1964, by Fred Benkovic, a Milwaukee instrument collector, as a result of the efforts of citizens of Galena, Illinois, to reconstruct Gen. Grant's homecoming celebration in 1865. Over the years, the group has performed countless times throughout Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest, as well as at various battlefields and historic sites throughout the country. The band has also released several recordings of Civil War era music, including selections from the 1st Brigade Band partbooks, which are often used in television and film productions based in the Civil War era. It is an affiliate of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and is supported and sponsored by Heritage Military Music Foundation, Inc.; a non-profit, educational, historical, and patriotic organization. Their headquarters is in Heritage Hall in Watertown, Wisconsin. For more information, please visit their website.