Soundtrack to the Civil War

Marty Sampson, Chris Prator and Joel Quivey of the California Consolidated Drum Band

Photo By Laila Barakat

For more information on the California Consolidated Drum Band, visit

Established in 1996, the California Consolidated Drum Band revived the fife and drum field music thought to be buried with the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. Recently, band members Marty Sampson (left), Chris Prator (center) and Joel Quivey (right) performed as part of the Strike Up the Band! The History of Military Music From the Civil War to Today exhibition at the California State Military Museum in Old Sacramento. The trio took a break from the festivities to give us a glimpse into the lives of the Civil War military musicians.

Wow! That drum looks heavy. Is it really as heavy as it looks?

Quivey: No, this drum was built in traditional [Civil War] construction. It’s mostly air. The drum is made with all-natural products: calfskin heads, wooden shell, wooden rims, linen ropes and leather pull “ears.” I would say about 5 or 6 pounds total.

What exactly is Civil War music?

Sampson: Well, this particular band plays field music, and field music wasn’t just for entertainment. It was very important for signaling purposes and for sounding calls that told the soldiers what to do—whether it was when to get up in the morning, when to cook breakfast, when to go see the surgeon. Field music sounded calls that essentially regulated the soldiers’ day. It’s also important to note that there is so much more to Civil War music than just field music. Our band organization is just a part of it. With Civil War music, there’s lots and lots of vocals, piano music, banjo, folk music …

Prator: Most people ask what Civil War music is, assuming it’s all marching-band stuff. You had your popular songs of that time period and then you had field music, military music, etc.

Who started the band?

Sampson: Well, this actually grew out of a school project that Chris and I did a long time ago. We wanted to do a history project with our eighth-grade students. We wanted a way to make learning about the Civil War interesting and for the students to get involved. They were very involved! The project lasted five months. The students made clothing, did re-enactments, learned everything about the Civil War, and ended up being junior docents and taught other classes about the Civil War through re-enactments and such. And out of this was born the California Consolidated Drum Band!

Prator: After some research, we discovered that there was a very prevalent and vibrant drum and fife culture on the East Coast. Bringing it back to our particular area, we just began connecting with students’ parents who were into re-enacting or were musicians or people who were simply interested in learning the formal way to collaborate the fife and drum, based on the East Coast tradition.

Does the band ever get song requests?

Prator: We get a lot of requests for “Garry Owen,” which was Gen. Custer’s favorite song.

Could you walk me through Civil War attire?

Sampson: Our attire is normal dress for field musicians, and the attire stems from the tradition of having the musicians wear something different so that they’d be easy to locate or spot, just in case they were needed by an office to sound a call.

Are there more members of the California Consolidated Drum Band?

Sampson: Yes, there are about 30 members in the band. Sometimes we cannot all play together at every event, because we are all spread out, from Eureka to San Diego.

I imagine being part of a Civil War music band is a great icebreaker. Does it help in the social atmosphere?

Sampson: (Laughs.) No, not really. It’s rather off-putting.

Prator: Yeah, most people stay away.

Quivey: (Chuckles.) Definitely not something you want to bring up in everyday conversation.

What are some misconceptions about the Civil War time period?

Sampson: Oh wow. There are just too many to list.

Prator: Yeah, seriously. Where do we even begin? Let’s see. I would say everything ranging from the perceived political climate to how and where people lived. The music, the environment—there’s so much.

Sampson: The more you study, the more you find out how much you don’t know.

Abe Lincoln. Is it safe to say he’s cool peoples?

Sampson: Oh, definitely. I think if it weren’t for Abraham Lincoln we would be two separate countries. He made every attempt to keep the country together.

Prator: Oh! I thought of another misconception about the Civil War. The Victorians didn’t have sex, nor were they interested in it.

Sampson: Oh my goodness. Don’t quote him!

It’s on the recorder. There’s no turning back now.