The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers Band

Mike Lawson • Features • July 16, 2018

The American Civil War created a need for musicians for service in each Union regiment.

This was the first time the government had such a far-reaching need to hire musicians, helping establish music as a profession in the United States. After the war ended, the National Park Service estimated there were nearly three million veterans of the armed forces, many of whom were in need of medical care. Some of them were men who had served in the band units.

In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln told the nation on March 5, 1865 that we should, “. . . bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle . . ..” Toward that end, several locations around the country were chosen to establish facilities which would be able to house and care for several thousand wounded at any given time. They were first named the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. After a few years, the name asylum was changed to home.

One of the first facilities to be established in 1867 was located in Dayton, Ohio. The Central Branch had barracks, a dining hall, hospital, church, cemetery, offices, recreation, and entertainment activities, and a band.

The National Home Band, or simply the “Home Band,” played a daily role in the lives of veteran residents. The Home Band provided the music for every occasion, from raising/lowering the flag to concerts for entertainment, visits from governmental officials, and funerals. Veteran Henry O. Spaulding wrote in 1886, “The music provided by these organizations played a large roll in maintaining the moral of the Home’s population.” In this way, music was a means of therapy long before it became a university major!

Many veterans who resided at the homes served in the regimental and brigade bands during the war. When they came to the home, they were assigned to the band barracks. Michael Carl Miller (1834-1902) was the first bandmaster at the Central Branch. Like many musicians of his day, he was born in Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1853, settling in Dayton. He enlisted in the First Ohio Volunteer Regiment of Infantry in 1861 and was made bandmaster of their regimental band. Miller’s regiment then left by train to Washington, D.C., where they did garrison duty to fortify the nation’s capital.

The first musician to be admitted to the Central Branch at Dayton was Zenos M. Rice in 1867. Sergeant Rice was wounded in the battle at Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia two years earlier. Sebastian Christel, who was 61 years old, arrived in 1867, having served as a bugler in the 66th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Many of the men had served during the war as drummers, fifers, or buglers, as well as in the regimental bands. One of the first performances of the Home Band was June 12, 1868, welcoming the 93rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment to the campus in Dayton for their reunion.

The band welcomed General William T. Sherman on his visit on Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) in 1870, and President and Mrs. U. S. Grant on their visit to the home in 1871 with the band performing “Hail to the Chief,” and “The Conquering Hero Comes.“ Mary Lowell Putnam, sister of poet James Russell Lowell, visited the next year on Independence Day. Her son, Lieutenant William Lowell Putnam, was killed in action, and donated his books to help form a library for the veterans.

When the new three-story brick hospital was completed in 1870, the Home Band played at its dedication. Civil War general and future president of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes, and the governors of both Ohio and Indiana were present.

The Home Band under Miller usually had about 16 musicians. In 1871, a bandstand was built on the parade ground across from the Headquarters Building. This bandstand remains operative today and is still used for concerts by bands visiting the premises to entertain the veterans.

The next bandmaster was Edward T. Pohlmeyer (1847-1893), born in St. Louis, Missouri to Friederich Adolph Theodor Pohlmeyer, who immigrated from Germany to New York in 1846, serving in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War and in the Civil War. The senior Pohlmeyer would be admitted to the National Home as a patient. He is buried in the National Cemetery next to the hospital.

Bandmaster Edward Polhmeyer served in the American Civil War as a musician in the 19th Regiment of United States Infantry. Young Edward was 15 years old and stood 4’ 10” inches tall when he enlisted on May 3, 1862. When he re-enlisted on April 11, 1865, he had grown to be 5’ 2”. He was discharged on April 11, 1868 with the rank of First Class Musician.

By 1875, the number of veterans in Dayton had reached 3,769. One of them was George M. Hanley, who was sergeant of the band barrack. As a barrack sergeant, Handley was part of the non-commissioned officer staff and reported to Captain E. C. Nichols, who was Chief Ward-Master of the hospital. Handley saw action during the war and had injuries to both of his ankles. He entered the home on 187, dying there in October 1876 of “intemperance and exposure.” Daniel H. Stubblebine was the next bandmaster of the National Home Band at Dayton. Professor Stubblebine (1839-1902) at 16 worked in the iron mills of Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, practicing cornet in his free time. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted as principal musician with the 4th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry at Norristown, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, for three months service. That fall, he enlisted in the 53rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, also leading the band. After the war, he led several bands in the states of Pennsylvania and New York before relocating to the Central Branch at Dayton.

As leader of the National Home Band, he instituted the first of a series of Promenade Concerts which started on June 12, 1875 and continued every Saturday night all summer. By 1880, the number of veterans who were served at Dayton exceeded 5,300. Some of the band members were Civil War veterans like snare drummer Luke Caden, and 54 year old Richard A. Perry, band member of the First New York Artillery.

One of the oldest band members was known as Uncle Ike Sayers. Isaac B. Sayers was born about 1818 and had served in the Mexican-American War in 1847 aboard the US Ship Ohio. He died at age 78 in 1896.

Thomas G. Adkins, the next leader of the Home Band, left the Colt Armory Band in Hartford, Connecticut, to succeed Stubblebine. Thomas Grosvenor Adkins (1823-1917), who was born in England, had quite a colorful record of musical achievement before taking over the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldier Home Band in Dayton. He was undoubtedly the most adventurous and legendary character to ever lead the National Home Band.

Adkins’ father, also named Thomas, a soldier in the 24th Foot Regiment of the British Army, died in 1833, so at age nine, young Thomas was placed in the Royal Military School in London. His musical skills were so developed that at 15, he was a musician in the 2nd Regiment of Life Guards, which were assigned to guard the king or queen. Thomas spent the next ten years in that regiment before leaving in 1845 to immigrate to the United States. He was the first bandmaster at the home to have a formal music education. When P. T. Barnum brought the “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, to America to sing in 1850, Adkins played in that orchestra.

By 1851, he formed his own group under the name of Adkins Cornet Band, where he played solos and arranged music. In the winter of 1855-56, Adkins set out for New Orleans, where he was engaged to form a band to accompany the ill-fated effort of General William Walker to conquer land in Central America for the purpose of establishing a new state where slavery would be legal.

It was not long before Adkins abandoned Walker and attempted to make his way back to the United States from Nicaragua. Along the way, he formed a minstrel troupe, fashioned a few crude homemade musical instruments, made a little money, was offered a bandmaster job, and finally made his way to Aspinwall, Panama where he used his Masonic connections to board a ship bound for New York, without paying full fare. He contracted Chagres fever when the ship stopped at the port in Cuba and was bed-fast for three months before resuming his position with the Washington Band of New York.

In the fall of 1857, prominent firearms manufacturer Samuel Colt (1814-1862) asked Adkins to lead the Colt Armory Band. There Adkins remained until the Civil War started, when he then organized and led 24 musicians for the 14th United States Infantry.

Major General William B. Franklin (1823-1903) was superintendent of the Colt factory, and, through his influence, Captain Thomas Grosvenor Adkins came to Dayton to become bandmaster of the National Home Band in 1881. Franklin knew of the need for a bandmaster because he served on the Board of Managers of the National Homes for 22 years, from June 16, 1880 to April 21, 1902, and as its president from July 6, 1880 to December 31, 1899. He was president and acting treasurer from July 8, 1880 to August 22, 1894. Building number 412 on Iowa Ave., built in 1902, is named in his honor. Under Adkins’ leadership, the band remained as active as usual, playing concerts and funerals, which were becoming more frequent as the Civil War veterans advanced in age.

The Home Band played before some 6,000 people at the Independence Day celebration in 1894. The festivities included W. B. Early, who read the Declaration of Independence, followed by a concert by the Dayton Philharmonic Society Chorus accompanied by the Home Band. Next, the two groups marched to the hospital, performing a second concert for those unable to attend the other due to bed confinement.

The band played at the Centennial Celebration for the City of Dayton in September 1896. The famous National Home Military Band, with its venerable white-haired leader, captain Adkins, and Sergeant Peter Larson, drum major, was one of the prominent features in the Dayton Centennial Parade.

The band also played for the Dayton Charity Circus when it opened on July 12, 1894. When Dayton-area soldiers left for the Spanish American War, the band played at their departure and their return.

On September 3, 1898, the Soldier’s Home Band was augmented by some Dayton musicians to make the band number 100 and attended the Grand Army of the Republic encampment in Cincinnati. They were dressed in Spanish American War uniforms resembling those of the “Rough Riders,” made famous by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, as the band lead the Ohio contingent at the encampment.

On July 4, 1903, at the age of 80, Thomas Grosvenor Adkins, after 22 years, retired as bandmaster of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldier’s Band at Dayton, Ohio, and turned the baton over to Thomas Purley Culbertson (1874-1952), the last sleader of the National Home Band. Known as Pearl, or Purley most of his life, he grew up on a farm in Greenville, Ohio. He was 28 when he became bandmaster.

By this time, only about half of the members of the band were Civil War veterans and many were at least some 60 years old. The local newspaper compared them favorably to the U. S. Marine Band in Washington, Sousa’s Band, and “. . . any other band in the country.”

They proved their point by adding “the evidence of this fact is the large crowd which greets its nightly performance on the campus, and around which seats are placed where the weary may rest and enjoy the glorious music which is said to be the language of angels in heaven.”

During the fiscal year ending on June 30, 1904, the band gave 212 free concerts for the veterans. There were also 548,032 visitors to the campus in Dayton. The number of veterans who died at the home were 481, which was up 26 from the year before. The Independence Day celebration fireworks cost $10,000 and drew some 25,000 people.

There was a total of 42 operatic, dramatic, and other entertainments given at the Home Theater, which all veterans were admitted for no charge. The National Home Band even played for aviation pioneers Wilber and Orville Wright when they returned to Dayton after the celebrated flight of their first airplane. The band played for the departing soldiers during World War One, and when they returned. The band appeared in every Liberty Loan Parade and helped to sell bonds to finance the war and provide for the soldiers. Throughout its history, the National Home Band was not only a musical success, but an important element in the lives of the thousands of veterans and members of the public who visited the Central Branch in Dayton.

From its inception, it was common for the general public to pack picnic lunches and ride one of several trains and trolley cars which ran from the hot, inner city to the cooler National Home grounds.

There the visitors would visit and support the veterans, while sharing the sounds of the stirring numbers played by the Home Band. The number of carriages and autos who were attracted to the National Homes were found in the statistics in a 1908 report. There were 594,896 visitors to the Dayton National Home the previous year, and there were 274 band concerts. That year, there were 36,395 veterans cared for at the Central Branch at Dayton.

By 1907, there were ten National Homes around the country serving veterans, with a combined total number of visitors at 1,898,380 for the year. The bands at the ten homes played a combined total of 2,693 concerts. The combined number of musicians who were civilian employees, or on extra-duty as musicians, stood at only 285.

In spite of this evidence of success, politics and national policy were changed, which affected the funding for veterans’ care. When President Lincoln created the National Homes to care for the veterans, the Board of Managers appealed to existing alms-houses and charity hospitals who were already tending to disabled soldiers, and whose care was paid for by “private benevolence,” to report such cases to the Board, as they contended, “. . . it is not fit that meritorious disabled soldiers of the nation should be supported by private or public charity.” They made their position clear the National Homes were not charity, but a benefit or reward paid to those to whom President Lincoln said “. . had borne the battle,” and those veterans should be transferred to the National Homes, where they would be provided for by a grateful nation.

They attempted to care for and serve both the tangible and intangible needs of the veterans. The regular band concerts played within earshot of the veterans confined to hospital beds did much to lift their spirits and contribute to their recovery.

As the number of Civil War veterans decreased and the number of World War One veterans increased, attitudes and interests continued to change. New programs were started and veterans’ services were being consolidated. On July 21, 1930, the Veterans Administration began, and absorbed, all of the existing National Homes.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President of the United States in 1933 during the Great Depression, the National Home Band at Dayton, and all the other bands at the other National Home Branches, were deemed unnecessary expenditures and terminated by the provisions of the National Economy Act. The next year, 1934, there was an unsuccessful movement to reorganize the Home Band at Dayton. The National Home Bands were so important to veterans that it was not long before others took up the cause of restoring them.

At the 17th National American Legion Convention in 1935, a resolution was presented by a post in Milwaukee to reorganize the bands at nine of the National Homes. Similar resolutions were presented at the national meetings of the Grand Army of the Republic and the Spanish-American War Veterans, but the government was adamant, the bands would not return, even if they were all volunteer. The National Home Bands never returned to provide regular, daily live concerts and live field music for ceremonies, dances, and funerals.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!