Explosions cracked from muskets, splitting the hot June afternoon, as puffs of smoke floated in the humid air, the smell of black powder mingling with the scent of wet grass.
The soldiers, the musicians, the mountain, all appeared much as they might have 150 years ago, during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, when tourists from Atlanta took trains up to Cobb County to stand behind Confederate lines and look down on the Yankees camped out below.
But while these modern-day re-enactors were firing only shreds of paper wadding, their musician counterparts were blasting the real thing, the 19th-century songs and marches that strengthened the hearts of soldiers in battle and buoyed the hopes of families back home.
This month, Atlantans are reflecting on the final battles of a war that shaped this country more than any other.
The Battle of Atlanta was a last-ditch effort to repel an invading force that sought to crush the Confederate rebellion. The fighting cost both sides dearly — 3,000 federal troops died at Kennesaw, and about 1,000 Confederates were killed.
Tours, living history exhibits, re-enactments and lectures will help modern Southerners remember the events of that time and contemplate the people that they’ve become. (The Eighth Regiment Band performs again in Roswell this Saturday and again the following weekend in East Atlanta. See the accompanying box for more about these Civil War events and where to find others.)
We can remember the actions of that time. But how can we feel their feelings?
Music can make it happen, says John Carruth. “When we played that last piece (at the Kennesaw ceremonies), there was a guy standing in the front row, crying,” said Carruth, 78, director emeritus, who founded the Eighth Regiment Band in 1986.
“I’ve seen it happen in many places,” he said. “We try to be a living museum of 19th-century emotions.”
To tug at those heartstrings, the 14 members of this Rome-based brass band strive for authenticity in every respect. They wear the scratchy uniforms of the era, play period instruments and follow musical arrangements used by Civil War bands.
Their repertoire includes such marching tunes as “Dixie” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and such popular songs as “Listen to the Mockingbird” and “There’s No Place Like Home.”
Military bandsmen were paid no better than lowly infantrymen back then, and the Eighth Regiment players are paid not at all. All revenues go to travel expenses, sheet music, and maintenance of instruments. Most of them drive themselves to performances and pay for their own gas. Many are retired and almost all have been high school band directors at one time.
"We pay to be in the band, although we don't look at it like that," said Jerry Pollard, 60, a founding member of the band and its president for the first 25 years. Pollard, a former high school band director, is also a soloist on the E-flat cornet, the soprano member of the brass family and the leading voice of the 19th-century brass band.
The instrument is as demanding as the piccolo trumpet (think of the obbligato from “Penny Lane”) and almost as high-pitched. What makes it even more challenging is that Pollard is playing a 150-year-old horn. He and his colleagues have dug instruments out of attics, basements and museums, or rescued them from eBay.
(One cornet had been nailed up as a wall ornament. The band’s first tuba served as a planter at a friend’s house; Carruth dumped out the dirt and drafted it for duty.)
“There’s no such thing as replacing parts,” said Bayne Dobbins, of Cartersville, their repair man. “Parts don’t exist. You generally have to fabricate.”
Some of those instruments are truly exotic, such as the band’s circular cornet that shoots the sound back over the musician’s shoulder. All are members of the cornet family, which has a more mellow sound than the trumpet family, and includes alto horns, French horns and tubas.
The group models itself after the brass band of the same name that served with the 8th Georgia Battalion for the full length of the war, from Manassas through Appomattox. They also wear Union uniforms at some re-enactments, modeled on the 8th New York National Guard band. (At the Kennesaw engagement, they wore both colors, a nod to evenhandedness.)
These hardy warriors have performed multiple times at Shiloh, Gettysburg, Resaca and other re-enactments, at museums and national parks and in concert halls in the U.S. and Canada. Though the Civil War bands were meant to entertain officers and soldiers in camp and to provide music for marching drills, they were occasionally sent into battle, and so our contemporary band members have sometimes marched alongside their fellow re-enactors.
But these days, they are more concerned with concertizing than marching, and most are old enough to prefer playing from a seated position.
Whatever their posture, the band plays music that strikes a chord in the hearts of listeners, and provides a window into the feelings of a vanished time.