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A Search For A Darkey Banjo Player During The Civil War

Hear is a quaint and coloful story by A. Bauer, a Union soldier in the South during the Civil War, also know as the “War of the Rebellion” by northern folk.  The banjo had always been known to have been created and played by the black people in the South.  Sargent Bauer, a banjo player himself stated that he was always on the look out for a black banjo player.  In this story entitled “Reminiscenses Of A Banjo Player” (spelling error on the part of Mr. Bauer) and reprinted in 1892 from “S.S. Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journal”, he finds not one but two black banjo players in a very unusual circumstance. I have reprinted this story with misspellings, poor grammar and punctuation as he wrote it. I have not attempted to correct any modern politically incorrectness. What you read is what he wrote. 

    As I have stated in former letters while in the army I was always watching for darkey banjo players on the different plantations in the vicinity of camps where we happened to be.  In September 1863, our corps being then attached to the Army of the Potomac, was ordered west with General Joseph Hooker, better known as Fighting Joe, to reinforce the army under General Rosencranz, who had been defeated by General Longstreet at Chicamauga.  Our dividion (Gen. John W. Geary’s) was halted at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where we went into camp.  The country thereabouts was well settled and the town looked better than the average southern town that we had been accustom to seeing in Virginia.  While there we had been given more privileges about our camp than we had in Virginia, but a strict order had been issued prohibiting our visiting the town without passes. As usual with me I began to make inquires of every negro I could see as to the whereabouts of any banjo players among the plantation negroes in that vicinity.  After a while I was well enough acquainted with a number of darkies near our camp to be on speaking terms with them, and I always kept uppermost in their minds, the fact that I wanted to hear any darkey banjo player that they might know of.  One day a contraband came to me and told me that on a certain day there would be a dance at a house in the town at which the musicians would be principally banjo players – knowing that it would not be possible for me to get a pass to go into witness the dance and that it would get the negro into trouble if I took him along to guide me and the “Patrol” captured us, I told him to keep his ears open and let me knowat what house the dance would be held and I would trust myself to get there.  I did not forget to give him a portion of what little money I had about me, thus enlisting him in my cause.  The next day he came back and as near as he could, described the square in which was located the house where the dance was being held.  I took two members of my company into my confidence and as all soldiers at any time were ready for a little fun, it did not take much persuasion on my part to induce them to join me in attending the dance.

     The festivities were to begin in the morning and continuing through the day; were to end when the guests chose to cease dancing.  I was orderly sergeant of my company and as my captain was absent and not having a first or second lieutenant I was in command of the company, and therefore supposed to be more attentive to my duties than an enlisted man, consequently if I violated any rules of camp, the punishment and disgrace would be greater than under ordinary circumstances.  The temptation however, was too great for me to resist and when the – to me, eventful morning arrived- I had the roll called, details made, camp policed and morning reports made our earlier than usual so as to be ready to start for our objective point as soon after surgeon’s call as possible.  As near as I can recall we started at about ten o’clock in the morning.  Being in charge of the company, which fact was known to the guards, I had no difficulty passing my two comrades through the camp guard.  We had some trouble getting through the guard that was watching the approaches to the town, but we managed to get through after which our great danger lay in eluding the soldiers who patrolled the town.  We went in the direction that I had been given by my “unbleached American of African descent” and had not gone very far into the town until we heard the squeaky tones of a violin and the “ker plunk” of a banjo coming from the center of a collection of houses that seemed to occupy the whole square.  We made our way through alleys and across fences to where the music proceeded from.

     When we reached the house we found the windows all closed either with shutters or boards, but there was a “mighty thumping and a scraping and rushing of feet” inside.  We held a consultation and I came to the conclusion that after the risks we had run and with the “promised land” so near, we would now see the end of it or perish in the attempt.  As I was the “Boss Crank” it was decided I should take the lead and if it led to trouble I was to do my utmost to clear my partners in guilt and stand all the disgrace that could be heaped on me.  Then I went to the door and boldly tried it.  It was locked.  I raised the latch and went in, followed by my comrades.  Such a sight!  I never had seen and never expect to see again expect to see anything like it.  All the daylight had been shut out and the room, quite a large one, had been illuminated with tallow dips.  It was, I suppose, quite a high toned affair in darkeydom.  Every possible place in the large room had a tallow candle fastened to it. The musicians – one violinist and two banjo players- were on a platform at the end of the room.  The assemblage, which consisted as well as I can remember of about seventy to eighty people, all dressed in the most fantastic manner imaginable.  The colors of the rainbow were not a circumstance.  I do not think a person could expect to see such a sight but once in a life time.  The most exaggerated minstrel representation of plantation life could not equal it.  Everybody present seemed to be in the excitement, soul and body.  The dancers, those who did not dance, the musicians, all were keeping time to the music, some shuffling their feet, some patting, and others singing and shouting, while all were sweating as if their very lives depended on it.  They did not seem to make a pleasure of it but went at it as if it were a business they must follow, each frantically endeavoring to out do the other.

     Here was a scene that I had often wished to witness, a regular plantation frolic and my friends and I stood in a corner determined that not a particle should escape us.  We had scarcely got settled in our position when a couple of darkies came up to where we stood and said, “Dis am a private pah-ty and no outsiders are ‘lowed in.”  They then went back and took part in the dance.  I noticed that many of the dancers kept looking toward us and in a short time there seemed to be a consultation going on among them.  I imagined trouble was brewing and it was not long before my suspicions were verified.  The music stopped and three or four men backed by the whole assemblage came towards us, one of them said, “Dis am a private gaddering and we have been pinted a committee to ask you to get out.”  I told them we meant no harm and merely wanted to look on, that we would willing pay them for staying, and argued the point quite a while.  They left us and we decided to stay and see the fun out.  We were being frowned on from all sides and it was not long before I noticed the principal talkers had left the room while others stood around in knots whispering.  I told my comrades that I feared they had gone for the Patrol and that we had better get outside where we would have an equal chance. We started out, none too soon, when we saw the talkers coming with a lot of armed soldiers.  We began to jump the fence while the Patrol called us to “Halt! Or we’ll shoot.”  These threats only lent wings to our flight.  We got on the road with the Patrol close behind us. Fortunately we met some artillery men riding a horse each and leading others to water.  I ran up to one and told him the Patrol was after us with every prospect of capturing us before we reached camp.  That if he and two of his men would let the led horses go we would mount and gallop out of reach of the Patrol and then turn the horses loose and turn them back.  They let the horses go and we mounted and were up the road on a dead run in an instant.  When we got to a safe distance we dismounted and turned the horses back on the road and gave them a cut with a switch and made our way as rapidly as possible to camp.  The Patrol followed us as near as the could but did not see what tents we went into.  They reported the matter to the Brigade headquarters and the brigade was turned out.  The Patrol marched down the line and tried to pick us out but we had changed our caps for hats and they did not recognize us.  It was my last opportunity to look for any banjo player in that vicinity.  A short time afterwards we were sent to the front and soon were engaged in the Battle of Lookout Mountain and the Chattanooga campaign.

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