Cavalry Trumpet/Bugle Calls in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Recently, I had an author friend seeking information on cavalry trumpets calls, for she was writing a battle scene. The hero of her tale is in the mounted infantry, and he is on the American front during the War of 1812.. She wanted to know whether the troops would have some sort of trumpet signal for when to charge? When to retreat? Etc. Etc.

Truthfully, I cannot recall where I collected this information. Most likely, it came from Bill Haggart, a man I call upon when I need to know some sort of tidbit for writing a battle scene. The man is a walking encyclopedia on such facts.

Here are bits and pieces I shared with my author friend (in no particular order):

  • If the unit is militia, they might not have a bugler or might not have the training to follow bugle instructions.
  • The type of signal might be difficult to determine. For example, if there was a mixed unit of cavalry and mounted infantry, they most likely would not respond to the same bugle signals, for the mounted infantry, traditionally, did not carry out mounted charges.
  • With a hundred and fifty men, it could be a raised hand, the commander’s voice. French General Louis Friant, who fought in both the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, stated that 600 men for a battalion in close formation was optimal because that was the size where everyone could hear a command called out by the battalion chief.
  • It was also normal for every officer to repeat the order down the line once they heard it, just in case. [If you have ever read Arthur Guiterman’s poem “Pershing at the Front,” you will understand what I mean. If you have not, you may find it HERE. My late mother and I were often delighted by this one.]
  • Most cavalry charges required the unit to ‘shake out into a line’ before the charge, so everyone knew what was coming next so calling out ‘charge’ wasn’t all that problematical.  A single line of 150 horsemen would cover about 150 yards across. [1.5 football fields]  
  • More typical would be a double line of cavalry [particularly in wooded areas where there wasn’t 150 yards of open terrain] or about 75 yard front. [3/4 of a football field]
  • A human voice could carry that far, particularly if all officers repeated the order. Here is a video of 150 cavalrymen [two squadrons] of the French Republican Guard]. You will see them call out several orders in preparation for the charge, before they actually move.  Of course, American cavalry in the American Revolution would not have been that disciplined. Even so, but the time the French charge is at a full gallop, the lines are coming apart… seen from above at the end of the video.
  • Often seen in paintings is the officer pointing with his sword. That was a signal that every trooper down the line could see as it poked out from the line.
  • Here is the bugle call for sounding “Charge.” If you have ever watched an old Western movie, you likely have heard it.  
  • One can find ALL the bugle calls customarily used by soldiers HERE. The musical notes are also displayed.
  • The mounted infantry developed into a “versatile cavalry” during this time period. Those using actual pensioners’ accounts when researching different battle, as well as in the battle summaries written by officers, will soon discover the terms “dragoons” and “cavalry” appear to be used indiscriminately, making it all the more confusing for the researcher.
  • One might take a look at p. 30 of the Trevor Herbert & Helen Barlow book, Music and the British Military in the Long Nineteenth Century, which reprints the bugle calls (in musical notes) given in Regulations for the Exercise of Rifleman and Light Infantry, 1798. See on Google books (the trumpet/bugle pages are free to look at). The authors cite several sources from the 18th and 19th centuries. They mention that bugle calls were not formalized however, until after my friend’s battle in question? 

Amazon Book Blurb:

Although military music was among the most widespread forms of music making during the nineteenth-century, it has been almost totally overlooked by music historians. Music & the British Military in the Long Nineteenth Century however, shows that military bands reached far beyond the official ceremonial duties they are often primarily associated with and had a significant impact on wider spheres of musical and cultural life.

Beginning with a discussion of the place of the military in civilian and social life, authors Trevor Herbert and Helen Barlow plot the story of military music from its sponsorship by military officers to its role as an expression of imperial force, which it took on by the end of the nineteenth century. Herbert and Barlow organize their study around three themes: the use of military status to extend musical patronage by the officer class; the influence of the military on the civilian music establishments; and an incremental movement towards central control of military music making by governments throughout the world. In so doing, they show that military music impacted everything from the configuration of the music profession in the major metropolitan centers, to the development of wind instruments throughout the century, to the emergence of organized amateur music making. A much needed addition to the scholarship on nineteenth century music, Music & the British Military in the Long
Nineteenth Century is an essential reference for music, cultural and military historians, the social history of music and nineteenth century studies.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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