An 1851 Chickering Piano and the Virginia War Musicians

We acquired the antique Chickering piano at the auction of the contents of the Dickson property late last year, which was full of local Greenbrier Valley history. It was sort of a sight-unseen type of thing, and we knew nothing about antique pianos, or even moving them.

Recently, I was able to learn more about the piano after discovering that one of my clients was an expert on antique pianos. We still need to get it moved, so a couple of days ago I took her out to look at the piece, as well as the logistics of moving it. She was able to find the serial number, indicating an initial manufacture date of 1851. She was also able to find some other markings written in pencil on some wood inside the piano.

This appears to read:

5.868, F.C. Turner, Staunton, Va, May 6th, 1873

I don’t know much about antique pianos, but I know these are important clues. I’m not sure what the first number means. I didn’t recognize the name Turner, but more on that in a moment… Also, the date is more than 20 years after the date the piano was manufactured. So what does it mean? I know that antique clocks will sometimes have the name and date of technicians who have performed work on them somewhere inside the clocks. I subsequently found out that the same thing is true for piano technicians/tuners.

A quick search of the internet for the name Turner, associated with Staunton, Virginia, and the general time period, directs you to Augustus J. Turner, or A.J. Turner. This guy was pretty interesting. According to Wikipedia:

Augustus John Turner, (October 12, 1818 – May 14, 1905), known as “A. J. Turner”, was an American composer, band leader and music professor. He was the first director of the Stonewall Brigade Band of Staunton, Virginia, the oldest continuous community band funded by tax moneys in the United States. They were mustered into the Stonewall Brigade under Stonewall Jackson of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Turner was a professor of music at both the Wesleyan Female Institute and the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute, and he played a part in the temperance movement.

At first I thought the signature on the piano must be Professor Turner himself. But I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the possibility that the first two initials, which are difficult to see, could be an “A” and a “J.” The possibility that there was another “Turner” in Staunton, Virginia in 1873 must be astronomical, unless it was one of his children. Turning to that possibility, Professor Turner had eleven children, the youngest of whom was “Frank C. Turner.” Frank, or “F.C. Turner,” appears to have initials matching the signature on our piano.

A.J. Turner was also an agent for the sale of pianos and other musical instruments. He gave private lessons in piano, guitar, flute, violin and ballad singing. More research reveals that his son Frank was also involved in the family business, apparently working as a piano teacher, as indicated by his being called “Professor Frank C. Turner” in period newspaper articles. Coincidentally, I found an October, 1872 newspaper advertisement taken out by Frank, advertising two of his personally-owned pianos for sale.

Perhaps this was one of the two pianos Frank was selling. This ad was only about seven months prior to the date written onto the piano. Moreover, Frank’s advertisements disappear by early 1873, prior to May 6, 1873. Or, perhaps the date pertains to a tuning, as no doubt that a piano professor would also be a piano tuner in 1873 Virginia, as many other piano teacher ads indicate from period newspapers.

Frank C. Turner was born in 1852, right around the time that this piano was manufactured. Then around 20 years later, he either sells, or tunes, this piano, signing his name to it. Perhaps the piano belonged to his father? Perhaps this was one of Frank’s personal pianos? He obviously had at least two extras in 1872. I found another newspaper clipping indicating that “Professor Frank C. Turner” was commissioned to buy an organ for a group of church ladies. The article indicates that Frank generously forewent his commission in so doing. There’s pretty clear evidence that he must be our man.

Unfortunately for Frank, he met a tragic end, only a year later, in 1875, when at the age of only 23, he was killed in accident on a horse. This was reported in the local Staunton newspaper on July 9, 1875, only two years after he signed our piano.

The article indicates that young Frank was visited a family in Fluvanna County, Virginia, when he was attempting to get on his horse. Apparently he had a “fan,” which made a noise spooking the horse, at exactly the wrong time, causing the horse to take off, presumably with Frank’s foot stuck in one of the stirrups, causing Frank’s head to impact a tree, causing a fracture. He got up and walked in the family’s home, asking them if his skull was fractured. He didn’t last much longer. His father was telegraphed, but couldn’t make it in time.

Frank’s father ended up outliving Frank, and eventually outliving his wife as well. This led me to Frank’s mother’s obituary, which was pretty damned flattering. This is Frank’s mother, who was A.J.’s wife, as well as her obituary, which describes her as the “idol of the home.”

As the newspaper article about Frank’s tragic death indicated, A.J. Turner was still at that time the leader of the “Stonewall Brigade Band.” Looking into them further, as it turns out, they were basically a bunch of warrior-musicians who fought in the Civil War. However, they were obsessed musicians, who’s band pre-dated the Civil War, and lasted long afterwards. According to Wikipedia:

The Stonewall Brigade Band is a community concert band based in Staunton, Virginia. It is the United States’s oldest continuous community band sponsored by local government and funded, in part, by tax monies. Originally a brass band, the band was formed in 1855 as the Mountain Sax Horn Band. It was also called Turner’s Silver Cornet Band by 1859, for its first director, A. J. Turner. At the onset of the American Civil War, the band was mustered into the 5th Virginia Infantry Regiment, part of the Stonewall Brigade under Stonewall Jackson.

Prior to the war, brass bands were extremely popular. This particular band was sort of a community band for the Staunton, Virginia area.

During the 1850’s the band began a long-standing tradition of playing for all civic occasions and political rallies such as those held for President Fillmore, President Pierce, Presidential candidates Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge, and the ardent secessionist William L. Yancey. The band headed all political processions regardless of party affiliation. All churches were accorded its services. During June 1858, it presented concerts twice in Union Hall, one for the Methodist ladies, who were holding a fair, and again for the Presbyterian ladies, who were conducting a similar fete. In March 1859, when the two rival candidates for Governor, William L. Goggin and John Letcher, were staying at the Virginia Hotel, the bandsmen serenaded both.

Even after the war, they played at President Grant’s funeral in 1885. Their war-time instruments were later put on display at the 1895 World’s Fair in Chicago. Prior to Grant’s death, they once played for him when he traveled to Staunton on June 30, 1874, leading Grant to remark, “the Immortal Jackson,” referring to their war-time leader, Stonewall Jackson. No doubt Frank would have been there for the performance, occurring just a year before his death.

During the war, they weren’t just musicians, but more like warrior poets. I found an extremely interesting dissertation by Benny Pryor Ferguson, III, from 1987, titled, “The Bands of the Confederacy: an examination of the musical and military contributions of the bands and musicians of the Confederate States of America.”

The Stonewall Brigade lost more than 493 men at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, where General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was mortally wounded. The members of the Brigade Band were busy helping in the field hospitals, removing men from the fields, and helping surgeons perform operations. This duty lasted more than two weeks after the battle as the bandsmen continued to act as nurses and attended to the burial of the dead. The losses to the brigade were so devastating that General Lee referred to the condition of the once might unit as “a brigade of tired men.” The survivors of the Brigade, including the musicians on hospital duty, were needed to remain at the front, and were denied a request to accomnpany the remains of General Jackson to Lexington, Virginia, for burial.

As the Confederates moved into Winchester, Virginia, the Fifth Virginia Band led the way. The men of the regiment asked their officers to get them permission to lead the advance in the city as they led the retreat months before. The members of the band, in an unprecedented heroic action by a military band, asked for, and received, permission to lead the regiment into town, playing as they went. This episode of bravado proved to be costly, as bandsman C.E. Wood was shot in the leg during the advance.


John O. Casler wrote that “… the members [of the band] were often exposed to great danger, as they acted as assistant surgeons, and helped to bear the dead and wounded from the field. They also did hospital duty, and several of them could, in war times, amputate a leg or an arm as well as any regular surgeon.” They were involved in fighting in the Seven Days battles around Richmond, the Battle of Gaines Mill, Slaughter Mountain, Groveton, and Second Manassas. Id.

Even though the Fifth Regiment Band had found their place as both musicians and medical personnel, they were issued rifles. In December of 1862, they were carrying new Austrian rifles in addition to musical instruments as they moved near the town of Fredericksburg. Encamped for the winter just south of Fredericksburg, Virginia, the soldiers constructed a theater of logs and mud for 300 spectators, where all kinds of entertainment took place, including band concerts, combined with minstrel shows and other entertainment. The following winter the soldiers again built a theater of logs, and this time combined their musical talents with a black minstrel troupe, utilizing both brass and stringed instruments. Admission of $1.00 was charged, with proceeds being donated to charity organizations for widows and orphans of Confederate soldiers. The theater was named the Stonewall Brigade Theater and included private boxes for officers. Id.

The band also played many charity concerts around Staunton, where they raised at times $400 to $600 for needy families of Confederate soldiers. Some of the programs from the concerts survive today, which reveal the popular songs of the difficult time, including “Major Mercer’s Polka,” “Maggie By My Side,” “Rachael Waltz,” “When the Swallows Fly Homeward,” “Amoretten Polka,” “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” “My Mother Dear,” “The Sweet Sunny South,” “The Marseillaise Hymn,” “Hark, I Hear an Angel Sing,” “The Dying Girl,” “Home, Sweet Home,” Katie Dear Quickstep,” “Snow Drop Polka,” and of course “Dixie.” Id.

At the beginning of Spring in 1864, the winter music playing began to wrap up, as the men began to prepare for military operations, which culminated in the devastating Battle of Chancellorsville.

Artillery shelling caused brush fires that consumed men from both armies lying dead and wounded on the battlefield. This was a particularly frightening and life-threatening time for the bandsmen and others who tried to get through the flames towards the moans and screams of wounded soldiers calling for help.

John Casler described the scene:

The dead and badly wounded fro both sides were lying where they fell. The wood, taking fire that night fro the shells burnt rapidly and roasted the wounded men alive. As we went to bury them we could see where they had tried to keep the fire fro them by scratching the leaves away as far as they could reach. But it availed not; they were burnt to a crisp.

During this battle, Stonewall Jackson himself received a mortal gunshot wound, from which he died several days later. Tragically, his Stonewall Brigade Band couldn’t even attend or play at his funeral in Richmond.

At the Battle of Chancellorsville the Stonewall Brigade suffered a fearful loss, and the number of wounded was appalling. They were taken to a field hospital and attended by the band as a surgeon’s corps. For two weeks the musicians could not be spared from the wounded, and so missed the sad opportunity of escorting the remains of General Stonewall Jackson to Richmond.

“Home, Sweet Home,” was played by bands of both sides in the Civil War, and sometimes together in periods of truce on the battlefield.

Shortly after Stonewall Jackson’s death, the band was officially named the nickname it had been known by, the “Stonewall Brigade Band.” They continued playing, and fighting, through the remainder of the Civil War, including Gettysburg and Petersburg, and were even with General Robert E. Lee at his surrender to Grant. They were able to return safely to Staunton with their instruments And thereafter, as I explained previously, played for Grant during his subsequent presidency, even playing at his funeral.

At the end of the war, Frank C. Turner would have still been a child, probably very proud of his father, as well as his older brother, who was also a musician in the Stonewall Brigade Band, and at one point a leader of the band. He quickly became a professor like his father, apparently specializing in teaching pianos. Just two years prior to his untimely death he signed our piano, either selling it to the Dickson family, tuning it for them, or both.

1 thought on “An 1851 Chickering Piano and the Virginia War Musicians

  1. Another marvelous inquiry. I hope you are able to retire from your day job before becoming too physically spent to pursue your real passion: archaeology and physical anthropology.

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