"Bugle Horns", "conk shells," and "Signals by Drum":
Miscellaneous Notes on Instruments
During the American War for Independence

John U. Rees
©1996, 2002

Published in The Brigade Dispatch (Journal of the Brigade of the
American Revolution), vol. XXVI, no. 4 (Winter 1996), 13-15.

While researching a particular subject invariably a good deal of unrelated material comes to light. Occasionally these miscellaneous tidbits will result in a full-blown article; more often such information can comprise only a few paragraphs. The following excerpts concern the use of music from 1776 to 1781 in both the British and American armies and provide some insights on the use of instruments other than the fife and drum.

"At the sound of the horn"

Our first passage is by Massachusetts Lieutenant Joseph Hodgekins who wrote from "Camp at Fort Constitution" 30 September 1776, describing the battle of Harlem Heights on 16 September:

...the general sent out 200 Rangers under the Command of Coll Kno[w]lton who soon met the Enemy and fired on them and fote them on the Retreet Till thay got Prety near us then the Enemy Halted Back of an hill and Blood a french Horn which whas for a Reinforcement and as soon as thay got itt thay Formed in to two Coloms But our Brigade whas Posted in the Eadge of a thick woods... the Enemy Rushed Down the Hill with all speed to a Plain spot of ground then our Brigade marched out of the woods then a very hot Fire Began on Both sides and Lasted upward of an hour then the Enemy Retreated up the Hill and our People followed them....1

British lieutenant Loftus Cliffe, 46th Regiment, noted another signaling method used at Harlem Heights:

Johnson and his … Company behaved amazingly, he goes thro his Maneuvers by a Whistle, for which he has often been laughed at, they either form to right or left or [s]quat or rise by a perticular whistle which his men are as well acquainted with as the Batallion with the word of Command, he being used to Woods fighting and having a quick Eye had his Company down in the moment of the Enemies present[ing their firelocks] & up again at the advantagious moment for their fire, killed several and had not one of his Company hurt during the whole time he drove the Enemy before him …2

While whistles were the innovation of a particular individual or individuals, and practical in controlling only smaller numbers of men, signals by horn were commonplace for light troops. That bugle horns were commonly used by and associated with the British light infantry is generally taken for granted. Besides evidence found in journals and letters of the period we also have several artistic sources, both visual and in verse. Xavier della Gatta's 1782 painting "The Battle of Germantown" shows a horn-blowing musician at the head of two files of British light infantry.3 One song in "A Medley for the Light Infantry" also connects this instrument with light troops, and another song entitled "A Soldier" (written in New York, 1778) begins with the lines:

Hark! hark! the bugle's lofty sound
Which makes the woods and rocks around
      Repeat the martial strain,
Proclaims the light-arm'd British troops...4

British light infantry files, headed by a horn-blowing musician, retreat from attacking American columns at Germantown, 4 October 1777. (Detail from the painting "The Battle of Germantown" by Xavier Della Gatta [1782]. From the collections of the Valley Forge Historical Society).

It is not known when horns were first used by American light troops. During the war’s first three years it was common for regiments to include one company of light infantry, usually a decision left to unit commanders. As a result there was little or no standardization to such companies; even when an embodied force of light infantry was formed in the autumn of 1777 under General William Maxwell there was no organizational uniformity. It is evident, however, that Continental light forces had adopted some European military practices by the June 1778 Monmouth campaign. Lieutenant Bernardus Swartout, 2nd New York Regiment, noted,

[24 June 1778] A detachment was ordered out to act as light infantry to the army, the command was given to Majr General Lee, of which I was one ...
[25 June] The Horn blowed (a substitute for a drum in the Infantry corps) we marched about four miles... we moved to Allenstown and halted for the day.
[26 June] At the sound of the horn we marched eight miles and halted, owing to a heavy shower of rain which lasted some time - After it abated marched two miles and halted in a wood.
[27 June] Early this morning, at the sound of the horn we marched three miles and were ordered back to our old ground, then filed off in a bye road, on the left flank of the enemy ... "5

Our next reference concerns Continental troops on the Pennsylvania frontier. During summer 1779 two forces, under Major General John Sullivan and Brigadier General James Clinton, rendezvoused at Tioga prior to their advance against the Indian towns in western New York. In the pre-march preparations some thought was given to a method of communication between the united army’s different columns. General orders, 24 August 1779, Fort Sullivan:

As the Bugle Horns have not arrived, officers commanding columns, to provide two conk shells for their respective columns in lieu of the horns.6

It is interesting to note the measure taken to supply the place of the missing bugle horns, added to which is the fact that conk shells were available at all. Unfortunately, the orders make no mention of the signals used or the specific reason for the use and source for these peculiar instruments.

A July 1950 National Geographic article titled “Down the Susquehanna by Canoe” included a photo of an old man blowing a conch shell. The caption reads, “This Conch-shell bugle called troops to action in the Revolutionary War. M. Louis Gore of Sayre, Pennsylvania, blows the shell he inherited from his great-grandfather, Obadiah Gore, who marched through the Susquehanna Valley with gen. John Sullivan’s army in the Iroquois campaign of 1779.” The shells supplied Sullivan’s army were likely ones used by the fort’s garrison or residents of the region. Obadiah Gore was a 1st lieutenant in the 3rd Connecticut Regiment. He had grown up in the Wyoming area and served there with a detachment from his unit for a long period, beginning in July 1778.7

This Conch-shell bugle called troops to action in the Revolutionary War. M. Louis Gore of Sayre, Pennsylvania, blows the shell he inherited from his great-grandfather, Obadiah Gore. Ralph Gray, “Down the Susquehanna by Canoe,” National Geographic Magazine, vol. XCVIII, no. 1 (July 1950), 86. Photo by Walter M. Edwards.

Horns were also used by the German Jagers, as might be expected in their capacity as light troops. Two orders from the army of Lieutenant General Earl Cornwallis's army in 1780 and 1781 show horns again being used to signal a mixed force.

General orders, Sumpter House [South Carolina?],
[28 December 1780] The Baggage to Form in the Front of the Artillery - & the Picket to Come in at the Sound of the Yager Horn.

General orders, Tryon Court House [North Carolina],
[23 January 1781] Upon Sounding the Bugle Horn at 1/2 past Six O'Clock tomorrow Morng. the Bat Horses of the Army are to be Loaded & the Troops will be ready to March precisely at 7 o'Clock ..."8

There are many other narratives and order books in which horns are mentioned. These examples illustrate their common use on both sides, for routine camp signaling as well as on the battlefield.

"The following signals are established ..."

Although drum signals have been well covered in other works, most notably Raoul Camus’s Military Music of the American Revolution, there is yet much to be learned on the subject.9 Two selections from Sullivan's Indian Campaign provide interesting details. The first stipulates drum signals to be used by the army on the march, specified in general orders, "Vanderlips farm," 4 August 1779:

Colo. [Elias] Daytons [3rd New Jersey] Regt. to form the rear Guard. As there is a probability of the Enemys Making an attempt upon the Army, between this and Wyalusing - the following Order of March is to take place tomorrow - The Flank Division to consist of 400 Men and to be comdd. by two field Officers - they are to be in two Divisions one to cover the Army on the right the Other to Cover the Pack Horses - the Brigdrs: are directed to see that their Troops March in as close Order as possible and that they march with the largest front possible not exceeding Platoons - The Comdr. in Chief will be in front and when he finds that the Colums may be enlarg'd he will give the necessary directions in front which is to extend to the whole but the Brigdrs: are to take advantage of every favourable spot to enlarge the Front of the Colums - The following signals are establish'd Viz. Two Ruffs will be a signal for the whole to march in files one ruffs to march in single file, Three ruffs to Advance in sections, and four to advance in Platoons - The Troops being beat upon the March is ever a signal for the Colums to Close, and beating to Arms a signal for displaying unless special orders be given to the Contrary at the time - in order that no mistake in the signals may take place an orderly drum, or more to be appointed in each Regt. and the signals to be taken from the front and repeated thro' the whole Line...10

This order was reaffirmed on 24 August at Fort Sullivan, Tioga.

The army are again notified that beating the troop on a march, is ever a signal for closing column ready to display [into line], & beating to arms a signal to display & form in the common order.11

These passages are interesting since they describe detailed signals intended for use by troops on the move. By way of comparison, de Stuben's 1779 Regulations gives only three different signals for marching forces: for the "Front to halt", "the Front to advance quicker", and "to march slower." The correlation between common usage of the "Troop" (to assemble "the soldiers together") and "to Arms" ("the signal for getting under arms in case of alarm") to their use above can be seen. At the time of the June 1779 British incursion up the North River, General Washington’s main army in New Jersey made use of what was most likely a similar set (or sets) of signals for the same purpose. The following was included in the orders for the movement of the army: "As the country is covered with wood [and] is close and much broken it will be necessary for the Major Generals to fix upon certain beats or signals for advancing in the whole or part, retreating &c."12.

A more mundane use of music occurred at month’s end; while preparing for a further advance into enemy territory, the following directions were given for the army’s departure from Fort Sullivan.

After orders, 24 August 1779, Tioga.
A gun from the fort tomorrow morning will give notice for the general to beat throughout the whole encampment upon which the Tents [are] to be struck & baggage loaded. A second gun will notify the army to march. Upon the second gun being fired a march will be beat by the whole Army beginning with [Brigadier General Edward] Hand’s light corps.13

These last orders are similar to de Stuben's 1779 stipulations, the differences being that the Assembly has been left out and signals by cannon added.14

Finally, in 1780 British Captain John Peebles, 42nd Regiment of Foot, noted in his journal the "General Rules for Manouvring the Battn. by the Commanding Officer"; appended to these directions are a series of signals for giving orders to the troops.

Signals by Drum

Preparative,       to begin firing by Companies, which is to go on as fast as each is loaded till the first part of the General when not a shot more is ever to be fired.

Grenadrs. March.       to advance in Line.

Point of War.       to Charge.

To Arms.       to form the Battn. (whether advancing or Retreating in Column) upon the leading division.

Double flam.       to halt Upon the word forward, in forming, the Divisions to run up in Order.15

The above information reemphasizes that period manuals of instruction served merely as guidelines, and, in order to gain knowledge of details of military organization and usage, the letters, diaries and order books written by those who served are an invaluable and indispensable resource.


Thanks to my good friend Don N. Hagist for his ongoing support, and for providing me with the National Geographic photo and information on the 1779 Sullivan Expedition conch shell.


1. Herbert T. Wade and Robert A. Lively, "this glorious cause...": The Adventures of Two Company Officers in Washington's Army (Princeton, N.J., 1958), p. 221-222.

2. Loftus Cliffe to “Jack,” 21 September 1776, Ira D. Gruber, “On the Road to Poonamalle: An Irish Officer’s View of the War for American Independence,” The American Magazine (Publication of the William C. Clements Library, University of Michigan), vol. 4, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1988), 9. See also, Stephen Gilbert, Don Hagist, John Rees, and Gilbert Riddle, “Fieldwork: Notes on the Evolution of British Light Infantry Tactics," The Brigade Dispatch (Journal of the Brigade of the American Revolution), vol. XXI, no. 1 (Spring 1989).

3. "The Battle of Germantown" by Xavier della Gatta (1782), painting in the collections of the Valley Forge Historical Society. For a detailed analysis see Stephen R. Gilbert, “An Analysis of the Xavier della Gatta Paintings of the Battles of Paoli and Germantown, 1777,” Military Collector & Historian: part I, 46 (Fall 1994), 98-108; part II, 47 (Winter 1995), 146-162.

4. James L. Kochan, "Songs for the British Light Infantry, 1778-1779", The Brigade Dispatch, vol. XXIII, no. 3 (Summer 1992), p. 6-10.

5. Diary of Bernardus Swartout, 2nd New York Regiment, 10 November 1777 to 9 June 1783; Bernardus Swartout Papers; New York Historical Society, 4.

6. General orders, 24 August 1779, Order Book of Lt. Col. Francis Barber, 26 May 1779 to 6 September 1779, Louise Welles Murray, ed., Notes from Craft Collection in Tioga Point Museum on the Sullivan Expedition of 1779, (Athens, Pa., 1929), p. 81 (hereafter cited as Murray, Notes from Craft Collection).

7. Ralph Gray, “Down the Susquehanna by Canoe,” National Geographic Magazine, vol. XCVIII, no. 1 (July 1950), 86. Obadiah Gore, Jr. Edited by R.W.G. Vail. The Revolutionary Diary of Lieut. Obadiah Gore, Jr. NY (New York Public Library, 1929), 10-12.

8. A.R. Newsome, ed., "A British Orderly Book, 1780-1781", North Carolina Historical Review, (in four parts), vol. IX, no. 3 (1932), p. 185, 286.

9. Raoul F. Camus, Military Music of the American Revolution (Chapel, N.C., 1976).

10. General orders, 4 August 1779, Orderly book of Col. Oliver Spencer's Regt., 27 July 1779 - 28 August 1779, Early American Orderly Books, 1748-1817, Collections of the New York Historical Society, microfilm edition (Woodbridge, N.J., 1977), reel 9, item 93 (hereafter cited as Early American Orderly Books, NYHS). .

11. General orders, 24 August 1779. Murray, Notes from Craft Collection, 80.

12. Frederick Wilhelm de Stuben, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. Part I. (Philadelphia, Pa. 1779), 90-93 (hereafter cited as de Stuben, Regulations). Washington to the General Officers, 13 June 1779, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, vol. 15 (Washington, DC, 1936), 271.

13. General orders, 23 August 1779, Early American Orderly Books, NYHS, reel 9 item 93.

14. de Stuben, Regulations, 90-93.

15. 22 August 1780 journal entry, Papers of Lt., later Capt., John Peebles of the 42nd. Foot ("The Black Watch"), 1776-1782; incl. 13 notebooks comprising his war journal. Scottish Record Office, Edinburgh; Cunninghame of Thorntoun Papers (GD 21/492), book #11, 17-21.

The full set of maneuvering orders reads as follows.

General Rules for Manouvring the Battn. by the Commanding Officer Whatever Company or Division in the Battalion may be first order'd by the Commanding Officer to perform any Movement, the same is always to be immediately followed by the two next on their right & left, & so on through the whole Battn. without waiting for further directions, The Men receiving the word of Command from their own Officerswhich should be given in that tone of Voice & to be distinctly heard by whatever member their respective divisions consists of.

In Marching by Companies or division the Officers Commanding each should at all times caution his division to which flank he would have his men dress. Which is to be regulated by different circumstances, remembering always that they should never be required to look in a different direction from that which is intended they should incline to and to facilitate this still more, there should be always either an Officer or Serjt. on each flank when the Battn. breaks off into Compys. or divisions as far at least as the Numbers will admit of their being so distributed, that the men may have some superiour to look to for regulating their movement & Dress by; and When there is only one with each division he should run to the Opposite flank when it is necessary to make his division dress that way: or Otherways it can never be done with precision.

Marching in Line.

When the Battn. is order'd to march in Line, the whole is order'd to march by that particular division in front of which the Commanding Officer Marches; the Officer of which will give the greatest Attention to keep the direction in which he moves, that the same file continue to cover him as when first put in motion.

The Charge.

When the Line is order'd to Charge, either by word of Command from the Commanding Officer or by signal of Drum, each Officer will repeat the word to his own Company & will endeavour as much as possible in rushing forward to prevent his men from breaking their Order; - that either upon being order'd to halt, or after coming up with & forcing the first Body of the Enemy, the Line may be reform'd again with as little confusion & loss of time as possible; so as to throw in a fire upon such of the broken flying Enemy as they can't come up with, or to be in order to charge any second Body that may present itself.

Advancing in Column by Compys. or Divisions.

When the Battn. is order'd to advance in Column from any particular Compy. Or division, the Officer Commanding it will give the word to March: every other Alternately doing the same when the preceeding one has got to a proper distance and carrying his Division into the line of March; remembering always to caution his Men to which flank they are to oblique and dress: if the Company first put in Motion is of the Right Wing it is to be followed by the next upon its left; if it belong to the Left Wing of the Battn. [then] by the next upon the right and so on Alternately, but if the Column moves in a smaller front than of a Company, the divisions of one Company are never to intervene between those of another. N.B. the Center of the Battn. (as it now consists) is consider'd to be at the left of the 42d. & right of the 76th. Companies.

To form the Line from the Column.

When order'd to form the Battn. upon any given Company or Division, the Officer of that Compy. or division Orders it to halt and immediately see that his line is dress'd in such direction as may be pointed out by the Commanding Officer; the Other divisions either advance obliquely or go about & retire obliquely in the [nearer or nearest?] line to their proper front in Battn. N.B. this is never to be done by files except when the Column is quite in close order, at all other open distance the divisions are to keep a front & move to their ground obliquely.

Retreating in Column by Companies or Divisions.

When the Battn. is order'd to retire in one or more Columns from any particular Company; the Officer Commanding that, orders it to the Right about, & march & moves straight to the Rear, or in such other particular direction as he may have been commanded, the other Divisions doing the same alternately; Marching obliquely to the Rear by the nearest Route in the Line of March; remembering not to make his Division go About till the one preceding him is got to a proper distance, & then not to hurry; if they are order'd to fire before they Retreat they shoulder without loading & no Company is to give their fire till their preceding one has shoulder'd. When the Column is retreating the greatest Attention must be given by the Officer Commanding each Division to what the one in his rear may be order'd to do, that if the Rear is directed to halt & come about to the front, the word of Command may pass from one to the Other & the movement be perform'd without noise hurry or confusion.

Columns by files.

In Advancing or Retreating by files from the flanks or Center of Companies, the several Columns are to be directed in their March by dressing on that led by the Commanding Officer, & they are to endeavour always to preserve the distance for forming; of obliged to close or open at any time by the nature of the Country, the proper distance [is] to be regain'd as soon as possible without hurrying the men too much. N.B. The same rule is to be observed at all times when any part of a line may have been obliged from particular impediments in the way to double to its Right, or Left, the manner of doing which will always shew the Attention & judgement of the Officer Commanding that Division obliged to break off; in forming again from files that have either advanced or retired, it is always to be done upon the leading file which halts or fronts to any direction the Commanding Officer chooses, and form upon it.

Signals by Drum

Preparative.       to begin firing by Companies, which is to go on as fast as each is loaded till the first part of the General when not a shot more is ever to be fired.

Grenadrs. March.       to advance in Line.

Point of War.       to Charge.

To Arms.       to form the Battn. (whether advancing or Retreating in Column) upon the leading division.

Double flam.       to halt Upon the word forward, in forming, the Divisions to run up in Order.