Bugle Signals of the Civil War

Bugle Signals


"Trumpet or bugle signals are to be used instead of commands whenever they can be advantageously introduced."
from Instructions for Field Artillery U.S. War Department 1861



Cavalry Bugle instruction by Randy McDonald
(audio only - no video per se)

Infantry Bugle instruction by Randy McDonald
(audio only - no video per se)

Artillery Bugle instruction by Randy McDonald
(audio only - no video per se)

Dress Parade example


more Infantry Bugle Instruction

more Infantry Bugle Instruction Part 2

more Artillery Bugle Instruction by Randy McDonald with sheet music

American Flag - a Bugle Quickstep



Using Buglers as a Battlefield Communication System
(or How to introduce bugle signals advantageously)

Buglers and bugle signal interpreters should be used to assist the commanding staff in communicating orders to their troops.  At the invitation of the commander, a Bugler is assigned to a particular commander.  Then, during the battles, when ordered to do so, the Buglers send and receive signals amongst themselves, and interpret the signals for their assigned officers. (Much like runners who carry messages from one commander to the next, but without the running). 

To picture how this works, imagine a scenario with a large line of soldiers with one main Commander. In that line there are smaller sections with their own Sergeants and Lieutenants. Buglers would be assigned to stand by the side of the Commander and the leaders of the smaller sections. The overall Commander has a Chief Bugler at his side and the leader of each of the sections in the line has a Bugler or bugle signal interpreter. When the Commander is ready to give a command, instead of trying to shout over gunfire and distance, he calmly tells his Chief Bugler what he wants the whole line or a particular section to do. The Commander’s Chief Bugler then sends the appropriate bugle signals to one or all of the Buglers assigned to the line or sections of the line as appropriate. By assigning specificic preludes to each section ahead of time, each listening section Bugler can determine if the incoming signal is intended for them or not. The receiving Bugler must be focused on the job of listening attentively for incoming orders from the Chief Bugler. The receiving Bugler or Interpreter will in in turn tell his Sergeant/Lieutenant of the incoming orders at which point the Sergeant/Lieutenant will probably shout his orders to his section. The Bugler of the section may choose to repeat the signal on the bugle as well.

The scenario works the same on a larger scale where a General or a Major may through their own Chief Bugler, direct major movements on a battlefield by sending signals to the Buglers of the commanders of each branch or brigade. When enough Buglers are present and working together, an order from the General such as “Have the Dismounts fall back, have the Infantry to move to the left, have the Artillery to cease fire, and have the mounted Cavalry charge ahead at the Right Oblique” can all be effectively communicated across a large and loud battlefield in a matter of seconds....without runners or couriers.

There are several benefits to using the bugle in this way:

1. It adds to the authenticity of the hobby
2. It allow commanders to send orders much faster than using runners
3. It reduces frustrations and chaos
4. It helps the battle scenario run more smoothly
5. It promotes safety and
6. It sounds great to the audience too.


Generally, the assignments at a reenactment will be along the following lines:

Chief Bugler

a Chief Bugler is able to interpret and play the essential calls of all branches. The Chief Bugler is attached to the overall field commander for one side or the other. 

Branch or Brigade Bugler

a Branch Bugler or Brigade is able to interpret and play the essential calls of a particular branch or Brigade. Branch or Brigade Buglers are attached to the commanders of branches or brigades, of course.


An Interpreter is able to interpret calls but is not yet able to play the calls on the bugle. Interpreters are attached to units that need an interpreter but will probably not need to send signals to other units. Drummers, Fifers, Flag Bearers, and runners can do their primary impressions plus serve as bugle signal interpreters. 

You do not have to permantly abandon your existing reenactment unit in order to join the Bugle Corps.  At an event, however, buglers must often abandon their home for the battle in order to serve wherever needed to make the communication system work well.

You don't  have to know how to play the bugle to help out in this effort.  Reenactors who do not play, but who have memorized and are able to interpret the signals of a particular branch may serve as Interpreters.  This is an excellent role for an aspiring future commander.  What better way to become familiar with commanding than to stand next to a commander in the field, interpret bugle signals for him, and observe him command his troops accordingly.

Youngsters may participate too.  For those who are too young to carry a firearm on the battlefield, serving as a Bugler or Interpreter is a fun way to play an important role in the reenacting hobby.  Event battlefield age restrictions are obeyed and youngsters are not allowed to camp with the Bugle Corps unless accompanied by their parent.

If you have questions, please email Randy McDonald at mcdonald_bugler@yahoo.com.




Selected Quotes from various period military manuals…

From Cooke’s Cavalry Tactics 1862

The chief of the skirmishers observes the movements of the squadron he covers, and conforms to them as soon as practicable, re­quiring his trumpeter to sound the necessary signals.

The trumpeter follows the chief of the platoon.

The trumpeter who follows the chief of the skirmishers should give the signals only upon the order of that officer.

The skirmishers should execute their movements only by the signals of the trumpeter who accompanies the officer who commands them.

When a squadron is acting as skirmishers, the Captain is always followed by a trumpeter; the other is placed several steps in rear of the centre of the line of skirmishers, in order to repeat as soon as possible the signals given by the trumpeter of the Captain.



Casey’s Infantry Tactics 1862

In column in manoeuvre, the field music and band will march abreast with the left centre company, and on the side opposite the guide.

In column in route, as well as in the passage of defiles to the front or in retreat, they will march at the head of their respective battalions.

The line being formed, the non-commissioned officers on the right, left, and centre, of the platoon, will place themselves ten paces in rear of the line, and. opposite the positions they respectively occupied. The chiefs of sections will promptly rectify any irregularities, and then place themselves twenty-five or thirty paces in rear of the centre of their sections, each having with him four men taken from the reserve, and also a bugler, who will repeat, if necessary, the signals sounded by the captain.

The captain will give a general superintendence to the whole deployment, and then promptly place himself about eight paces in rear of the centre of the line. He will have with him a bugler and four men taken from, the reserve.

The first and second lieutenant will each have a bugler near him.




American Civil War Bugler site
maintained by R.J. Samp.  Lots of essential research and information here.

The National Civil War Field Music School

Bugle Yahoo group