Music of one form or another has been a part of naval heritage for as long as Sailors have plowed the seas. But it wasn't until the early 19th century that a U.S. Navy ship actually had a full band on board to entertain the crew—at least according to some sources.
One of these is All Hands!, the official magazine of the United States Navy. In two separate issues— and April 1948 September 1955—we read the story of the Boston, a 28-gun corvette that stopped at the port of Messina in Sicily in 1802. In one account, a band was invited on board; in another, a band was sent on board. In any event, the crew apparently were so enamored of the ensemble’s dulcet tones that they sailed with the band members still on board. (The 1955 version explains that the band was returned forthwith, while the 1948 version omits that detail.)
Both issues of the magazine recount the second time a U.S. vessel acquired band, but this was under somewhat more legitimate circumstances—it captured a vessel fortunate enough to have one. It seems an eight-piece band had originally enlisted to serve on a French vessel, but it was captured by a Portuguese ship and sailed back to Lisbon. In that port, the musicians signed up for the British ship Macedonian, which wound up on the losing end of an encounter with the USS United States captained by the famed Stephen Decatur. According to Naval records, another famous U.S ship, the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”), shipped out with a 20-piece band thirteen or fourteen years after the capture of the Macedonian. A few years before that, records indicate an amateur band was on board the sloop-of-war Cyane.
One of the earliest instances of a musician being hired specifically to serve on board a U.S. Navy ship came in 1820, when William Raymond of Norfolk, Virginia enlisted as “first-class musician.” And according the logs of the American man-of-war Brandywine, one James F. Draper was a “Musician” who was paid ten dollars a month for his musical skills.
The first mention of a Bandmaster comes in 1852, when Secretary of the Navy John P. Kennedy wrote a letter to the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography asking that he submit a plant for the creation of a band at the Naval Academy. In response, Bureau Chief Charles Morris issued an order that included authorization for a band’s establishment at the Academy, consisting of “one master of the band at $18.00 per month.”