The best stories are most often the ones that create local connections to people, places, and things. A photo, a story, an object – each can spark interest and open the door for endless exploration. Allow me to explore with you an account of the past that deals with the rather uncommon combination of music and war. It is a story that still lives through words, photos, and one very special instrument.
Nell Yeager Bumgarner was a treasure. A veritable storehouse of knowledge, she and her husband Guy became irreplaceable icons of the Lucasville community. Nell was a skilled writer and the author of many articles and poems. An invaluable historian, she delighted in sharing information about her dear home, Lucasville, Ohio.
Nell was born in Lucasville on September 9, 1895, the sixth child of Benjamin McKendree Yeager, a Civil War veteran.
Benjamin Yeager was born April 18, 1847, and “being precocious for his age of fifteen” as Nell remembered, passed as seventeen when he volunteered for the Union Army at Portsmouth, Ohio.
Yeager was mustered into Co H 117th OVI on November 31,1862. He was transferred to Co H, 1st Ohio Volunteer Heavy Artillery on August 12, 1863. Promoted to Principal Musician, Yeager was transferred to F&S, 1st OVHA on October 7, 1864.
One project Nell regretted never achieving stemmed from her father's participation in the war. She wanted to write a play based on the “gentle stories” Benjamin had told her of “the epic battle” to save the Union. Taking into account Nell's daughterly as a member of the fairer sex, it may be assumed that “gentle” referred to the proper editing done by her father before he spoke of his personal recollections.
The point-of-view in Nell's play would have been rooted in her father's first-hand perspective of a Northern soldier who came to love the South deeply, thus portraying the “wonderment of a young, sensitive boy.” The play would have paid homage to her father – “the finest of musicians, an artist turned to nature, who took no sides – thrown into horrible conditions such as picking up the wounded and dead after battles as musicians were required to do.”
By all accounts, Benjamin Yeager was an extremely talented musician. Nell remembered what she called “her sweetest memory of early times” …
“(I remember) my father's rendition of Schumann's “Traumerei” (Dreaming) on his violin. I'm sure Dad had a perfect 'ear' as does my daughter (Laurie Franks). Dad's boys were full of music. But not Nellie. I can't even tell when a key changes, much less what to do.”
After the war, Benjamin told Nell many fascinating stories such as the time he “hoarded a quarter in the pocket of his badly worn army pants as he advanced over the mountains.” He kept the quarter until he was able to purchase a mince pie, but when he ate the pie, it made him sick. Evidently, he had been close to starvation. He related many stories like this that told of the rugged conditions faced by the soldiers in the Civil War.
Nell's grandfather went to war the same year her dad enlisted. He helped tend to the casualties of war. While on furlough, he “carried “the old black pox” home in his soiled clothing, and it “devastated much of the family.” Nell recalls hearing that smallpox was so bad that “the lips of the afflicted stuck together from the sores and had to be pried apart before a victim could eat.”
Her grandfather's eyes had been so affected by the disease that her father had to look after the home place after the war. Nell believed her father faithfully did so although he really wanted to go to St. Louis and join the symphony there. She said, “I'm sure Dad could have achieved world fame with his extraordinary musical talents.”
The Silver Flute
In July of 1863, when the Yeager family heard about John Hunt Morgan's raid up the Scioto Valley,
they gathered what they could and “took it over the ridge to hoped-for safety at her Grandpa and Granny Brant's house.”
Morgan invaded Jackson, Ohio the same day her father's fifers and drummers were recruiting. When the raiders got to Jackson, they captured Benjamin Yeager and his comrades, and they “locked him up (presumedly) in a barn.” Since Morgan had no way to transport prisoners, they released Yeager and his fellow musicians a few days later.
After the war,when asked about his capture, Yeager amusingly answered, “Morgan wasn't a bit afraid of me, so he let me go.” He also said that the raiders “weren't but a bunch of rowdy, ragtail boys. He had watched them raid a dry goods store and related, “They seized several bolts of fabric, jumped on their horses, and galloped down Jackson's main street unfurling their colors.” This account adds credence to what some Northern newspapers derisively labeled Morgan's expedition – “The Calico Raid” in reference to the raiders' propensity for procuring personal goods from local stores and houses.
At Berlin Crossroads in Jackson County, Morgan defeated a group of 1,500 Ohio militiamen in “a lively three-hour skirmish,” while five miles northwest of Centerville, in Gallia County, a detachment of Michigan cavalrymen drove off the raiders in a brief encounter. Morgan was soon running to cross the Ohio River south to safety. To Confederates, what seemed like a daring expedition behind enemy lines was but another in a long string of defeats in 1863 like Gettysburg and Vicksburg.
Benjamin Yeager was eventually promoted to “Principal Musician and Fife Major.” And, for his service, he was awarded a silver fife. It was inscribed “Benjamin M. Yeager,” and it had been bought by funds raised by that group of “worn, hungry, tired-and-ragged boys and men whose hearts were warmed and spirits raised by music of drum and fife.” After his promotion, Benjamin was sent south to Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee, under General Sherman.
Yeager was mustered out at Knoxville, Tennessee on July 25, 1865. He died in 1923 and was buried in Lucasville Cemetery.
One of the more enduring and interesting historical details of this Civil War Principal Musician's life is that famous silver fife. Believe it or not, evidence of its existence has been found. It was an auction piece for Bonhams, a renowned, privately owned international auction house. Founded in 1793, it is one of the world's largest and most renowned auctioneers of fine art and antiques, motor cars and jewelry.
Where is the flute now? I don't know. I am making further inquiry with this blog and correspondence to Bonham's. If you have further information, please reply. Here is the post and the photo of William Yeager's famed silver flute:
A Civil War presentation fife
The 17 inch B-flat German silver fife inscribed below the mouthpiece Presented to/Benjamin M. Yeager/By Comp. H/1st Regt. O.V.H.A. (Ohio Volunteer Heavy Artillery) Mounted in a glazed frame with a red reunion ribbon marked 1st O.H.A. Together with a copy of Lucasville Lore by Mr. Yeager's daughter Nell Yeager Bumgarner. The book contains two post-Civil War photographs of Yeager, as well as some of his wartime reminiscences as Fife Major and Principal Musician of Company H. In particular it details the musicians of this company in Jackson, Ohio by John Hunt Morgan and his raiders. After holding the musicians, who were in town recruiting, for a few days the Confederates released them.
Nell Yeager Bumgarner. Compiled and edited by Dr. Robert Emerson French and published by Laura Rachel Franks (Bumgarner). Signature Press. 1995.
Nell's cousin, Ralph Appel, son of Frank Appel and Jennie Cook, wrote this poem on the news of Benjamin Yeager's death. Here is an excerpt …
The fire bewitchingly gleams
And it slowly seems
To cast its shadows on the floor,
And therein take their places
Some old familiar faces
That I have seen before.
As I sit there dreaming
Those faces keep on beaming
As of old.
But the one that seems the brightest
To a friend whose heart was lightest
Now is cold.
And the sight of that kind face
Takes me back unto the place
Of childhood days
To that dreamy little town
With Two-hundred people settled down
To simple, lazy ways.
So with sharpened recollections
I'll indulge in retrospection
Of those men,
But the only face I see
Is one so dear to me,
Old Uncle Ben.
In his early education
There was little regulation
Or theoretical success,
But one of his great joys
Was to entertain the boys –
How? You guess!
Well, he was quite a musician
With the greatest fascination
For its charms,
But once in youthful rage
While still much under age
He answered a nation's “Call to Arms.”