The Civil War produced a number of romantic figures and Jeb Stuart was no exception. His exploits are well-documented in numerous biographies about the man. Jeb’s concerns did not always center around military and tactical matters, though. Stuart had time to engage in more relaxing and enjoyable activities such as music. Sam Sweeney led his crude “jazz” band composed of bones (musical instrument made of ivory or whalebone), fiddles, banjos, and guitars. Sweeney, whose brother invented the “modern” banjo and could lay claim to being one of the first blackface minstrels, was a dark, handsome man in his 30’s. Stuart said he made music such as he never heard, but then music ran in Sam’s family. He played while Jeb shuffled his feet to such tunes as “Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still,” “The Corn Tops Ripe,” “Lorena” or “Jine the Cavalry.” Mulatto Bob rattled the bones, negroes danced and sang, and a ventriloquist completed the picture. After hours in the saddle, such gaiety made for a welcome relief from war tensions and horror.
The acquisition of Sweeney gave Stuart a source of constant amusement with which he could jokingly throw an occasional barb or two at one Colonel T.T. Munford. It seemed before Jeb “stole” him away, Sweeney had been attached to the Colonel’s regiment. One day John Esten Cooke, a novelist and historian in Jeb’s cavalry, asked him in jest: “Why don’t you come on over and enjoy the music?” Munford could only growl his displeasure, for the deed was already done.
Among the many incidents occurring within Stuart’s circle of compatriots was one that took place shortly before fierce fighting at Fredericksburg. Procuring four mules and a wagon from the medical department, von Borcke, Pelham, Sweeney, Captain Blackford, Lieutenant Dabney, two fiddle players, plus an assortment of musicians and dancers headed out for a short jaunt near Chancellorsville. The caravan must have made quite a sight as they traveled down frozen roads singing. After being gone most of the night, this intrepid band of merrymakers returned at daybreak. Soon they would be engaged in a life and death struggle for this small Virginia town.
Smallpox claimed Sweeney’s life in November, 1863. Music still played almost nightly, but without his nimble fingers strumming the banjo, or accompanying Stuart with song, it would never be the same.
— by Wes Rine
This article first appeared in Volume 1, No. 4 of The Cannoneer.
FYI- Sam’s brother, Joe, is credited with inventing the lively five string banjo, said to be the only musical instrument ever invented in North America. He was one of the first minstrels, incorporating the Negro influence into his music. He once gave a command performance for Queen Victoria.