The Bruce/Barrett Controversy

September 2021

George Barrett Bruce and Daniel Decatur Emmett authored one of the more important fife and drum manuals in American drumming history, The Drummers’ and Fifers’ Guide. The Guide was the second book in history to use the term “rudiments” for short drum exercises, after Ashworth did it first in 1812, and contained the first reference to the Flamacue, though it was spelled Flamamacue* at the time. It also was one of the first to advocate for the now standard open-closed-open practice method. Most books before it only asked students to play open-closed and not return to open. This book was praised by later drummers such as Sanford Moeller of the popular Moeller technique and, by extension, the rudimental influence shows up in later books by Gene Krupa (a student of Moeller’s) and Buddy Rich, to drop some significant names. Moeller actually said that Bruce and Emmett “saved American Drumming.” 

*Flamamacue actually makes more sense than Flamacue if you think about it. The rudiment features 5 primary notes, the first and last of which are Flams. Flamacue only has 3 syllables, while Flamamacue has 4. You’ve likely noticed that 4 is still less than 5… but when you link Flamacues together in context, the final Flam is often left off until the last Flamacue of the sequence, meaning all but the last one have 4 notes: “Flamamacue – Flamamacue – Flamamacue – Flam.” The shorter word Flamacue does not work for this or for the rudiment alone, making it a much less functional name.

Despite the praise and long lasting legacy of the book, the life story of author George Bruce is highly questionable. On the cover of the Guide Bruce is said to have served in the 7th Regiment New York State Militia Band, been the Principal Drum Instructor at Bedloe’s Island, and been Principal Drum Instructor at the U.S. Army at the Eastern School of Practice on Governor’s Island. Quite impressive credentials, so it would seem, but let’s examine each one.

Principal Drum Instructor at Bedloe’s Island: (False) The installation on Bedloe’s Island was not a musician’s training facility during the Civil War. The island that is now known as Liberty Island, of Statue of Liberty Fame, was the home of Fort Wood during the Civil War and was used as an ordinance depot. So, one can assume that it did not need a principal drum instructor for any reason. Having no drum instructor, it could not have been Bruce.

Drum Instructor at the U.S. Army at the Eastern School of Practice on Governor’s Island: (Probably False) Governor’s Island was indeed the home of the Eastern School of Practice and did have music instructors on staff, but unfortunately for Bruce’s qualifications, the Civil War era drum instructors there were Sergeant Henke and Sergeant Michael Moore. We know this because of first hand accounts from soldiers who had trained there and the existence of a fife music collection called the Henke-Moore manuscript. We not only know they were there, we know what music they were teaching. Michael Moore, for one, had been stationed there since 1841, leaving little room for Bruce to have been the principal drum instructor. We also know the names of Moore’s and Henke’s assistants, Corporal Butler and Corporal Pfaefie, meaning that George was likely not there as a drum instructor in any significant capacity, being neither the principal nor assistant instructor. 

7th NYSM Band: (Probably False) This one looks on the surface to be the most plausible, since George actually changed his name fairly often, but it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Let me explain. George Barrett Bruce’s birth name was likely to have been George Bruce Barrett. Born in 1816 in Baltimore, MD, George B. Barrett was known to have enlisted in the Maryland 2nd Regiment of Dragoons in 1836 and deserted in 1837. One George Bruce enlisted in the Dragoons in 1839 and served for 4 years but was discharged around 1843, presumably because someone realized Bruce was actually the deserter Barrett. George Bruce is said to have also served as a drummer in the 69th New York Regiment of “Fighting Irish” before the outbreak of the Civil War. A Corporal George Barrett, a name we can now associate with George Bruce from the book, is known to have served in the 7th Regiment NY State Volunteers for a short stint. There is a picture here: This Barrett is likely too young to be the same individual, and this is the wrong 7th Regiment. The unit names are confusingly similar, but it seems as though no Bruce or Barrett of the correct age served in either 7th, and no Bruce or Barrett served in the 7th listed in the book at all.

George Bruce is documented to have served as the drum major in the 22nd Regiment NYSM in 1863 for 30 days. This was a year after the original publication of the book, and thus not mentioned among his qualifications. It is interesting that this post is not added to the 1865 printing of the book. George Bruce Barrett was a drum major and was in charge of the armory for the 5th Infantry in Maryland at some point, as listed in a military publication in 1871 (after the 5th had been disbanded for some time). Barrett here is noted as having been the same man who published the The Drummers’ and Fifers Guide‘, which lends documented credibility to the idea that Bruce and Barrett were the same person. A George Bruce Barrett, with the listed occupation of musician, died in Baltimore in 1884 at the age of 68. This lines up perfectly with the supposed birthdate of our George. It appears that George probably swapped his middle and last names at will, using whichever name suited him best for any given activity.

Here is what I think the George’s factual bio looks like. George Bruce Barrett was born in 1816 in Baltimore and taught to drum by Drum Major Riggs. Riggs reportedly said, “Out of all the drummers I taught, George was the best.” This was stated by one Wm. F. Minneck in a letter to Sanford Moeller. He served under disreputable circumstances in the 2nd Maryland Dragoons as George Barrett, then again as George Bruce between 1836 and 1843. He then served as a drummer in the 69th New York Regiment of Fighting Irish as George Bruce. He published his famous book, The Drummers’ and Fifers’ Guide, as George Bruce in 1862, in which he falsely claimed to have taught at Bedloe’s and Governor’s islands and served in the 7th Militia. He went on to be the drum major for the 22nd Regiment NYSM in 1863 as George Bruce and was later drum major for the 5th Infantry Regiment in Maryland as George Barrett. He died at the age of 68 in Baltimore in 1884 as George Barrett, having had a successful, though over-hyped and confusing, career as a military musician. Despite the false claims, desertion, and name changes, George did have a tangible impact on rudimental music.

In summary, George served under his actual name, Barrett, in the 2nd Maryland Dragoons and the 5th Maryland Infantry. He served under the fake name, Bruce, in the 2nd Maryland Dragoons, 69th Fighting Irish, and the 22nd NYSM. Reportedly, he was a good drummer and his book was, and still is, highly regarded by at least some drummers. Unfortunately, he seemingly never served at Bedloe’s, Governor’s, or in the 7th NYSM, meaning that everything he listed in his book was very likely not true.