Before phonographs, radios, motion pictures, and television, Americans embraced live music as one of the greatest means to entertain and strengthen ties between families and communities. In the late nineteenth century many American towns had a community brass band along with a bandstand near the center of town. These bands would have accompanied holiday celebrations, parades, political rallies, ribbon cuttings, and most other social events throughout the year. Military bands also became popular in the late nineteenth century to bolster national patriotism and morale and to accompany specific units in drill. In Washington, D.C., home to the Washington Marine Corps Barracks, the Washington Navy Yard, and the Washington Arsenal (later renamed Washington Barracks and today’s Fort Lesley J. McNair), residents and service members enjoyed the entertainment provided by numerous professional military bands, one being the U.S. Engineer Band.
In 1880 nine men formed an informal band of engineer-musicians at the Engineer School in Willets Point, New York. The band’s ranks swelled to sixteen in 1887 and to twenty-four in 1894. The War Department formally established the U.S. Engineer Band in 1901 just a few months prior to the Engineer School’s relocation from Willets Point to the Washington Barracks in southwest Washington, D.C.
“The Melody Shop” march performed by the U. S. Army Field Band. First released in 1910, “The Melody Shop” march was one of composer Karl King’s most popular songs and has remained a staple of military bands from Kamper’s time until today.
The Engineer Band performed at various venues throughout the city, from the Smithsonian Gardens, Judiciary Park, or the south lawn of the White House to their home base at the Washington Barracks. The band drew crowds with a diverse repertoire of everything from fashionable polkas to many of the band standards (by Sousa, King, Fillmore, Wagner, and Tobani) we still listen to today.
Sgt. Julius Kamper rose to become the U.S. Engineer Band’s Chief Musician in the early twentieth century. A Swiss immigrant, he was born in Rheinfelden in the northern canton of Aargau. He began studying music from the age of seven. Kamper specialized in the cornet but also played the violin, clarinet, and other instruments. Upon his graduation from high school, Kamper served his compulsory military service in the Swiss Army band and afterward toured Europe as a musician. Kamper emigrated to New York City in 1880 and performed with various bands there before joining the Engineer Band at Willets Point in 1883. Kamper followed the Engineer School and the Engineer Band to Washington, D.C., in 1901 and served as the band’s director until his retirement in 1912. He continued living in the District of Columbia where he was active in the Shriner’s Band and the Band of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. Kamper passed away on December 28, 1936.
“The Invincible Eagle” performed by the United States Army Concert Band. Written by John Philip Sousa for the Pan American Expo in 1901, “The Invincible Eagle” has remained one of the most popular parade marches in the United States for over a century.
This selection of photographs is from the Charles Koeber U.S. Engineer Band Collection at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Office of History. The collection consists of materials associated with the donor’s father, Edward Koeber, and uncle, Julius Kamper. Both were veterans who served in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War and who were members of the U.S. Engineer Band. The collection includes nearly 40 photographs depicting the Engineer, the Bureau of Engraving, and the Shriner bands and musicians, Camp Devens in Massachusetts, and Washington Barracks in D.C. Also part of the collection is a large scrapbook of newspaper clippings, music lists and programs, and other information about the activities of the Engineer Band. The book itself is a recycled Engineer Band morning report book from the late 19th century with the contents pasted over the original official information. The Office of History acquired the collection in April 2013 directly from the creator/donor Charles Koeber. The objects pictured below are part of the Office of History’s general museum collection.
Please be advised that some of the images posted on this site are edited for visual clarity. The original versions, along with additional images from the Koeber collection, are located in the USACE Digital Library where they can be viewed and downloaded.