Born in Easton, Northampton County, Pennsylvania in 1803, Thomas Coates was the son of John and Barbara (Boynton) Coates, natives of Tynemouth, Northumberland, England. His father became a naturalized citizen of the United States in Philadelphia in 1813.
A celebrated hornist, Thomas Coates was described in his obituary in The Times of Philadelphia as “one of the original French horn players who made such a furore [sic] forty years ago.”
At the age of 10, according to Lewis Schmidt, author of A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers, Coates “joined a circus band and started for the south, where the band disbanded and stranded young Coates in South Carolina. He was picked up by a German street band and billed as ‘the Boy Wonder on the French Horn.'”
Schmidt also notes that Coates “was touted to be the first cornet soloist in America.” In 1824, Coates was given the honor of performing with the Easton Band (then Pomp’s Cornet Band) when General Marquis de Lafayette paid a return visit to the Borough of Easton in 1824 as part of his much heralded tour of America.
Sought after as a horn section member, soloist and, ultimately, as a conductor by numerous local and regional ensembles, including the renowned Dodsworth and Gilmore bands of New York, he further honed his musical talents. Named as the leader of Barnum’s Hippodrome Circus band and then Dodsworth’s Second Band, Coates then assumed the role of conductor for the Easton Band in Northampton County sometime before 1850.
Coates also achieved national prominence as a composer of band and orchestral music, and is credited by many modern day military music historians as one of the first American band leaders to replace keyed bugles with piston-valved brass instruments.
Civil War Service
In April 1861, following the fall of Fort Sumter to Confederate forces, Thomas Coates and his Lehigh Valley band gave a hearty sendoff to 180 of Pennsylvania’s earliest responders to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for help in defending the nation’s capital. Many missed being designated officially as “First Responders” by just one day and became known, instead, as “Three Month Men” – those who began serving before even greater numbers joined the larger war effort just a few short months later.
On 20 June 1861, according to The History of Easton, Penn’a from the Earliest Times to the Present penned by the Rev. Uzal Condit, A.M.:
Thomas Coates, the director of Pomp’s Cornet Band, whose widely known music had furnished inspiration to many a meeting in Easton, was honored by a flag-raising in front of his residence on South Fourth street. The band played its choicest music and the glee club sang its happiest songs, and excellent speeches assured the large crowd of citizens of the safety of the Union.
Coates subsequently enrolled for military duty himself, mustering in at the rank of Band Leader, 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry at Camp Curtin, Harrisburg, Dauphin County on 14 August 1861. His brief tour of duty took him to Kalorama Heights in Washington, D.C. and onto southern soil as the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers marched into Virginia.
On 27 September 1861, Coates and his fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were assigned to Brigadier-General Isaac Stevens’ 3rd Brigade. By afternoon, band members were leading their regiment in a march to Camp Lyon, Maryland on the eastern side of the Potomac River, and across a chain bridge, toward Falls Church, Virginia.
After completing a roughly eight-mile trek, they arrived at Camp Advance near the Union’s new Fort Ethan Allen. Pitching their tents in a deep ravine fairly close to General W.F. Smith’s headquarters, they were now part of the Union’s massive Army of the Potomac, and protected Washington, D.C. until receiving new orders in the New Year.
Next ordered to move from their Virginia encampment back to Maryland, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers left Camp Griffin at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 January 1862, marching through deep mud with their equipment for three miles in order to reach the railroad station at Fall’s Church. Sent by rail to Alexandria, they then sailed the Potomac via the steamship City of Richmond to the Washington Arsenal, where they were reequipped before they were marched off for dinner and rest at the Soldiers’ Retreat in Washington, D.C. The next afternoon, the 47th Pennsylvanians hopped railcars on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and headed for Annapolis, Maryland. Arriving around 10 p.m., they were assigned quarters in barracks at the Naval Academy. They then spent that Friday through Monday (24-27 January 1862) loading their equipment and other supplies onto the steamship Oriental.
By the afternoon of Monday, 27 January 1862, Thomas Coates and his fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers had commenced boarding the Oriental. Ferried to the big steamship by smaller steamers, the officers boarded last. Per orders from Brigadier-General Brannan, the Oriental steamed off for the Deep South at 4 p.m. The 47th Pennsylvanians were headed for Florida which, despite its secession from the Union, remained strategically important to the Union due to the presence of Forts Taylor and Jefferson in Key West and the Dry Tortugas.
Upon their arrival in Key West, Florida, they would garrison Fort Taylor and protect civilians loyal to the Union who were still residing in neighboring southern territories. On 14 February, Coates’ bandsmen were given an early opportunity to shine as they led the regiment in a parade through the streets of Key West.
Sent to Hilton Head, South Carolina in mid-June, Coates and the 47th Pennsylvania were attached to the Beaufort District, U.S. Department of the South through July. Soldiers from the regiment frequently performed hazardous picket duty during this phase.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., the bean counters were busy tallying up the costs of a war now entering its second year. Deeming regimental bands an unnecessary expense in light of those rising federal expenses, the U.S. Congress passed legislation on 17 July 1862 ordering that all such bands be promptly, but honorably mustered out. Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. War Department effected this change via General Order 91, issued on 29 July 1862. Professor Thomas Coates mustered out from military life on 1 September 1862.
As the remaining musicians of Regimental Band, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry also packed and readied for their return home in early September 1862, the 47th’s Commanding Officer, Colonel Tilghman H. Good, expressed both disappointment and respect in a letter to the ensemble:
Headquarters 47th Regt. P.V.
Beaufort, S.C., Sept. 9, 1862
Gentlemen of the Band,
In accordance with an enactment of Congress and an order from the War Department, you have been regularly mustered out of the service of the United States, and are consequently detached from the regiment. I had vainly hoped when you were with us, united to do battle for our country, that we should remain together, to share the dangers and reap the same glory, until every vestige of the present wicked rebellion should be forever crushed, and we unitedly return again to our homes in peace, and receive of our fellow creatures the welcome plaudit, ‘well done’.
But fate has decreed otherwise, and you are about to bid ‘farewell’, and in taking leave of you, gentlemen, I beg leave to compliment you on your good deportment and manly bearings whilst connected with the regiment, and when you shall have departed from amongst us the sweet strains of music which emanated from you and so often swelled the breeze during dress parade, shall still ring in our ears.
Invoking heaven’s choicest gifts upon you collectively and individually, I bid you god speed on your homeward voyage and through all your future career. May your future course through life be as bright and happy as your past has been prosperous and safe.
I am, Gents,
Your obedient servant,
T. H. Good
Col. 47th Regt. Penna. Vols.
Return to Civilian Life
In 1864, Thomas Coates and the Easton Band performed with the band of Patrick Gilmore at the Peace Jubilee in Boston.
An 1870 city directory for New York City noted that Thomas Coates, a resident of 236 Broome Street, was employed as a professor in that city. By 1873, according to a different directory, he was back in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, employed as a professor in Easton.
On 16 December 1875, Thomas Coates wed Elizabeth Uplinger (alternate spelling of surname: Oplinger) at the First United Methodist Church in Easton.
The next year, The Times of Philadelphia was reporting that “PROF. THOMAS COATES, of Easton, was in the city yesterday” [24 March 1876], “made arrangements to take up his residence here during the Centennial season,” and described him as “the leading musical band instructor in the Lehigh valley for many years.”
The U.S. Veterans’ Schedule confirms that he resided in Easton in 1890. Just five years later, on 11 October 1895 at the age of 70, Thomas Coates died from heart disease in Easton. One of his obituaries indicated that his second wife was his only surviving relative, another that all of the musicians in Easton would likely attend his funeral.
He was interred at the Easton Cemetery. The obelisk marking his grave site reads:
Father Of Band Music
1803 – 1895.
Erected By Friends.
47 REGT. PA. VET. VOL.
On 17 July 1896, The Allentown Leader reported that, although Coates “never received the credit due his genius while living … a marvelous tribute was paid to his talent” earlier that year. “At a monster concert in Berlin, his plantation scenes” were “played by the new Philharmonic band,” and received tremendous audience acclaim.
In 1905, his widow, Mrs. Eliza Coates, “suffered a concussion of the brain, falling headfirst through a skylight into a store in Easton,” and was “badly cut about the head by the glass.” According to The Allentown Leader, the incident happened when Eliza Coates and her older sister, Miss Mary Ann Oplinger, were engaged in moving their place of residence from their second story apartment above the store to a new apartment on the story above. Investigators theorized that she had been up on the roof shaking out a carpet, and fell.
“The ambulance was called and took her to the hospital, the horse being driven on the run.” Sadly, her injuries were fatal, according to the 10 November 1905 edition of the Reading Times. She was 60 years old at the time of her passing.
A dedication ceremony for Thomas Coates’ monument was held at the Easton Cemetery on Saturday afternoon, 20 May 1911, and was “preceded by a street parade of the combined bands of Easton and Allentown and the military organizations of Easton,” according to a report on 19 May 1911 by The Allentown Leader:
J. Harry Andrews, the band and orchestra leader, has enlisted the services of all the Easton band men in the movement and has also secured the acceptance of the Allentown, Century and Pioneer Bands of Allentown…. It is expected that a combined band of 150 members will be in the line of the parade. Mr. Andrews has been selected as the leader during the parade and the services at the grave. District Attorney William M. McKeen will deliver the eulogy in memory of Prof. Coates, and Rev. E. E. Snyder of Christ Lutheran Church will deliver the opening and closing prayers.
The parade proceeded west on Northampton Street from the south side of Center Square to the Easton Cemetery Seventh Street; participants returned via Seventh to Northampton and the Center Square by way of the following order of march:
- Marshal: Major John Miller
- Aide: Captain E.G. Ritter
- Combined Bands:
Company I, 13th Regiment, Pennsylvania National Guard
Company A, 2nd Regiment, Sons of Veterans Reserves
- Boy Scouts, Troop A
- Lafayette Post No. 217, G.A.R.
- United Spanish War Veterans
Organizers of the 1911 monument dedication and memorial service for Professor Thomas Coates also asked all of Easton’s citizens to fly the American flag from their homes and businesses “in memory of the foremost bandmaster in America during the Civil War, who was born and died in Easton, and lies buried in the Easton Cemetery.”
1. The Allentown Leader. Allentown: Various Dates:
- Death of a Famed Musician, in The Allentown Leader. Allentown: 14 October 1895.
- Fell through Skylight: Professor’s Widow Meets with Serious Accident. Allentown: 8 November 1905.
- Monument in Memory of Thomas Coates, in The Allentown Leader. Allentown: 19 May 1911.
- Not Merited Until After Death, in The Allentown Leader. Allentown: 17 July 1896.
2. Bates, Samuel P History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5. Harrisburg: 1869.
3. City Directories. Ancestry.com: New York City, 1870; Easton, Pennsylvania, 1873.
4. Condit A.M., Rev. Uzal. The History of Easton, Penn’a from the Earliest Times to the Present, 1739-1865. Washington, D.C.: West & Condit, 1885.
5. Henry, Matthew Schropp. History of the Lehigh Valley: Containing a Copious Selection of the Most Interesting Facts, Traditions, Biographical Sketches, Anecdotes, etc., etc., Relating to Its History and Antiquities; with Complete History of All Its Internal Improvements, Progress of the Coal and Iron Trade, Manufacturers, etc. Easton: Bixler & Corwin, 1860.
6. Pennsylvania Veteran’s Burial Index Cards. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
7. Northampton County, in Reading Times . Reading: 10 November 1905.
8. Schmidt, Lewis. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown: Self-published. 1986.
9. The Civil War Bands, in Band Music from the Civil War Era. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Library of Congress, retrieved from LOC website, September 2015.
10. The Times . Philadelphia: Various Dates:
- Famous Musician Dead, in The Times. Philadelphia: 13 October 1895.
- Personal, in The Times. Philadelphia: 25 March 1876.
11. U.S. Veterans’ Schedule (1890). Washington, D.C. and Easton, Pennsylvania.