The Tale of a Troublesome Harp, According to Henry K. Douglas

I’ve got a broken string on my harp. Not a big deal. I’ll get it changed and hopefully in tune before choir practice tomorrow.

And how is this related to history? Well…I’ve a story for you. About broken harp strings.

To begin, you have to understand the musical severity of this situation. When harp strings break, it’s almost impossible to play properly and the tuning of the harp changes slightly because the tension on the instrument has been altered. The best thing to do: get the string changed as quickly as possible. Apparently that wasn’t an easy feature in Civil War Virginia during winter of 1865…

Henry K. Douglas, a young staff officer who had served with “Stonewall” Jackson and later Jubal Early, recorded the details in his memoirs.

Henry K. Douglas

There had been a round of wedding in mid-January 1865, and Douglas attended several in the Virginian Shenandoah Valley. At William Francis Coleman’s wedding, he met this girl – a girl who played the harp. He sets the scene as a glittering dance and reception:

“…The wedding next night was a brilliant one, in that hospitable old mansion in the ‘Green Spring Valley.’ General Longstreet and many officers in uniform were there, and a band of music. I was the ‘best man’ – there were thirteen groomsmen and as many bridesmaids – and my bridesmaid was the queen of the party, except the bride. It was night of dance and merriment. When four o’clock [a.m.] came I was dancing with the bride, but my hour of departure had arrived. Hasty farewells and I was off to the train…”

The memory of conversation with that bridesmaid stuck with Douglas and she had told him about a problem. She played harp, had broken strings, and no way to get replacements. It’s unclear if Douglas really wanted to impress her or if he was just being kind, but he “wrote to Baltimore for some harp strings for the harp of my bridesmaid at Coleman’s wedding, to be sent to Moorefield. Gilmor, who was to make a raid to that point, under orders from General Early, promised to get them for me.”

Harry Gilmor

What could go wrong? Order the harp strings to a particular house. Have your partisan buddy pick them up on his next raid. It didn’t turn out well for Harry Gilmor, one of the well-known partisan leaders in the Shenandoah Valley.

He made the raid and tried to keep his promise, but was captured and confined in prison for the rest of the war, and thus ended Harry Gilmor’s career. Big, kind-hearted Harry was looked upon as a terror.

Sheridan telegraphed to Halleck, “He is an energetic, shrewd, unscrupulous scoundrel and dangerous man. He must be closely watched or he will escape.”

Halleck replied, “A special guard should be selected to take him” to Fort Warren.

The dark saga of that harp didn’t end with Gilmor’s capture, though…

As for that harp, it continued to work mischief until the last days of the Confederacy. When Sheridan and G.K. Warren broke our troops up at Five Forks, General “Rooney” Lee sent Captain Phil Dandridge of his staff with an ambulance and squad of cavalry to remove Mrs. G and her family from their home to Petersburg. The daughter of the house refused to leave her harp behind. The big musical pet was brought out and tied upon the top of the ambulance. This took time, and before they were off the Federal cavalry were in sight. A spirited fight took place between Dandridge’s escort and the pursuing cavalry, while the ambulance with its precious inmates took refuge in flight. As the escort holding the enemy in check were gradually driven back, the driver lashed his frantic horses and disappeared through the woods. As the for the harp, the wind whistled through its tossing strings and played a melancholy dirge for the men who were being shot in defense of its fair mistress.

Clearly, this harp (and its player) caused a lot of trouble! And I can speak from experience at outdoor venues that a strong wind hitting taut harp strings creates an eerie, strange sound.

Mid-19th Century British photograph of a lady with her harp.

Historically speaking, harps have been around for centuries. Ancient Egyptians played a form of the instrument. King David of Israel composed psalms for harp and lyre and even played to sooth his unhappy predecessor. It’s a popular instrument in South America with a long history in their music. The harp with its “traditional” shape and style has Celtic roots, though later the French enlarged and developed the instrument for orchestra. During the Civil War, many of the Irish regiments used the Celtic harp symbol on their green flags. I received some of my musical training on a pedal harp (the one for orchestra), but I play a Celtic style harp with 36 strings.

Either style can be a real pain to move even with the modern transportation conveniences. I truly feel sorry for the officers who had to lift that thing and tie it to the top an ambulance. Douglas did not specify exactly what style of harp got carted away. He likely never saw the harp and only knew the story through friends. But either way, that transportation method is pretty risky!

In Celtic and medieval stories and legends, harps are often used in special or “magical” ways – for good or evil. Their songs have cast or loosed spells, guided the lost, or enchanted locations. This tale from 1865 has no magic, but one has to wonder if the power of music, an instrument, and a demanding harpist caused the downfall of Harry Gilmor and several Confederate cavalrymen. The harp on top of a rattling ambulance offered the haunting notes for the saga that could’ve become an oft-repeated tale of unlucky woe in the era of the bards.


Douglas, Henry K. I Rode With Stonewall: The War Experience of the Youngest Member of Jackson’s Staff. (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1968.) Pages 323-325.

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