The beats of battle: Images of Army drummer boys endure

Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers Live

 

An older Soldier of the 31st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry instructs younger drummers during the Civil War. According to Glenn Williams, a senior historian at the U.S. Army Center for Military History, the average age for a drummer in the Civil War was around 18, and by 1864, the Union Army had forbidden the recruitment of boys under the age of 16, although there were a number of notable exceptions. Williams said that during the 18th and 19th centuries, the term boy often meant apprentice, and that many drummer boys were just that to older Army musicians and officers. Their duties could include acting as servants to the officers or as assistants to the unit surgeons. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

An older Soldier of the 31st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry instructs younger drummers during the Civil War. According to Glenn Williams, a senior historian at the U.S. Army Center for Military History, the average age for a drummer in the Civil War was around 18, and by 1864, the Union Army had forbidden the recruitment of boys under the age of 16, although there were a number of notable exceptions. Williams said that during the 18th and 19th centuries, the term boy often meant apprentice, and that many drummer boys were just that to older Army musicians and officers. Their duties could include acting as servants to the officers or as assistants to the unit surgeons. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

Pa rum pum pum pum.

The sound, or something similar, echoed through Army camps and battles from before the American Revolution, from the days of the first colonial militias, from the armies of the old country, from time immemorial until the Civil War.

The various beats – about 40 according to Glenn Williams, a senior historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History – signaled everything from chow time to formation to pay to time to charge the enemy. Basically, Williams explained, drummers and other musicians like fifers and buglers were the “radio-telephone operators” of their day. For much of military history, this was the most effective way for commanders to relay their orders to hundreds or even thousands of troops on the battlefield.

“The importance of the drummer was transmitting orders and also to regulate camp duties and to help with morale,” Williams said. “It kind of takes your mind off of the arduous task of long-distance marching if you hear something. Another reason, particularly, say in the 18th century, Revolutionary War period, it took your mind off what was going on if you were on the fire line, to hear the music, something else to hear, to kind of divert your attention. …It might be something about music calming the savage beast mixed in with that, and also to give you a little heart. You’re out there on the firing line and you hear something that makes you think of home or makes you think of comrades or something like that, it might be a little heartening.

“They also used to intimidate the enemy,” he continued. “Before the actual battle began, it wasn’t unusual for your fifes and your drums to march out in front of the regiment and play a tune before they fell in with their companies and maybe intimidate the enemy a little bit.”

About 200 drummers served in the Revolution, Williams estimated. The youngest is said to have been Nathan Futrell, who reportedly joined the North Carolina militia at the age of seven, although Williams said this would have been the exception. In reality the average age for drummer boys in the American Revolution was 20, and 18 in the Civil War. A small percentage were somewhere around 14, with only a handful younger than that, usually the sons or orphans of Soldiers.

“Through the 19th century, the term boy didn’t just mean an adolescent male. It also meant an apprentice,” he explained. “So the drummer boy might have had other duties during the day, like serving or waiting upon an officer, or helping the surgeon during sick call. … And then he would go with the drum major who would instruct him on how to beat the drum and the rudiments of drumming and things like that.”

A more typical drummer boy, for example, would have been Rufus Landon, who was 17 when he enlisted in a Connecticut unit. According to the Sons of the American Revolution, Landon was first assigned to Fort Ticonderoga, N.Y., and later helped guard the Hudson River. He also served in his unit’s smallpox hospital.

Sometimes drumming could be a family tradition. Michael Lightner, according to recent news reports, was a drummer during the infamous winter at Valley Forge, Pa. He bequeathed his drum, decorated with an eagle and 13 stars, to his son Henry, who, according to legend, brought the drum with him when he enlisted in the Maryland militia during the War of 1812. At the age of 16, Henry kept time as his unit marched to defend Baltimore at Fort McHenry during the fall of 1814. He reportedly helped sound the alarm that the British army was approaching. And then, as the battle raged and rockets exploded, he stayed at his post to relay the beats that directed the Soldiers in battle. Henry’s unmarked grave was rediscovered in 2012. His descendants and the city of Baltimore honored him with a headstone engraved “Drummer Boy of Fort McHenry.”

Another well-known drummer from the War of 1812 was Jarvis Hanks, said Williams. Hanks had been playing the drums since the age of four or five and enlisted in the Army at the age of 14. According to a War of 1812 bicentennial site and his own memoirs, Hanks served in the 11th United States Infantry, seeing action at the unsuccessful Battle of Crysler’s Farm in Canada in 1813 and the Niagara Campaign in 1814. During the campaign, Hanks was nearly killed in the bloody Battle of Lundy’s Lane that July.

“Over this fence the Soldiers were obliged to climb to obtain their places in the line,” Hanks later wrote. “Many of them were shot and fell. … While sitting on the fence for a single instant … a charge of grape shot rattled around me with terrible threatening to my personal safety. They cut the branches of trees over my head, and on my right hand and on my left; also splintered the rails on either side and under my feet but not so much as the hair of my head was hurt!

“It is thought by many that, as musicians are placed in the rear of the line,” he continued, “they are in consequence in less danger than the private Soldiers. … But, as the musicians are placed in the rear of the colours (sic), in the centre (sic) of the regiment or battalion, and as the aim of enemies respectively is mainly to shoot down the flags … it seems to me that musicians thus situated are in equal danger.” Hanks later became a noted painter and an abolitionist.

By the Civil War, Williams said, the importance of the company drummer had started to wane as commanders turned more and more to buglers to relay their commands. This was largely due to advancements in warfare and weaponry that made it more difficult to distinguish the beats of a drum among heavy artillery fire. Ironically, however, this is the war for which there is by far the most documentation of drummer boys.

Civil War drummers were on average about 18 years old, according to Williams. In fact, the Union Army tightened restrictions on age limits during the war, but there were still notable exceptions like Charles “Charley” King, who, at the age of 13, earned the somewhat dubious distinction of becoming the youngest Soldier killed during the Civil War after he was mortally wounded during the Battle of Antietam, Md. Although King, who served in Company F, 49th Pennsylvania Infantry, was assigned to the rear to help with the wounded during the battle, a Confederate shell overshot the lines and struck him. He died three days later.

John “Johnny Shiloh” Clem is one of the best-known Civil War drummer boys. He unofficially joined the 22nd Michigan Infantry at the age of nine, and unit officers paid him $13 a month out of their own pockets until he was added to the muster roll in 1863. During the Battle of Chickamauga, Ga., in September 1863, he famously shot a Confederate officer who demanded his surrender using a specially sized musket. He did briefly become a prisoner of war a couple of weeks later, although he was released after just three days. Despite stories that his drum was destroyed during the Battle of Shiloh, thus earning his nickname, it’s extremely unlikely he was actually present at that battle. Later in the war, he spent much of his time carrying dispatches. Clem went on to have a long career in the Army, eventually retiring as a major general and the last actively serving Civil War veteran shortly before World War I.

Several young drummers were even awarded Medals of Honor for their heroism during the Civil War. Although he was only14 or 15 at the time, William Horsfall, who played the drums for Company G, 1st Kentucky Infantry Regiment, ran between the lines to rescue his wounded captain during the Siege of Corinth, Miss., May 21, 1862. He received the Medal of Honor in 1895.

Orion Howe was an accomplished drummer when he enlisted in Company C, 55th Illinois Infantry at the age of 13, the son of the regimental fife major (who had himself served as a drummer in the Mexican-American War) and the brother of another drummer. The unit suffered heavy casualties during an assault on Confederate lines in the May 1863 Vicksburg, Miss., campaign. Orion broke his promise to remain in the rear and was soon bringing water to the wounded. As ammunition became short, he collected cartridge boxes from the wounded and dying until his colonel sent him back to headquarters with a request for more ammo. As Orion ran across the battlefield, a Confederate bullet tore into his thigh. That didn’t stop him from relaying the message to Gen. William T. Sherman at headquarters, however. He received the Medal of Honor in 1896.

Life as a drummer was hard. William Bircher, who enlisted in the 2nd Minnesota Regiment in the summer of 1861 after several rejections because he hadn’t yet turned 15, kept a diary describing the hardships of war: going without hot meals for weeks on end, marching for miles without shoes, disease – Bircher suffered from dysentery – and, of course, the fear and horrors of battle that he shared with the regular Soldiers. William didn’t just play the drums. He marched, he regularly pulled guard duty and he helped with the wounded.

“Our band was detailed to the hospital to assist the nurses in taking care of the wounded (after the Battle of Chattanooga)” he wrote, Sept. 22, 1863. “It was heartwrending to see the poor fellows as they were brought in, shot and mangled in every possible way. Every few moments we had to take one out who had died, and put him in the dead house, where he would remain until there was a wagonload.”

During Sherman’s 1864 march through Georgia, William’s regiment lost another drummer: “We lost poor Simmers, the drummer of Company G, during the night. The poor fellow, being unable to keep up, lay down somewhere along the road, and was captured by the (Confederates) that were following us up. I took his blanket and drum to relieve him, but he was too fatigued to follow, saying ‘Oh, let me rest. Let me sleep a short time. Then I will follow on.’ I tried to keep him under my eye, but he finally eluded me, and when we again stopped for a short rest, he was not to be found. By that time he was most likely a prisoner.”

This was why the Army was usually so reluctant to take on young boys as drummers, Williams said, explaining that it was a difficult duty and the drums were heavy and it was often too much for small boys. Still, he continued, it’s a charming image: “A young kid who had so much patriotism and desire to serve that he might have run away from home or might have been an orphan and attached himself to a unit, wanting to be a Soldier so bad and this was probably the only way he could do that. I think there’s something that grabs all of our emotions, like the kid who gets his wish made that he becomes a policeman for a day or something. Those kind of images we find endearing, and there is a lot of basis in fact for some of them, not as many as we might think, but they certainly did happen.”

  • Kenneth L Smith-Christmas

    Excellent article! The life of a drummer was not easy, especially for the younger lads, but it was one of the few avenues out of poverty that was available to orphans or poor boys.