During the Civil War the oft-reported tales of brave little drummer boys became symbolic of feats of soldierly virtue and noble, selfless sacrifice. The best known of those young men was Johnny Clem of the 22nd Michigan Infantry, who is said to have inspired Samuel Muscraft’s popular play The Drummer Boy of Shiloh. There were others, however, who also claimed honors due to their wartime service. One of them was Robert Henry Hendershot, a Jackson, Michigan, boy.
War fever had gripped Jackson after the fall of Fort Sumter, and like many others Hendershot longed for the glory of battle. His widowed mother may also have hoped that military life might instill some discipline in her delinquent son. He was a frequent runaway, and his aversion to school was such that he could not even sign his own name. He claimed to be 10 that summer of 1861, but like many aspects of his life, that is in dispute, as various documents give birthdates ranging from early 1846 to 1851, and no less than four different birthplaces, from Michigan to New York City.
When he enlisted, Hendershot was a slight-framed boy, 4 1/2 feet tall, with fair hair, hazel eyes and a ruddy complexion. He bore a deep scar under his right eye that he would submit as his first badge of courage. He soon dropped his implausible claim to have received that scar as the result of a severe wound at Shiloh. (At the time his regiment had been camped more than 600 miles away.) By the end of 1862, though, events at Fredericksburg would give him another, more believable opportunity for fame.
In the fall of 1861, Hendershot was a fixture in the camp of the Jackson County Rifles. There, he incessantly practiced his drum calls, an activity that caused at least one recruit to call him ‘a perfect little pest.’ He apparently accompanied the Rifles to Fort Wayne, outside Detroit, where the unit became Company C of the 9th Michigan Infantry. Robert claimed to have enlisted along with the others, but said that the mustering officer rejected him because of extreme youth. In any case, he boarded the train that carried the regiment south, either as a stowaway or as a servant to Captain Charles V. DeLand, the commander of Company C and editor of Jackson’s American Citizen.
Robert formally enlisted in the 9th in March 1862, when the regiment moved from Kentucky to Murfreesboro, Tenn. He remained with Company C, which was posted at the Murfreesboro courthouse as provost guards. He was there on July 13 when Confederate Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest launched a pre-dawn raid on the town. During the battle, Robert claimed that he fearlessly exposed himself to enemy fire, a claim later substantiated by several 9th Michigan soldiers.
The courage demonstrated by Hendershot and others proved useless, however. By the end of the day Forrest had captured the entire Union garrison. (See March 2002 ACW for an article on the raid.) Afterward, the enlisted men were paroled and sent to Camp Chase, Ohio. Soon after, on July 31, 1862, Robert was discharged, either because of wounds or for extreme youth, he would say. In fact, Hendershot was medically discharged because he suffered frequent and severe epileptic seizures, which had plagued him since early childhood.
Although his parole forbade him to fight against the Confederacy, in early September Hendershot appeared at a Detroit recruiting office. Because of the parole, he signed on with an alias, ‘Robert Henry Henderson.’ His critics would call that despicable, while others would say that it had been a common practice. Hendershot claimed he had done so at the urging of the recruiter, Lieutenant Michael Hogan.
At first there seemed little chance that Hendershot would find himself back on the battle line, for Lieutenant Hogan decided to retain him as his personal servant and aide. And so he remained for over two months, until the arrival of Chaplain George Taylor. Taylor developed a fondness for Robert and gained permission to have Hendershot placed under his care.
The two traveled south to Taylor’s assigned Army of the Potomac unit, the 8th Michigan Infantry. At the Washington depot Taylor rescued Hendershot after he suffered a seizure and fell in front of a locomotive. He had another a few days later while standing at dress parade. It was then that Hendershot told Taylor of his discharge from the 9th Infantry and his use of an alias. Although Taylor kept Hendershot’s confession secret, the boy began to suffer from his affliction so frequently that the acting regimental commander, Captain Ralph Ely, ordered him off duty and applied for his discharge.
It was then December, and while Hendershot awaited his discharge, the Army of the Potomac stood on the banks of the Rappahannock River opposite lightly defended Fredericksburg. There they had waited for more than three weeks for the engineers and material necessary to build pontoon bridges. The delay enabled General Robert E. Lee to move his Army of Northern Virginia into position. Thus, when the engineers arrived, Rebel sharpshooters thwarted their efforts. On December 11, the 7th Michigan Infantry volunteered to cross and drive the sharpshooters from their nests.
Hendershot had wandered to the riverbank that morning, and he tried to tag along with the regiment by climbing aboard a boat, but slipped and made the voyage across clinging to the gunwale. Newspaper accounts related stories of ‘a drummer boy, only 13 years old, who volunteered and went over in the first boat’ and who battled the Confederates and had his drum smashed by a shell. A correspondent for the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune wrote that the nameless boy belonged to the 8th Michigan Infantry.
Two weeks after Hendershot allegedly crossed the river, he was again discharged, for epilepsy. He was away from the regiment for more than 10 days. Right after the battle he traveled first to New York, then to Baltimore and Detroit, staking his claim to the title ‘Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.’
His first stops in Detroit were at the offices of the Advertiser and Tribune and the Free Press. Both published his’strange and romantic’ story. For several days he appeared at a local theater, where the crowds enthusiastically applauded the young hero’s drum solos. Then he returned to Jackson. The editors of Jackson’s newspapers, perhaps already familiar with the young man’s propensity for self-promotion and exaggeration, chose not to repeat his tales.
In other parts of the country, though, many did believe his story. Among them was Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, who summoned Hendershot to the city and presented him with a silver drum. Winfield Scott, the retired general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, was on hand for the event, as was P. T. Barnum. For the next eight weeks Hendershot performed at the showman’s museum, and the youth was also rewarded with a scholarship to the Poughkeepsie Business College.
Hendershot did not remain long at the college, but did learn to write and signed his own name when he enlisted as a first-class boy aboard USS Fort Jackson, at Hampton Roads, Va., on April 1, 1864. From his naval service arose more tales of heroism with a shore party that destroyed a salt works near Fort Fisher. More likely was another story, that he fell overboard while in a seizure and a watchful shipmate saved him from drowning. And while Hendershot claimed to be discharged from the Navy on June 26, 1864, the ship’s log listed him as a deserter.
The next few months were hectic, if Hendershot’s tales are to be believed: He went on a grand tour of England, served as a Treasury Department page and undertook dangerous missions as a Union spy. Whatever the case, by war’s end Hendershot had collected an impressive portfolio of letters from Maj. Gens. Ambrose Burnside, George Meade and others recommending him for an appointment to West Point. One notable endorsement came from President Abraham Lincoln, who wrote, ‘I know of this boy, and believe he is very brave, manly and worthy.’
Hendershot claimed he was denied admission to the academy because of his wounds or his inability to pass the entrance exams. No application exists for him, however, in the academy’s records. Instead, Hendershot returned to Poughkeepsie Business College for a brief time, during which he married Alice Blanchard, a fellow student. In 1867 he collaborated with a writer, William Sumner Dodge, who produced a 200-page biography, Robert Henry Hendershot; or, the Brave Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock. Around the same time, he moved to Omaha, Neb., and began working for the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1870 he applied for and received an appointment as postal clerk on the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad. From his office in Chicago, Hendershot then labored in relative obscurity for another decade.
His name once again became familiar to the public in 1881, when the Grand Army of the Republic newspaper, the National Tribune, sponsored a ‘youngest soldier’ contest. The first man nominated was Robert Henry Hendershot. With unusual modesty, Hendershot did not refute the claims of many other, younger men to the title. Another five years would pass before he would emerge from the shadows.
In 1885, after his retirement, Hendershot took out his silver drum once again. Thereafter, the now self-promoted ‘Major’ Hendershot toured the country with his son, Cleveland, who played the fife. Although they principally performed at GAR functions and other patriotic gatherings, their tour also took them into Canada, and to the Kingdom of Hawaii, where they entertained Queen Liliuokalani.
By July 1891, the month Hendershot posted a letter to the National Tribune restating his claim to the title Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock as well as that of ‘youngest soldier,’ he was one of the best known veteran drummer boys. He was invited to lead the Michigan Department in the GAR parade during the organization’s annual national encampment in Detroit that August.
There were certain old soldiers, however, who were not pleased by the fame and honors Hendershot enjoyed. One of them was the 7th Michigan’s former drum major, Wilbur F. Dickerson. In a letter to the encampment’s organizers, Dickerson pronounced Hendershot a fake and asked them to remove him from his place of honor. In other letters Dickerson asked members of the 7th Michigan to help him spearhead a campaign to discredit Hendershot.
More than 60,000 veterans paraded before 200,000 spectators to open the encampment. Hendershot marched at the head of the Michigan vets, tapping the cadence on his silver drum with sticks carved from the spear of an ancient Hawaiian warrior, a gift from Queen Liliuokalani. It was an auspicious moment for Hendershot, but disgrace would soon follow. Dickerson’s efforts to discredit Hendershot began to pay off on the day following the parade at the reunion of the 7th Michigan Infantry, when Hendershot found himself the subject of an inquiry during which he was asked to tell his story and lay out his evidence. Members of the 7th Infantry who had crossed in the boats at Fredericksburg were questioned, and Hendershot was cross-examined. In the end, the members of the regiment concluded that Hendershot’s claims were false and stripped him of his title.
On August 8, the day after the 7th held its reunion, the 8th Michigan Infantry met. Its agenda also included a debate on Hendershot’s claims. Hendershot, who was present at first, quickly departed when he realized the course upon which his comrades were headed. The 8th’s judgment was even more severe than the 7th’s: The regiment found him guilty of ‘fraud, imposition, and construed forgeries,’ as well as deserting his flag under fire. The members of the 8th formally drummed Hendershot out of the regiment.
But if Hendershot was not the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock, then who was? The names of several former drummer boys were submitted for consideration. The men of the 7th Michigan Infantry tendered the names of two of their former drummer boys, John T. Spillaine and Thomas Robinson. The men of the 8th Michigan Infantry claimed the title rightfully belonged to Charles Gardner, who had died in 1864 from wounds received during the siege of Knoxville. The 31st Ohio Infantry nominated Avery Brown, who already bore the sobriquet ‘Drummer Boy of the Cumberland.’
Although Brown may have legitimately challenged Hendershot’s claim to the ‘youngest soldier’ title (he was said to have been only 9 years old when he entered the Army), his hold on the other title was seriously weakened by the fact that he had not stepped east of the Alleghenies during the war. Among the other nominees who had been present at Fredericksburg, Spillaine had the stronger case, since of them all only he was still living, and he won the title. The residents of Detroit awarded Spillaine a gold medal upon which was an embossed figure of a drummer boy and the inscription ‘Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.’ Spillaine proudly wore the medal for the rest of his life.
Hendershot mounted his first appeal in the local media with a narrative of his heroic actions at Fredericksburg. His heroism had been widely reported in the press of the day, he said. He claimed that either Harper’s or Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly had printed his image. He quoted letters and cited historian Benson Lossing’s The Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War, which included an account of Hendershot’s heroics. To those who said he had deserted, he claimed that he had been wounded and sent to a hospital in Washington and then to Providence, R.I., where he continued his recovery in General Burnside’s home.
Drum major Dickerson and others soon sent in rebuttals to the newspapers. Dickerson repeated his claim that Hendershot had not crossed the river, but had been ‘found in a creek near camp, feigning a fit,’ and that he later deserted and began ‘traveling with a 10 show, telling great stories of his heroism.’ A nameless correspondent wrote that Hendershot had not served in the Federal Army at all, but had spent the war as a member of band in Poughkeepsie. His fame was the result of a ‘reportorial accident,’ another said, ‘perpetuated by well-intended but hasty acts of kindness…and by Hendershot’s shrewdness at working the opportunity for all it was worth.’
Many reports of a drummer boy crossing the Rappahannock had appeared in the press immediately after the Battle of Fredericksburg, writers asserted, but Hendershot’s name had not been connected with the incident until many days later. As for Lossing, one column stated that he ‘was a weak judge of evidence’ who had written his history 20 years after the war. Its many errors included assigning Hendershot to the 7th Michigan Infantry.
Throughout the encampment, the Reverend George Taylor had resisted those who wanted him to make a statement, lest it ‘disturb the harmony of the occasion,’ he claimed. Now that it was over, in a letter published in the Detroit Tribune on August 13, Taylor recounted the events of that day, and stated his ‘firm conviction’ that Hendershot was the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock. That only added fuel to the fire and launched the controversy into the National Tribune.
The first volley came from Major Charles W. Bennett, historian of the 9th Michigan Infantry, Hendershot’s first regiment. An examination of the evidence had convinced Bennett of the truth in Hendershot’s claims, and in the Tribune he laid out his case. Captain Henry A. Ford, Grand Army editor for the Detroit Evening Journal, responded that his ‘thorough inquiry into the facts of the case’ had convinced him Hendershot was a fraud. Dickerson also continued his attack, while William Brewster, a drummer who had served with Hendershot, joined in and called him a camp follower, a scoundrel and a thief. Others soon joined the fray and kept the storm raging for months.
It was still raging at the GAR’s 1892 meeting in Washington, D.C. There, the membership reaffirmed Spillaine’s right to the title. Hendershot did not attend the encampment, the National Tribune stated, ‘as it was clearly shown at the Detroit encampment that he was not entitled to this honor.’
But Hendershot was not going to let what he considered to be a ‘black-hearted attack’ pass without fighting back, and he called on the comrades in the first of his old regiments, the 9th Michigan Infantry, which passed a resolution supporting Hendershot’s claims. He then attended the annual reunion of the 8th Michigan Infantry, the organization that had so recently drummed him out. Before he left, the regiment completely reversed its stance and passed unanimous resolutions that restored Hendershot into the 8th Michigan and supported his claim to his title.
Hendershot then rattled his way from coast to coast, from GAR posts to regimental reunions, winning back the support of veterans, one old man at a time. By the time of the national encampment of 1893, in Indianapolis, he had won his fight. There his title was reinstated to thunderous applause, after which former President Benjamin Harrison presented him with a diamond-studded, solid-gold medal inscribed ‘Robert H. Hendershot, Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock, from G.A.R. and W.R.C. comrades, Indianapolis, 1893.’ Soon afterward, Hendershot strengthened his claim with another biography, Camp Fire Entertainment: The True Story of R. H. Hendershot, Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock. Although Spillaine also continued to claim the title, and used it as a springboard to commander of the Michigan Department of the GAR in 1912, Hendershot apparently felt no further need to defend his title.
Was Hendershot a hero or a clever liar? How could he convince many of the great men of his day of his sincerity and worth while the citizens of his own hometown viewed the tales of his spectacular exploits with extreme suspicion, if not outright disbelief? His first captain, Charles DeLand, made no mention of Hendershot in his History of Jackson County, though he wrote with pride of many of Jackson’s other Civil War heroes. Hendershot’s absence was also conspicuous in Michigan in the War, the official history of the state’s part in the Civil War.
Many newspapers did publish reports about a drummer boy crossing the Rappahannock; however, the initial reports were vague. They only told of a drummer boy, 13 years old, who belonged to either the 7th or the 8th Michigan Infantry. Although Hendershot could claim that only he fit the correspondents’ description, in the weeks that followed many of these same correspondents began calling the tale a myth.
Too many high-ranking individuals endorsed Hendershot’s claims to make them entirely spurious. Among his supporters was General Burnside, who only days after the battle wrote, ‘He served under me faithfully…and at the battle of Fredericksburg displayed most distinguished courage.’ Many who endorsed his claims, however, had not actually witnessed Hendershot’s actions.
The same can be said of those who criticized Hendershot. They disbelieved his story because they had not seen him cross the river or perform his heroic deeds. In fact, they had not seen him at all. During the 1891 debate, most who crossed in the boats could not recall any drummer boy among them.
Only one man claimed to have seen Hendershot on the day in question — the Reverend George Taylor. How did he remember that day? Hendershot had frequently strayed from his camp during the previous 10 days, Taylor recalled, but December 11, 1862, was different. Stimulated by the occasion and the excitement, Robert had wandered much farther afield.
Taylor, alarmed by Hendershot’s prolonged absence in the midst of battle, went to find him and came upon Hendershot coming back across a pontoon bridge. ‘I met him with a bundle of clothes under his arm,’ Taylor wrote. The story Hendershot then told Taylor was in many ways the same as the one the drummer would continue to tell for years. He told Taylor he had crossed the river by clinging to the stern of a boat, and that with others he had gone into deserted houses. He claimed to have set fire to a building, and that he had found a Rebel soldier hiding in a cellar ‘to escape being forced back to the confederate camp.’ The deserter asked Hendershot for help. ‘So carrying his gun he assisted him and gave him up to our men.’
In another building, Taylor wrote, Hendershot said he found ‘a beautiful clock’ and started to bring it over to me.’ Startled by a shell bursting nearby, Hendershot dropped it and it broke into pieces.
Taylor remembered, ‘In all he told he did not seem [conscious] that he had done any very meritorious act, nor was there in his manner the least element apparent of anything that is necessary to constitute a hero.’ Hendershot gave his account ‘within the hearing of a number of persons, among them representatives of the press,’ Taylor recounted. ‘I have no doubt but that either from a misunderstanding of his statement, or designedly for the sake of making a sensation, the whole story originated.’
Thus, with the embellishment of war correspondents, a foraging expedition became a battle, a deserter became an armed adversary, and a shattered clock became a young hero’s drum, burst by a shell. Soon after, Horace Greeley had summoned Hendershot to New York and presented the boy with the silver drum and honored him with his famous sobriquet.
Taylor argued that ‘Boy that he was, being irresistibly borne upon the wave of fortune to the embrace of so many and such distinguished friends and to such privilege and honors, [it is not surprising that Hendershot] concluded that there must have been something in his exploits heroic and meritorious.’ But, said Taylor, Hendershot was not the author of the story; it had originated with the press. Nor had he sought the title bestowed upon him by Greeley. Since ‘the bearing of his title can injure no one,’ Taylor continued, ‘I would advise that he be allowed to depend upon it for his future success. ‘In the words of our nation’s most honored hero,’ Taylor concluded, `Let us have Peace!’ And let all the earth keep silent when I say that Robert Henry Hendershot is the genuine Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.’
Taylor was undoubtedly right when he said that a good share of the story had been the fancy or embellishment of battlefield reporters, further embellished by Hendershot. His critics were most probably wrong when they claimed that another had performed the deeds. In their quest to shift glory, they forgot the times in which the story arose, the historical context that Taylor tried to bring out in his testimony.
‘The battle was a disastrous one for our arms,’ Taylor wrote, ‘and while ‘fire in the rear’ papers were gloating over our calamity and pronouncing the war a failure, the loyal press found but little to cheer the heart of the despondent.’ It was to ‘divert the minds of the loyal from brooding over the disaster’ that prompted Greeley, who ‘[seized] upon this report and sent it flying over the land in the columns of the Tribune,’ Taylor wrote.
From a historic perspective, the story might be characterized as a media-created epic of heroism, inspired by an unremarkable episode at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Then, from out of the tale, Greeley plucked a boy and made of him a Northern icon. It was little more than mythology, but it served more than the sensationalist bent of the press; it also promoted patriotism and supported a cause. If propaganda is a legitimate weapon of war, then the worth of the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock as a soldier may have equaled that of a regiment.
Hendershot was almost certainly the anonymous boy whose unremarkable deed inspired the story. He is without a doubt the boy on whom Greeley bestowed the title. It was he, then, who brought a brief moment of cheer and hope to a war-weary North in the dark days of late 1862.
Hendershot’s self-promotion was harmless, and led to a legend that ultimately enriched American folklore. History would have undoubtedly buried the story and the title if Hendershot had not kept them alive. For that reason alone, he deserves to be remembered as the original Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.
This article was written by Anthony Patrick Glesner and originally appeared in the January 2004 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of America’s Civil War.