Young Civil War drummers weren’t there just for show. They played a vital role for both armies.
‘Grizzled’ Vets: In this stereoview, three Federal drummer boys—reportedly veterans of nine battles—pose at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Library of Congress)
Drumbeats governed Civil War soldiers. Over the din of the battlefield, drum calls were used to transmit commands—the long roll, for instance, was the signal to fall in under arms. In camp, drummers summoned the regiment to meals, to muster, drill, and sick call. When on the march, drummers kept up a lively cadence to boost men’s morale.
Regular soldiers had to be at least 21, or 18 if they had parental consent to enlist. Noncombatant musicians could enlist at 12. One of the enduring stories of the Civil War is how many boys under 12, swept up in the excitement and yearning for adventure, lied about their age to enlist. It’s unknown how many boys under 12 served in the Civil War, because records reflect fraudulent birth dates.
Playing Through Pain: “He crawled behind a cannon and pale and paler grew,” is the caption for this painting featured in a 1920s book, Ballads of Famous Fights. This Union drummer boy has crawled behind a cannon to prop up his wounded leg, but bravely continues to play for his charging comrades. (Private Collection/The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Images)
Early in the war, underage boys often tagged along as unpaid “pets” of local regiments. Many turned out to be immature and caused disciplinary problems. The smallest found it exhausting to carry and beat a drum 12 to 14 inches deep and 16 inches in diameter, cut down from the standard of 18 inches deep before the war. Drummers struggled to learn several dozen cadences and variations that went by such colorful names as flams, paradiddles, ruffles, drags, rolls, and ratamacues.
A particular worry for the parents of these boy soldiers was sickness. Underdeveloped immune systems meant thousands of them fell ill and died from endemic camp diseases such as diarrhea and measles.
When the shooting started, noncombatant musicians were supposed to go to the rear to act as stretcher bearers and surgeons’ assistants, often detailed to hold men down during amputations.
Pint-sized volunteers made good newspaper copy. A few drummer boys gained fame fabricating or exaggerating their exploits. Robert Henry Hendershot, for example, enlisted under a false name and gained notoriety when newspapers printed his claims to have participated in the Battle of Fredericksburg and to have captured a Confederate soldier when he was 12. John Clem (or Klem) enlisted in the 22nd Michigan and at age 12 was present at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863. His unsubstantiated story of shooting a Confederate colonel who ordered him to “surrender, you Yankee (expletive unclear)” and his angelic features made him a celebrity. He retired from the Army as a major general in 1915.
Not all underage heroics were exaggerated. Willie Johnston of the 3rd Vermont was awarded the Medal of Honor at the age of 13. He was the only musician to maintain possession of his instrument during the Union retreat after the Battle of Malvern Hill in 1862.
Leaving Home: Throughout the conflict, the heartbreaking sight of a youthful drummer boy heading off to war would be all too familiar for families both North and South. This engraving first appeared in the December 19, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly and then in the book The Boys in Blue, published in 1867. (Old Paper Studios/Alamy Stock Photo)
Sharp Look: This well-preserved, 8-button, single-breasted frock coat was reportedly worn by the drummer of Co. H, 23rd Regiment, Gaston (N.C.) Light Guard. (American Civil War Museum)
Keeping the Beat: Drummers and other musicians were allowed to enlist at 12, but many lied about their age.
Charles E. Mosby of the 6th Virginia and later the 19th Virginia Heavy Artillery, was 13 when this photo was taken in May 1861. (Virginia Museum of History And Culture)
Johan Christian Julius Langbein of the 9th New York, Hawkins’ Zouaves, received a Medal of Honor for voluntarily providing medical aid to a wounded officer “under heavy fire.” (Heritage Auctions, Dallas)
Taylor, a former slave, became the drummer of the 78th U.S. Colored Troops. (Library of Congress)
An unidentified drummer boy, dressed in his winter overcoat. (Library of Congress)
A magnificent eagle adorns the drum of the boy on the right, posing with a younger relative, possibly his brother. (Heritage Auctions, Dallas)
Unidentified drummer, 91st Pennsylvania. (Photo © Don Troiani/Bridgeman Images)
This 37th New Jersey drummer wears a non-regulation jacket with shoulder tabs and horizontal breast piping. (Heritage Auctions, Dallas)
Marcus F. Jones of the 1st Michigan Engineers, wearing a cap a little too large for his head. (Heritage Auctions, Dallas)
Uncle Sam Wants You: In this rare half-plate tintype, a diminutive drummer boy (center) and two soldiers in uniform (at right) lead a contingent of 14 boys in civilian clothes. The boys were probably lining up to muster into service. (Heritage Auctions, Dallas)
Enter the Victors: Weary-looking drummers lead the 3rd Minnesota Infantry into Little Rock, Ark., on September 11, 1863. The 3rd was the first Federal unit to enter Arkansas’ capital city after it was abandoned by the Confederates. (Minnesota Historical Society)
Played for Blue and Gray: Compared to Union samples, extant Confederate drums, such as the one shown here, are quite rare. This handmade wood model was in the possession of Private Daniel M. Reed of the 50th Pennsylvania Infantry when he was killed at the Battle of Chantilly, Va., on September 1, 1862. Earlier that year, Reed had recovered the drum in an abandoned Confederate fort in Beaufort, S.C. After Reed’s death, it was returned along with his personal effects to his family in Pennsylvania. Notable is the depiction of an eagle and seven stars (representing the original seven states to secede) on the side. Although the tension ropes have been replaced, the leather tighteners are original. (Heritage Auctions, Dallas)