American Civil War: Musicians


Figure 1.--Here we see a portrait of a Federal drummer boy. Unfortunately we do not know his name. The image is a 1/6th plate (2.5" x 3.0") Ruby Ambrotype in an exceptional thermoplastic case. The seated young man holds his drum on his lap clearly showing a distinctive star and circle tack pattern to the camera. In his right hand the drummer boy displays a pair of drumsticks. A multicolored drum sling can clearly be seen crossing his chest left to right, and under it, the cross-belt and tinted eagle buckle that is the regulation rig to which the musicians’ sword is attached. Also clearly visible is a fighting knife stuck in his belt, obviously for the camera to record. The subject has flipped the visor of his forage cap up in the fashion of a veteran soldier, and wears a state issue jacket with shoulder tabs, reflecting a uniform typical of the mid western area. A word must be said about the delicate tinting done by the photographer. The drummer boy has a very slight rose color applied to his cheeks, and the drum rim is also tastefully tinted slightly stronger red. Gold metallic tinting highlights his cap and jacket buttons. Careful highlighting is also seen on the breastplate enhancing the image of the eagle, as well as on the US waist belt buckle. There is a slight haloing from the metallic tinting on the buttons on his cap and collar.

Most of the really young boys entered the Federal and Confederate Armies as musicians. One source estimates that were places for 40,000 muscians in the Federal Army alone. Many of the younger boys served as drummers and fifers. There were many more drummers than fifers. These instruments were best suited for younger boys. While much attention is given to drummers, perhaps because they were often the youngest boys, there were also many bugglers. Large numbers of bugglers were also required as the buggle was important in communicating orders in the heat of battle in the years before modern communication. The buggle could often be heard when voice commands were impossible. With the buggle, lung power was essential, making it suitable for slightly older boys or youths. Some younger boys, however, also served as bugglers. One source writes, "There are numerous tales of buglers too small to climb into saddles unaided, who rode into pistol-and-saber battles with their regiments. Most famous of these on the Union side was Johnny Clem, who became drummer to the 22nd Michigan at eleven, and was soon a mounted orderly on the staff of General George H. Thomas, with the "rank" of lance sergeant." Another noted drummer boy was Robert Henry Hendershot who became known as 'the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.' He was a drummer boy for the Eighth Michigan.

Motivation

One question that comes to mind when we read about Civil War drummer boys is--why did they enlist. Of course an even larger and equally fascinating question is why did the men who fought the War enlist. But here we are focusing on the Civil War boys asnd youths who served as musicians. In reading accounts written by the boys, excitement was a very strong motivation. The chance to get away from school or the drugery of farm chores must have appealed to many boys. Of course these boys and even boys much older had no real idea of what war was like. The television images that are now common place to to modern boys were of course unavailable. Most of these boys had idealistic images of gallantry and bravery in their minds. Actually so did many adult men, especially in the first year of the War. Certainly patriotism would have been another factor. One thing we know was not an important factor was slavery. The exception here were the black boys that enlisted in the Federal Army to become musicians after the Emancipation Proclamation. A HBC reader has provided us some insights as to what might have been on the mind of children during the Civil War.

Number

Most of the really young boys entered the Federal and Confederate Armies as musicians. There were relatively few pre-teens, but thenumber of teenagers, even oys as young as 13 and 14 was much larger. The total number of boys involved was very substantial. One source estimates that were places for 40,000 muscians in the Federal Army alone.

Importance

The drum and buggle today are for show, parade ground occassions. This was not the case in the long history of warfare. In fact it was not the case until very modern times. Command and control is a critical element of warfare. And during the heat of battl, a commander's voice can carry only so far. It was the drum and buggle that carried battlefield commands during the Civil War. The boys also provided the communication that regulated camp life. The boys thus played a critical role. Pulitzer Prize winning historian Bruce Catton writes, "Even the drummer boys were practicing, working at mysteries known as the double and single drag, learning all of the irregular and syncopated beats that carried orders to marching men; a crack regiment, it seemed, was one that could maneuver all over a parade ground without spoken orders, the commands being transmitted entirely by the drums. Precocious infants not yet old enough to shave, the drummers took great pride in their work. Long after, one of them remembered it: 'When a dozen or more of the lads, with their caps set saucily on the sides of their heads, led a regiment in a review with their get-out-of the-way-Old-Dan-Tuckerish style of music, it made the men in the ranks step off as though they were bound for a Donnybrook Fair.' [Miller, p. 65.]

Abilities

Boys were not chosen as musicians because of their musicl ability. In fact few knew how to play any instrument went they enlisted. Yhey were chosen because of their youth. Not being old enough to actually fight, the younger boys enlisting were made musiscians. They were taught how to play the drum and fife or buggle. And as they were constantly playing the instruments during the day each day, most became quite competent musiscians.

Training

Boys of couese varied in their musical abilities. We suspect that here enthusiam and loudness was nearly as important as musical ability. We know that many adults are totally incapable of learning to play a musical instrument. I know that while I personally enjoy music, I have a tin ear. Of course an advantage here is that the boys were young. Musical training at a youing age probably develops abilitites that might be lost as adults. We do not know of any studies on this, but would be interested in any studies that HBC readers have noted. Once the boys arrived in camp there would be intensive drilling and practice. There was quite a lot to learn besides just mastering the instrument. Drums and buggles were instrument of camp and battlefield comminication thus the boys had to learn quite a number of different rolls and calls. There was plently of time to do this. Especially early in the War there was long periods of camp life between major engagements. McCllean in particular didn't like to use the Army of the Potomac. President Lincom once quipped, "If General Mcclellan doesn;t want to use the Army, perhaps he would lend it to me."

Instruments

Musicians with Civil War military units played several different instruments. They were principally the drum, fife, and buggle. The instruments of course were not for entertainment, but had practical military value. The drums were useful for cadence when marching. Many of the younger boys served as drummers and fifers as the drums were the easiest instrument to learn. Many of the drummers when a little older became bugglers. The buggle was used as a form of military communication in the days before radio and other modern battlefield communication.

Johnny Reb and Billie Yank

A wonderful source of information about the individual Confederate and Federal soldiers are two companion books written by Bell Irvin Wiley. He authored both The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank in the 1950s. The books primarily focus on the lives of older fighting soldiers. Unfortunalely Johnny Reb didn't have any page references to drummers, perhaps because there are fewer surviving accounts of Condederate drummer boys. Billy Yank did , however, have an interesting discussion.

Individuals

We have begun to collect acounts and images of drummer boys in the Civil War. Here we are looking for accounts of actual boys. Most joined the colors for adventure and excitement. This they found and for the most part more than they ever could have expected. Perhaps the most famous is Johnny Clem, but thousands of boys served as musicians with both the Federal and Confederate Armies and most because of their age lived into the 20th century. Unfortunately there are all to few who left detailed accounts. Some told their stores, but many did not. One boy who only left his portraits to history is known only as Jackson and we know very little about him.

Danger

We are not entirely sure just how dangerous it was to be a drummer boy in the Civil War. We have not yet found a cholarly study asssessing this issue. Here it should be understood that there were large numbers of caualties beyond the battlefield. Large numbers of soldiers got sick as a result of conditions in camops and outside environment both in camp and during troop movements. Also there weee problems with diseases and illmesses in cramped conditions. And younger boys not under mother's watcheful eye were particularly vulnerable. It is the battlefiekd battlefield, however, that most interest readers. We notice one source suggesting that soldiers aimed at drummer boys. We do not hink this was very common. This doesn't sound quite right to us, although given the dimensions of the war and the numbers of people involved, we are sure there were such instances. There are several known facts, however, that argue against this as a common practice. 1) The Civil War began with many soldiers armed with smooth bore muskets that could not be effectively aimed beyond a very close range. And even when they had rifles, black powder soon obscured vision on the battlefield. Thus soldiers fired at the mass of an advancing unit rather than individuals. This is how their officers trained them. 2) 2. There were sharpshooters/snipers, but they were after high value targets like officers, artillerymen, or perhaps color bearers. They would not wastetheirv shots on drummer boys. 3) Before major assaults, drummer boys would have been commonly sent to the rear. 4) Of course terrible things happen in War. But there were ethical standards that for the most part held in the Civil War. We doubt if many soldiers would have singled out drummer boys to the extent that they targeted specific individuals. And for obvious reasons, he would be more concerned about the fellow with a musket and bayonet charging at him. Of course in the chaos of war, drummer boys could have been shot or hit by artillery. And if a unit was surprised, the drummer boys could have been caught in the front.

Children

We note many portraits of boys hotographed with drums during the Civil Wars. These are not actual drummer boys, but often younger boys photographed to mismic drummer boys. The accounts of the actual drummer boys begame legends. The boys photographed like this are fairly easy to identify, both because of their age and the fact that they are not wearing ctual uniforms. Most of the portraits we have found are northern. This probably reflects the larger northern population and the shortage of supplies which impaired Southern photigraphy. Opinionds about the War varied in the North. As a result, these photographs would have probably come from familes which supported the War. They also seem to be mostly urban, affluent or at least comfortable families. This was not the kind of families that actual drummer boys came from. A good example is P.H. Martin in 1862.

Children's Books

Quite a number of Civil War books for children have been written about drummer boys. Children are often quite interested in what it was like for people their age in a given historical era. The authors involved varied as to the degree they researched the topic and attempted to weave historical fact into their narative. These books may interest young readers in history and give them background and insights into the events discussed in HBC's pages. Typically, these books have a main character with which the young readers can identify and relate a story with historical verisimilitude. One excellent book which might interest the younger reader is Patricia Beatty's Charlie Skedaddle.

Later Studio Props

We do not have a decade by decade assessment of drummer boy portraits. Of course most are boys using toy drums as studio props rather than real Civil War drummer boys. It would be interesting to note how the Civil War affected the incidence of such portraits. This is, however, a little tricky to assess because the War occurred at just the time when negative formats like CDVs and cabinent cards became popular. This reduced the price of photograohic poetraits, greatly increasing the number of such portraits. Given the age of many of the boys in these portraits, we suspect that the choice of drums as a prop was the parents or perhaps the photographer and not the child. And here we wonder anout the thoughts of the parents. Was the luster of the War the greatesy just after the War or later when memories of the the horrors of the War had receded. Thus we do not yet know hoe to interpret these portraits. We do, however, notice quite a few of them. A good example is Horace Benjamin.

American School Marching Bands

School marching bands are most associated with America. Both high schools and junior high schools in America almost always have uniformed marching bands. We are not positive yet about the chronology here, but it appears to be associated with the Civil War and the large number of boys and youth that served as musicians. Another factor may have been the immense popularity of march music as popularized by John Philip Souza. Perhaps an even more important was the immense popularity of inter-collegiate sports, especially football in the late 19th century. These developments occurred at about the same time as the expansion of the American public school sydtem. Many high schools were founded after the Civil War just as inter-collegiate sports were becoming popular activiies. Thus by the early 20th century the idea of inter-scholastic sports and marching bnds had become well established in high schools throughout America. We notice bands after the turn of the century. They proably existed in the late-19th century, but so far we have only found images of 20th century bands.

Sources

Catton, Bruce. This Hallowed Ground.

Miller Delavan S. Drum Taps in Dixie: Memories of a Drummer Boy, 1861 - 1865.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Louisiana State University Press, 1952. (The edition quoyed here is the 1978 reissue.)







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Created: April 20, 1998
Last updated: 5:41 PM 3/27/2012