You may think of drummer boys as cute mascots or the subject of holiday songs, but they were actually important military assets and suffered high casualty rates. This Veteran’s Day, we remember a time when America’s children answered the call to war.
Childhood ain’t what it used to be
The concept of childhood has been remarkably fluid throughout history. Often regarded as little adults, children frequently worked hard on farms, in factories, and even in the militaries. For example, young boys were a familiar sight in the British Navy during most of its existence.
Probably, America’s most celebrated child soldiers fought in the Civil War. The official age of enlistment was 16, which was frequently ignored. If a child was refused enlistment, he had the option of becoming a drummer boy. In this manner, boys as young as 8 joined the Army. I found no exact figures for the number of drummer boys, but at least 32,000 drums were manufactured for the Union.
Battlefield connectivity for the warfighter
These days, frontline personnel take for granted the connectivity provided by handhelds, such as AMREL’s ROCKY DB6 and DF6. In the past, drums fulfilled similar roles in battlefield communications. They could be heard through the smoke and above the noise of battle. Far from being ceremonial mascots, drummer boys were an important tactical asset.
A good drummer boy could communicate a myriad of orders, including “Commence Firing,” “Quick Step,” “Advance,” and “Retreat.” Schools of instruction were established at Governor’s Island, New York Harbor, and Newport Barracks, Kentucky. Most relied on experience and texts, such as Bruce and Emmettt’s “The Drummers’ and Fifers’ Guide.”
Drummer boys were highly visible, a quality that helped kept his unit together, but also placed them a great risk. An enemy knew that he could disrupt the opposition’s Command and Control by shooting at these children. In fact, before the end of the war, an age limit was established in reaction to the horrific number of casualties of drummer boys.
Fact or fiction
Modern people are repelled by the notion of children in war. The movie version of the classic science fiction novel, “Ender’s Game,” is considered shocking for its portrayal of a society that trains children for warfare. Exploitation of real-life child soldiers in Africa has spurred an international movement.
In contrast, our 19th century forbears were intrigued by drummer boys. Books, plays and songs celebrated the heroism of these child soldiers. Famous drummer boys capitalized on their reputation with public appearances and book deals. As a result, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Here are three famous drummer boys:
Robert Henry Hendershot may be the best example of a drummer boy whose life story was an unfathomable blend of truth, lies, and fantasy. He claimed to be 10 when he enlisted in Jackson County Rifles (Michigan), but he may have been younger. After his unit was captured by the Confederates, he was paroled on the condition that he never fight against them again. After his release, he ignored his vow, and rejoined under a phony name. He reportedly displayed courage at the battle of Fredericksburg, and became known as “The Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” Discharged from the Army for severe epilepsy, he joined the Union Navy. His propensity for exaggeration and self-promotion caused some to doubt his tales of battlefield prowess, but no less a personage than President Abraham Lincoln vouched for him. However, Hendershot remained a controversial figure all his life.
William “Willie” Johnston lacked Hendershot’s talent for self-promotion, so the facts of his life are clearer. He joined the Union Army at age 11 and fought notably in the Peninsula campaign. For his bravery there, he became the youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Johnny Clem, probably the most famous of all drummer boys, joined the 22nd Michigan when he was 9. Despite his youth, he was given important responsibilities, including bearing his unit’s standard. He skillfully avoided capture at the Battle of Chickamauga, and was promoted at age 13 to sergeant, the youngest noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army. He fought at Perryville, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw, and Atlanta, and was wounded twice. “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” served most of his life in the military and retired a major general.