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~ Civil War ~
Drummer Boys



The Civil War is sometimes called "The Boys' War," because so many soldiers who fought in it were still in their teens. The rule in the Union Army was that soldiers had to be 18 to join, but many younger boys answered "I'm over 18, sir," when the recruiter asked. Those who would say this would not be lying, as they would write the number 18 on a piece of paper and put it in their shoe, and technically they were "over 18". During the American Civil War, individuals under the age of eighteen were not allowed to join the military without parental consent. Notwithstanding, thousands of boys under eighteen, lured by either patriotism or the desire to escape the dull routine of daily chores, still managed to find a way to enlist as drummers. Many boys enlisted with a family member, such as a father, brother or uncle. This can be shown by the story that a Union soldier told after the war. He had stopped to help a young (14 year old) wounded Rebel soldier who told him that the bodies of those laying dead around him were is father, two of is brothers and two uncles.

Of the over 2 million men who fought for the Union, just about half, right around 1 million of them were 18 years old or younger. The breakdown is;

About 800,000 were seventeen or under.
About 200,000 were sixteen or under.
About 100,000 were fifteen or under.
300 were thirteen or under-most of these fifers or drummers, but regularly enrolled, and sometimes fighters.
Twenty-five were ten or under.

Many of the youngest boys served as drummers; they weren't supposed to be fighters, but they did a very important job during the Civil War. You've probably seen pictures of a boy walking beside the marching soldiers, beating his drum to keep them together. But this wasn't the drummer's most important - or most difficult job.

In the noise and confusion of battle, it was often impossible to hear the officers' orders, so each order was given a series of drumbeats to represent it. Both soldiers and drummers had to learn which drumroll meant "meet here" and which meant "attack now" and which meant "retreat" and all the other commands of battlefield and camp. (The most exciting drum call was "the long roll," which was the signal to attack. The drummer would just beat-beat-beat - and every other drummer in hearing distance would beat-beat-beat - until all that could be heard was an overwhelming thunder pushing the army forward.)

When the drummer boys weren't needed for sounding the calls, (Drumbeats helped officers communicate with their troops in the noise and confusion of battle.) they had another job. They were stretcher bearers. They walked around the battlefield looking for the wounded and brought them to medical care.

Many young boys marched off to war looking for adventure, but they found hard, dangerous work along with it. The youngest was Avery Brown who enlisted at the ripe old age of 8y 11m & 13d. He lied and said he was 12. The youngest KIA was Charles King. He was wounded at the Battle of Antietam and died 2 days later. He was 12.

Many say that Johnny Clem, who ran away from his home in Ohio when he was 9 to follow the Union troops. Of course, the Union Army turned him away. In addition to being so young, he was small for his age. But Johnny tried again, and when he refused to go home, troops from Michigan adopted him as their mascot and drummer boy.

The story tells us that the officers contributed some of their pay so he could earn a soldier's salary of $13 a month. They had a little uniform made for him, too, and later they had a rifle cut down to size for him. Johnny was a brave fighter. By the time he was 11, he was enlisted as a regular soldier. He would spend much of his life in the Army; he was a brigadier general when he retired in 1915.

People were fascinated by stories of Johnny the boy soldier. Some of the stories were legends, but military records show that Johnny's military career did, in fact, begin at age 9. He lived to be 85 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Drummers were often referred to as the heartbeat of the army for the reason that their drum signals and calls, were vital to maintaining order in the army camp and on the battlefield. The drummers were expected to learn over one hundred of the drum calls and tunes contained in the Drummers and Fifers Guide by George B. Bruce and Daniel D Emmett. Each task a soldier performed was assigned its own drum call, and if a drummer failed to learn the drum calls quickly enough, he would be dismissed from duty and sent home.

The drummer's day was long and often toilsome. While in camp, drummers communicated by drum call the daily activities of the soldiers, such as meals, roll call, sick call, drills and dress parade. Although the drumming schedule varied slightly from one regiment to the next, the drum calls were typically the same. The drummer's call summoned the drummers to the drumming post as early as 5:00 a.m. for Reveille, and drum calls continued almost hourly until as late as 10:30 p.m. for the final drumming of Tattoo.

When their drumming services were not required, drummers performed chores or assisted officers, surgeons, cooks, barbers, dentists and grave diggers. In addition, drummers would assemble with the musicians of other regiments and entertain the soldiers with patriotic songs for a morale boost. Drummers were on call twenty-four hours per day in case they were needed for special assignments, such as drumming the call that signaled an imminent attack by the enemy. As a result, drummers were often sleep deprived while they performed their daily duties.

Despite their grueling schedule of drumming and chores, drummer boys still managed to have fun. They played games such as checkers, dominoes, cards and even cockroach races. They also enjoyed foot races, wrestling, boxing and baseball. Singing, playing practical jokes, telling stories, reading and writing letters was also popular. Often, a lifetime bond was formed between the drummers after they had shared in the experience of living within close quarters in the campground, and also enduring the horror of battle.

During battle, the drum was an essential communication tool because the sound of drum beats was carried much farther than the sound of an officer's voice. Soldiers relied upon the drum calls to relay orders to advance, halt, load weapons, fire, retreat or conference with the enemy while maneuvering through the chaos of a smoke-covered battlefield.

Bloody Civil War battles were not for the faint of heart. Drummers saw soldiers, and sometimes drummer companions, seriously wounded or killed. At the end of a battle, the drummers were expected to bury dead soldiers, and also carry wounded soldiers to the field hospitals on stretchers. Drummers also tended to the wounded by bandaging injuries or assisting the field surgeons with medical procedures as harrowing as amputations.

Unfortunately, many drummers did not survive the war because they died either of illness while in camp or sustained a fatal wound during battle.

After the Civil War ended, bugles were used by the military instead of drums to relay battle commands. One reason for this was the drums were often difficult to hear over the deafening sounds on the battlefield. Also, the weapons used during the Civil War were replaced with more efficient models which allowed the soldiers to shoot at greater distances. As a result, face-to-face combat within close proximity of the enemy was no longer necessary.

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