The Role of Drummer Boys in the American Civil War

Drummer boys are often depicted in Civil War artwork and literature. They may seem to have been nearly ornamental figures in military bands, but they actually served a critically important purpose on the battlefield.

And the character of the drummer boy, besides being a fixture in Civil War camps, became an enduring figure in American culture. Young drummers were held up as heroes during the war, and they endured in popular imagination for generations.

Drummers Were Necessary In Civil War Armies

Photograph of Civil War drummers of a Rhode Island regiment
Library of Congress

In the Civil War drummers were an essential part of military bands for obvious reasons: the time they kept was important to regulate the marching of soldiers on parade. But drummers also performed a more valuable service apart from playing for parades or ceremonial occasions.

In the 19th century, drums were used as invaluable communication devices in camps and on battlefields. The drummers in both the Union and Confederate armies were required to learn dozens of drum calls, and the playing of each call would tell the soldiers they were required to perform a specific task.

They Performed Tasks Beyond Drumming

While drummers had a specific duty to perform, they often were assigned to other duties in camp.

And during the fighting the drummers were often expected to help the medical personnel, serving as assistants in makeshift field hospitals. There are accounts of drummers having to assistant surgeons during battlefield amputations, helping to hold down patients. One additional gruesome task: young drummers might be called up to carry away the severed limbs.

It Could Be Extremely Dangerous

Musicians were noncombatants and did not carry weapons. But at times the buglers and drummers were involved in the action. Drum and bugle calls were used on the battlefields to issue commands, though the sound of battle tended to make such communication difficult.

When the fighting began, drummers generally moved to the rear and stayed away from the shooting. However, Civil War battlefields were extremely dangerous places, and drummers were known to be killed or wounded.

A drummer for the 49th Pennsylvania Regiment, Charley King, died of wounds suffered at the Battle of Antietam when he was only 13 years old. King, who had enlisted in 1861, was already a veteran, having served during the Peninsula Campaign in early 1862. And he had passed through a minor skirmish just before reaching the field at Antietam.

His regiment was in a rear area, but a stray Confederate shell exploded overhead, sending shrapnel down into the Pennsylvania troops. Young King was struck in the chest and severely wounded. He died in a field hospital three days later. He was the youngest casualty at Antietam.

Some Drummers Became Famous

Famed Civil War drummer Johnny Clem
Getty Images

Drummers attracted attention during the war, and some tales of heroic drummers circulated widely.

One of the most famous drummers was Johnny Clem, who ran away from home at the age of nine to join the army. Clem became known as “Johnny Shiloh,” though it’s unlikely he was at the Battle of Shiloh, which took place before he was in uniform.

Clem was present at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, where he reportedly wielded a rifle and shot a Confederate officer. After the war, Clem joined the Army as a soldier and became an officer. When he retired in 1915 he was a general.

Another famous drummer was Robert Hendershot, who became famous as the “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” He reportedly served heroically at the Battle of Fredericksburg. A story of how he helped capture Confederate soldiers appeared in newspapers and must have been a sliver of good news when most of the war news reaching the North was depressing.

Decades later, Hendershot performed onstage, beating a drum and telling stories of the war. After appearing at some conventions of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, a number of skeptics began to doubt his story. He was eventually discredited.

The Character of the Drummer Boy Was Often Depicted

Painting Drum and Bugle Corps by Winslow Homer
Getty Images

Drummers were often depicted by Civil War battlefield artists and by photographers. Battlefield artists, who accompanied the armies and made sketches which used as the basis for artwork in illustrated newspapers, commonly included drummers in their work. The great American artist Winslow Homer, who had covered the war as a sketch artist, placed a drummer in his classic painting "Drum and Bugle Corps."

And the character of a drummer boy was often featured in works of fiction, including a number of children’s books.

The role of the drummer was not confined to simple stories. Recognizing the role of the drummer in the war, Walt Whitman, when he published a book of war poems, titled it Drum Taps.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Role of Drummer Boys in the American Civil War." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). The Role of Drummer Boys in the American Civil War. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Role of Drummer Boys in the American Civil War." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).