Drummer boys and fifers

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Dec. 1999, pp. 3-7

Copyright 1999, Cobblestone Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

by Stephen Currie

Some of the North's and the South's very youngest took part in the Civil War. The Union army included several dozen boys who were not yet eleven years old, as well as hundreds of others who were under the age of fourteen. The Confederates may have had even more youngsters. These youngest army members, however, rarely served as arms-bearing soldiers. Instead, they were "armed" as musicians, bearing drums, fifes, and bugles.

During the Civil War, boys were not supposed to enlist without their parents' permission if they were under a certain age, usually eighteen years old. However, the rules frequently were bent. Boys who were turned down as soldiers often were accepted as drummers, fifers, or buglers. "The man behind the desk said I looked as if I could hold a drum," reported one such youngster, "and if I wanted I could join in that way."

There was never any shortage of boys anxious to "hold a drum." Most enlisted for what they saw as an adventure--army life seemed far more interesting than endless days in school or on a farm. Gustav Schurmann, tired of being a BOOTBLACK, spent most of the war drumming and bugling. He even became friends with President Abraham Lincoln's son Tad. Another drummer, Johnny Clem, was one of many who joined without his parents' consent. A few enlisted under assumed names, making it harder for their families to find them.

Although enlisted as musicians, most of the boys knew nothing about music. "Went out to practice drumming," wrote C.W. Bardeen after joining. "Find it is no easy thing to learn to drum." Some, like Bardeen, switched instruments. And they learned soon enough because once in camp, musicians had to summon the soldiers to meals and drills. That meant playing almost constantly. The resulting practice turned many boys into decent musicians.

Every part of the army's daily routine had its own musical call. The boys had to learn each one by heart. Musicians began the day with "Assembly of Buglers" and ended it hours later with "Extinguish Lights." In between came signals for soldiers to assemble for drill, to water their horses, and much more. The boys usually grew weary of playing the same music again and again. The troops did not like it, either. As one soldier song complained, "I am sick of the fife, more sick of the drum."

Boys often took on other jobs in camp, too. Jerry Collins sorted mail. Bardeen built roads. Delavan Miller dug trenches. When given time off, the boys swam, sang, and played cards. Their drums even came in handy for fun. Boys sketched checkerboards on the drumheads or used them as writing tables. Also, most drums could be unscrewed from the top, so musicians could carry cards, extra food, or even a small dog inside.

Although boys could enjoy certain aspects of camp life, there was nothing fun about battle. Sometimes, buglers and drummers played amid the shooting, giving commands through their music. And musicians also worked with the medical corps. Otto Wolf helped perform amputations at the army hospital. "It is an awful sight," he wrote.

Although musicians were unarmed, the fighting often found them anyway. "I was never so scared in all my life," Miller said about being pinned down by gunfire. Benjamin Fox was wounded at Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia. Charley King was killed at Antietam in Maryland.

Some musicians showed particular courage during battle. J.B. Thomas was one: He grabbed a musket and fired into an oncoming enemy brigade. Sometimes, the heroic deeds of musicians were exaggerated. Johnny Clem became famous for bravery at Shiloh in Tennessee--but he probably wasn't even there. (He WAS wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia.)

Drummer boys, fifers, and buglers suffered from tragedy, hard work, and loneliness, just like their gun-toting brothers. They were far from family and friends. They struggled to do their jobs well. They saw men die on the battlefield. Yet many musicians considered their army years the best of their lives. (Because of their young ages, musicians in the Civil War were some of that war's last veterans.) As an old, retired U.S. Army man, Clem loved nothing more than talking with other Civil War veterans. Miller kept his drum, and fifty years later he described it as "loved and tenderly cared for." Harsh as the war could be for these youngest of soldiers, being a company musician was a source of pride for the many boys who took the job.
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386 -> Washington Post (Washington, dc) Jul 19, 2011, p. C10 Copyright The Washington Post Company Jul 19, 2011. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. Bull Run Surprised North, South

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