In my quest to provide unique content unlike other drum blogs I give you our second historical post in a week. As stated below in the blog titled Revolutionary Drummers: “throughout the history of warfare musicians have always played an important role on the battlefield. Military music has served many purposes including marching-cadences, bugle-calls and funeral dirges. Drums, fifes, bagpipes and trumpets are just some of the tools that were used to instruct friend and intimidate foe.”
In the early days of gentleman’s warfare from the Revolution to the Civil War, young boys fulfilled the roll of drummers. These musicians were often too young to enlist as soldiers so they turned to the drum in order to fulfill their duty. Many were either orphans or runaways who looked to the life of a drummer boy as romantic and glamorous. Although there were usually official age limits, these were often ignored. The youngest boys were sometimes treated as mascots by the adult soldiers.
One of the most famous drummer boys was a thirteen year-old French Republican drummer named Joseph Bara. During the French Revolution he marched into battle with his adult counterparts providing battlefield communications. After he enlisted he attached himself to fighting counter revolutionaries in Vendée. In addition to drumming Joseph also assisted with the officers horses and often led them onto the field. This allowed the horse to stay calm amidst the chaos and carnage that surrounded them.
On December 7, 1793, Joseph was leading two horses into a battle at Jallais when he was cut down by Breton royalists. After his death General J.-B. Desmarres gave this account, by letter, to the Convention. “Yesterday this courageous youth, surrounded by brigands, chose to perish rather than give them the two horses he was leading.” Even after his death Joseph still continued to serve the cause as the subject of propaganda. Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre, a renowned French politician and lawyer paid tribute to the fallen boy saying that “only the French have thirteen-year-old heroes.”
It was later inflated to claim that he had been “trapped by the enemy and being ordered to cry “Vive le Roi” (Long live the King) to save his own life, he preferred instead to die crying “Vive la République” (Long live the Republic).” Joseph’s remains were transferred to the Panthéon during a revolutionary festival in his honor.
Today Joseph Bara is preserved for posterity as the subject of the French painter Charles Moreau-Vauthier. The image of a small child in the midst of battle was seen as deeply poignant by 19th-century artists, and idealized boy drummers were frequently depicted in paintings, sculpture and poetry. The image of the death of Joseph Bara is still striking in its portrayal of the tragedy. Today the fallen drummer boy still remains one of the great heroes of the French Revolution.