Battle Beats


Here is my third installment presenting the history of drummer boys. You may recall I posted two detailed articles about drummers during the Revolutionary War (see as well as the plight of the drummer boy (see during wartime. Today I would like to take a brief look at two drummers who served during the American Civil War, one white and one African American. As a historian with five published Civil War books and one Civil War documentary film to my credit, I have a special affinity for this period. Most sources that I have found present an anonymous look at the drummer boy’s contributions. They are usually filled with generalizations due to the fact there is a limited amount of references on specific drummers. That said there is more recorded material on drummers during this war than any other. After some digging I managed to find two photos that contained complimentary data that tells the story of each one.

According to Glenn Williams, a senior historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, “Drummer boys signaled everything from chow time to formation to pay to time to charge the enemy. Drummers and other musicians like fifers and buglers were the radio operators of their day. For much of military history, this was the most effective way for commanders to relay their orders to hundreds or even thousands of troops on the battlefield. They also used to intimidate the enemy. Before the actual battle began, it wasn’t unusual for fifes and drums to march out in front of the regiment and play a tune before they fell in with their companies and maybe intimidate the enemy a little bit.”

Williams adds that, “Civil War drummers were on average about 18 years old. In fact, the Union Army tightened restrictions on age limits during the war, but there were still notable exceptions like Charles “Charley” King, who, at the age of 13, earned the somewhat dubious distinction of becoming the youngest soldier killed during the Civil War after he was mortally wounded during the Battle of Antietam, Md. Although King, who served in Company F, 49th Pennsylvania Infantry, was assigned to the rear to help with the wounded during the battle, a Confederate shell overshot the lines and struck him. He died three days later.”

Here are two young drummer boys that served with distinction during the American Civil War:


LEFT: Robert Henry Hendershot, the “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock,” poses with his drum during the Civil War. Hendershot enlisted in Company B, 9th Michigan Infantry in March 1862, and was taken prisoner that July at the Battle of Stones River. After his release, he joined the 8th Michigan Infantry, although he suffered from regular seizures. While awaiting discharge for epilepsy, Hendershot claimed to have helped pushed off the first boat and then clung to the gunwale as the 7th Michigan Infantry crossed the Rappahannock River to Fredericksburg under heavy fire, Dec. 11, 1862. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

RIGHT: A drummer boy named Jackson poses for a portrait during the Civil War. Jackson is believed to be a freed or escaped slave who joined the 79th Infantry Regiment – U.S. Colored Troops, an all-black unit assigned to Kansas and Arkansas during the war that incurred heavy casualties. As a drummer, Jackson would have used up to 40 different beats to convey his commander’s orders to assemble for formation. He, like many other drummers also served as a stretcher bearer. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

Here is another image of Hendershot (RIGHT), taken in 1865 at Matthew Brady’s studio, most likely done after the end of hostilities and a close-up (LEFT) of a Confederate drummer boy. Photos of southern drummers are rare.


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