In keeping with our Civil War theme today I would like to present the remarkable life of drummer boy Robert Henry Hendershot. This young man joined the Union Army as a musician in Company B of the Ninth Michigan Infantry. After being captured and paroled following the First Battle of Murfreesboro Henderson returned to the ranks in the days leading up to the Battle of Fredericksburg. Due to his severe and frequent seizures, Henderson was slated for a medical discharge due to epilepsy. As he awaited his release through the closing months of 1862 Henderson explored the Union’s winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac.
The Army was waiting on the banks of the Rappahannock River, opposite the lightly defended City of Fredericksburg, Virginia, while pontoon bridges were built across the river. The delay enabled General Robert E. Lee to move his army into a tactically superior position. When the Union engineers arrived, they came under attack from rebel sharpshooters. On December 11, 1862 the Seventh Michigan Infantry volunteered to cross the river under enemy fire and drive the rebel sharpshooters from their nests.
Hendershot’s wanderings had taken him to the riverbank that morning. He later claimed he helped push off the first boat and slipped when he tried to climb aboard, and made the voyage across clinging to the gunwale. A dispatch from the scene describes “a drummer boy, only 13 years old, who volunteered and went over in the first boat, and returned laden with curiosities picked up while there.” A correspondent for the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune wrote that the boy belonged to the Eighth Michigan Infantry.
According to reports “The young hero remained nameless until late December, when Hendershot visited the offices of the Detroit Free Press and Detroit Advertiser and Tribune, claiming to be the “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” Hendershot’s story was repeated in national papers, including the New-York Tribune. Its publisher, Horace Greeley, presented Hendershot with a silver drum. For the next eight weeks Hendershot performed at the P. T. Barnum museum, and then spent a few weeks more in Poughkeepsie, New York, at the Eastman Business College, which had rewarded his heroism with a scholarship.”
After the war Hendershot returned to the Poughkeepsie Business College for a brief time, marrying a fellow student. In 1867 he collaborated with writer William Sumner Dodge, who produced a 200-page biography, Robert Henry Hendershot; or the Brave Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock. After his retirement as mail clerk in 1885, Hendershot took out his drum and began touring the country with his son, Cleveland, who played the fife. Although they principally performed at Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) functions and other patriotic gatherings, their tour also took them to Canada and the Kingdom of Hawaii, where they entertained Queen Lill’uokalani.
Also see post: Civil War Rudiments
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