“Major” A.H. Johnson

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Over the last few months I have spent a great deal of time researching and compiling information about drummer boys from the Revolution and Civil War. As a historian I relish every opportunity when I can combine all of my interests in a single project. In addition to posting multiple blogs and an extensive photo library I also have a feature on drummer boys coming out in a future issue of Modern Drummer magazine. One interesting aspect of this story is found in the experiences and perspectives of African-American drummers.

Some of these young musicians marched in the ranks of the U.S. Colored Troops while contributing in their own way. Unlike their counterparts in the South, blacks, both free and ex-slave were looked upon as soldiers and not camp servants. Grateful for their newfound freedom many Southern slaves savored the opportunity to line up in the Union ranks and raise their muskets toward their former oppressors. Free men from the North took the opportunity to serve as their brother’s keeper. Throughout the war drummer boys provided essential camp and field communications.

One African-American drummer boy of particularly noteworthy service was A.H. Johnson. At the age of 16, Alexander H. Johnson was the first African American musician to enlist in U.S. military, joining the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers under Robert Gould Shaw. Johnson was adopted by William Henry Johnson, the second black lawyer in the United States and close associate of Frederick Douglass. After the war Johnson told an interviewer that he had “beat a drum every day he has been able since childhood.”

According to an article titled Alexander H. Johnson: The first drummer boy (by Meserette Kentake) Johnson quickly established himself as a talented drummer as he and the rest of the rank and file learned the art of soldiering. He was with the unit when it left Boston for James Island, S.C., where it fought its first battle.

The skirmish, along the South Carolina coast near Charleston, occurred on July 16, 1863. Johnson noted, “We fought from 7 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon, and we succeeded in driving the enemy back. After the battle we got a paper saying that if Fort Wagner was charged within a week it would be taken.”

Two days later the 54th unsuccessfully stormed Confederate-held Fort Wagner on Morris Island while sustaining massive casualties. Johnson recounted, “Most of the way we were singing, Col. Shaw and I marching at the head of the regiment. It was getting dark when we crossed the bridge to Morris Island. It was about 6:30 o’clock when we got there. Col. Shaw ordered me to take a message back to the quartermaster at the wharf, who had charge of the commissary. I took the letter by the first boat, as ordered, and when I returned I found the regiment lying down, waiting for orders to charge. The order to charge was given at 7:30 o’clock.”

Johnson remained in the 54th until the end of the war. In the summer of 1865 he returned to Massachusetts, bringing the drum that he carried at Fort Wagner with him. Four years later he married, settled in Worcester, Mass., and organized “Johnson’s Drum Corps.” He led the band as drum major, and styled himself “The Major.”

In 1897, a memorial to the 54th sculpted by the artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens was unveiled in Boston. The bronze relief depicts Colonel Shaw and his men leaving Boston for the South with a young drummer in the lead — a scene reminiscent of the July day in 1863 when Shaw and Johnson marched at the head of the 54th to its destiny at Fort Wagner. In 1904, Johnson visited the monument during an event hosted by the Grand Army of the Republic, the influential association of Union veterans. Many of those in attendance pointed out the resemblance of the young lead drummer and it is said that Johnson felt a great sense of pride for his participation in the war. Today the statute remains as a timeless tribute to both Johnson and the men he served.

(Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

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