Welcome new visitors

Greetings one and all. I assume you discovered this blog after reading my article on Drummer Boys in the latest issue of Modern Drummer. Off Beat is a blog that focuses on drums and drumming and covers a variety of subjects that range from history to technique. If you are interested in reading past published articles and interviews visit the Books-Articles page (above) on this blog. If you are interested in additional information on my latest book FUNdamentals of Drumming for Kids or if you wish to purchase the book/DVD in either print or ebook, visit http://www.moderndrummer.com/fundamentalsofdrumming/. I hope that you will take some time to browse past postings and will make Off Beat one of your usual stops. Thank you.

In order to fit this feature across three pages some of the content had to be removed or adjusted. Here are three stories that did not make my final draft: (*click photos for full size)


Robert Henry Hendershot

Perhaps the most photographed drummer boy of the American Civil War, Robert Henry Hendershot, was known as the “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” His nickname supposedly came from his reputed heroics at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December of 1862. Hendershot enlisted in Company B, 9th Michigan Infantry in March of 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 arrived on the banks facing Fredericksburg where the Army of the Potomac was preparing to attack the city. The Army of Northern Virginia was waiting on the banks of the Rappahannock River, defending the city while pontoon bridges were being built. The delay enabled General Robert E. Lee to move the Confederate army into a formidable position. When the Union engineers arrived, they came under attack from rebel sharpshooters, so on December 11, 1862 the 7th Michigan Infantry volunteered to cross the river under enemy fire and drive the rebel sharpshooters from their nests. According to an account of the events:

[Hendershot’s wanderings had taken him to the riverbank that morning. He later claimed that he helped push off the first boat, slipped when he tried to climb aboard, and made the voyage across the river while 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 8th Michigan Infantry. Reports of the episode appeared in the press.

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.]

Many historians have questioned the story of the “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” The only ones who knew the truth were the witnesses who were present at the boat’s launching and Hendershot himself. Following the war in July 1891 Hendershot posted a letter to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) newspaper, the National Tribune, restating his claim to the title “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock,” as well as that of “youngest soldier.” He was by then one of the best known veteran drummer boys in the country. Despite the ongoing controversy Hendershot always stood by his claims before dying of pneumonia on December 26, 1925.


William H. “Willie” Johnston

Most people are unaware that the youngest soldier ever to receive the Medal of Honor was a drummer boy named William H. “Willie” Johnston. Johnston was a drummer in Company D of the 3rd Vermont Infantry. During his service he participated in several events including the Seven Days Retreat in the Peninsula Campaign where he was said to have served in an “exemplary” fashion. During this event Johnston was the only drummer in his division to come away with his instrument during a general rout. His superiors considered this a meritorious feat, when his fellow soldiers had thrown away their guns. As a result, he received the Medal of Honor on the recommendation of his division commander, thereby becoming the youngest recipient of the highest military decoration at 13 years of age.

Johnston had enlisted at the same time as his father in June of 1861 and was assigned to a regiment that was camped outside of Washington. He was present for duty but was originally denied pay due to his age. Muster rolls from that time describe Johnston as being 11-years-old and five feet tall. His first engagement took place at Lee’s Mill in Virginia on April 16, 1862. His father was shot and lost a portion of his hand while charging the enemy. Following his next campaign, the Seven Days Battles from June 25 to July 1, 1862, Johnston was cited for bravery. During a retreat many men threw away their guns and equipment to lighten the load. Johnston retained his drum and was the only drummer boy to bring his instrument off of the battlefield.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton presented the Medal of Honor award to Johnston on September 16, 1863. (It is said to have been directed by President Lincoln himself although no definitive proof exists). Following the Peninsula Campaign, Johnston served as a nurse in a hospital in Baltimore and was transferred to Company H, 20th Regiment of Veteran Reserve Corps, where he played in the regimental brass band as Drum Major.

In tribute a statue honoring Johnston was erected in Santa Clarita, California. Some of his memorabilia (to include drumsticks) is on display at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. A plaque was placed in his honor at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia in June, 2012 by the Vermont Civil War Hemlocks. The plaque reads: “At Harrison’s Landing on July 4th, 1862, Willie Johnston — age 11, 3rd Vermont Drummer Boy played for Div. review. For keeping his drum during the arduous 7 days battles, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by Sec. of War Stanton. He remains the youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor. His gravesite is unknown. Dedicated June 2012 The Vermont Civil War Hemlocks.” (Harrison’s Landing is located at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia.)


Clarence D. MacKenzie

Clarence MacKenzie was a mere 12-years-old when he marched off to war as a member of Brooklyn’s Thirteenth Regiment. Tragedy befelled him in June of 1861 while he was encamped at Annapolis, Maryland. It was during a training drill that MacKenzie was accidentally struck by a stray ball fired by his fellow soldiers. As a result he became Brooklyn’s first casualty of the Civil War. MacKenzie’s body was returned home and buried in a public lot on the Hill of Graves at Green-Wood cemetery. He was later relocated to the Soldiers’ Lot which Green-Wood donated specifically for Civil War Veterans. His grave is marked with a striking white bronze monument forged in his likeness. The ornate pedestal carrying the statue stands approximately ten feet in height and is inscribed: “ERECTED BY THE DRUM AND BUGLE CORPS OF THE 13TH REGT. N.G., S.N.Y., IN MEMORY OF CLARENCE D. MACKENZIE, BORN FEB. 8, 1849, DIED AT ANNAPOLIS, MD., JUNE 11, 1861, AGED 12 YRS, 4 MOS, 3 DYS.”

Regular visitors to this blog may recall that I have posted before on the history of the drummer boy. As a Civil War and American Revolution author and historian I relish the opportunity to combine both of my interests. (See past posts on the subject: Major A.H. JohnsonHistory of Drummer BoysThe Long RollOnline Photograph CollectionDrummer BoyCivil War RudimentsRevolutionary Drummers)

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