It is very easy to forget about the blood and carnage experienced by the Civil War drummer boy. We usually picture a young boy dressed in his pristine uniform marching at the front of a column beating out a cadence. We may even picture him acting as a stretcher bearer far from the fight. That may be true but there were boys who enlisted with romantic dreams that paid the ultimate price. There is the story of drummer boy Charles Edwin King who is believed to be the youngest soldier to die in battle during the Civil War. Others who met a similar fate are not documented. Sometimes musicians would write about witnessing such horrific sights.
Harry Kieffer, a musician for the 150th Pennsylvania, wrote about his experience at Gettysburg:
“[I am called] away for a moment to look after some poor fellow whose arm is off at the shoulder, and it was just time I got away, too, for immediately a shell plunges into the sod where I had been sitting, tearing my stretcher to tatters.”
A 16-year-old musician, John A. Cockerill, who was at Shiloh, later wrote,
“I passed… the corpse of a beautiful boy in gray who lay with his blond curls scattered about his face and his hand folded peacefully across his breast. He was clad in a bright and neat uniform, well garnished with gold, which seemed to tell the story of a loving mother and sisters who had sent their household pet to the field of war. His neat little hat lying beside him bore the number of a Georgia regiment… He was about my age… At the sight of the poor boy’s corpse, I burst into a regular boo hoo and started on.”
The trauma experienced by Civil War drummer boys, and other musicians, no doubt left them troubled after the conclusion of the war. They had served alongside adults with the same courage and distinction. Some became prisoners, some were killed and others died of disease. Today in order to properly honor these young soldiers we must remember the nightmarish conditions in which they performed their tasks. Their playing was a major contribution to the army both on the field and off. It is a shame that we often overlook that.
If you are interested in additional posts on the Civil War drummer boy visit:
Drummer Boy Photo Album Drummer Boy Medal of Honor History of Drummer Boys Drummer Boy The Drummer Boy History: Drum Signals Complete Music for the Fife and Drum From History to the Canvas 154th Anniversary A Letter Home 103rd Ohio Preserved Drum Courage and Distinction Civil War Drums “Major” A.H. Johnson Alexander Howard Johnson The Long Roll Civil War Rudiments Battle Beats Drummer Boy Monuments
Pictured: Confederate drummer boy at a re-enactment