The Civil War Drummer

Civil War Drums

by R.C. Murphy

When most people think of the Civil War, they think of famous generals or battles fought or how politics entered into an Army operation. But when I think of the War Between the States, I think of quite possibly the most important member of either side--that is the drummer.

When the Federal Government needed troops to answer the call, be it North or South, those troops never left home without a drummer as an integral part of the unit. Usually they were boys too young to do the actual fighting but who knew the importance of a good drummer. What a thrill it must have been for a small boy, who had probably never been further than a few miles from his town, to march off to war with a company or regiment of home folk. I think it would be hard for any of us in this day and age to imagine a boy joining a fighting unit and going off to war. But almost every city, town, hamlet or village that sent troops to war, had one or more of these brave young native sons.

Much is written about the weapons and strategies of war but little is said about the importance of the drummer. Its often thought that a drummers' only task was to beat cadence for his unit while marching. That was only a small part of a day in the life of a young drummer.

Drummers at Wheelling, WVa Without a drummer to establish communications and keep order among the units in the field, many campaigns would have ended in failure. The drummer had many responsibilities, including using one of many drum calls for everything from assembling officers for strategy meetings to sounding retreat in the midst of severe enemy fire. A drummer could always be seen near a high ranking officer because at any time he might be needed to alert the troops of an upcoming movement or operations.

Because of his job as the communicator for the unit, he often did not get enough sleep. At any time he might be needed to play the appropriate drum call. This meant being awakened at any hour and not being able to return to sleep for many hours. Once the men were assembled and deployed to a particular engagement, the drummers would lay down their drums and take up stretchers, act as runners between outposts, or do whatever was necessary to help the unit. Many tales of heroism have been told about these young lads, and many lived to ripe old ages to tell generations of their contributions to the war effort.

The Snare drum pictured above was made by The Increase Blake Co., Farmington Falls, Maine circa. 1861. The inside shell is signed by Ralph E. Reed 1861 with original drumsticks. Private collection.

Bass drum: Mfg. by The H. R. Eisenbrant Co., Baltimore Maryland with original beater circa. 1850. Private collection.

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