DRUMMERS OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

Although The Drummer's Call is a work of fiction, the duties and drum calls detailed in this story are based on fact.

During the American Civil War, individuals under the age of eighteen were not allowed to join the military without parental consent. Notwithstanding, thousands of boys under eighteen, lured by either patriotism or the desire to escape the dull routine of daily chores, still managed to find a way to enlist as drummers. Many boys enlisted with a family member, such as a father, brother or uncle.

Drummers were often referred to as the heartbeat of the army for the reason that their drum signals and calls were vital to maintaining order in the army camp and on the battlefield. The drummers were expected to learn over one hundred of the drum calls and tunes contained in the Drummers and Fifers Guide by George B. Bruce and Daniel D Emmett. Each task a soldier performed was assigned its own drum call, and if a drummer failed to learn the drum calls quickly enough, he would be dismissed from duty and sent home.


The drummer's day was long and often toilsome. While in camp, drummers communicated by drum call the daily activities of the soldiers, such as meals, roll call, sick call, drills and dress parade. Although the drumming schedule varied slightly from one regiment to the next, the drum calls were typically the same. The drummer's call summoned the drummers to the drumming post as early as 5:00 a.m. for Reveille, and drum calls continued almost hourly until as late as 10:30 p.m. for the final drumming of Tattoo.

When their drumming services were not required, drummers performed chores or assisted officers, surgeons, cooks, barbers, dentists and grave diggers. In addition, drummers would assemble with the musicians of other regiments and entertain the soldiers with patriotic songs for a morale boost. Drummers were on call twenty-four hours per day in case they were needed for special assignments, such as drumming the call that signaled an imminent attack by the enemy. As a result, drummers were often sleep deprived while they performed their daily duties.

Despite their grueling schedule of drumming and chores, drummer boys still managed to have fun. They played games such as checkers, dominoes, cards and even cockroach races. They also enjoyed foot races, wrestling, boxing and baseball. Singing, playing practical jokes, telling stories, reading and writing letters was also popular. Often, a lifetime bond was formed between the drummers after they had shared in the experience of living within close quarters in the campground, and also enduring the horror of battle.

During battle, the drum was an essential communication tool because the sound of drum beats was carried much farther than the sound of an officer's voice. Soldiers relied upon the drum calls to relay orders to advance, halt, load weapons, fire, retreat or conference with the enemy while maneuvering through the chaos of a smoke-covered battlefield.

Bloody Civil War battles were not for the faint of heart. Drummers saw soldiers, and sometimes drummer companions, seriously wounded or killed. At the end of a battle, the drummers were expected to bury dead soldiers, and also carry wounded soldiers to the field hospitals on stretchers. Drummers also tended to the wounded by bandaging injuries or assisting the field surgeons with medical procedures as harrowing as amputations.

Unfortunately, many drummers did not survive the war because they died either of illness while in camp or sustained a fatal wound during battle.

After the Civil War ended, bugles were used by the military instead of drums to relay battle commands. One reason for this was the drums were often difficult to hear over the deafening sounds on the battlefield.  Also, the weapons used during the Civil War were replaced with more efficient models which allowed the soldiers to shoot at greater distances. As a result, face-to-face combat within close proximity of the enemy was no longer necessary.

The most famous Civil War drummer was John Clem, also known as Johnny Shiloh, or the Drummer Boy of Chickamauga. John ran away from home at the age of nine and attempted to join the Union Army but was turned away. He tagged along after the 22nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry for several months until he was finally allowed to enlist as a drummer. He participated in several battles and became famous due to his bravery on the battlefield. John was also captured by the Confederates while guarding a train and imprisoned for two months. After his release, he rose in rank from drummer to sergeant and received a silver medal from General Rosecrans. All of this occurred by the time he was 13, whereupon he was discharged from the military in 1864. He re-enlisted in 1871 as a second lieutenant and retired as a brigadier general in 1915. The last Civil War veteran to retire, Johnny was interred at the Arlington National Cemetery in 1937.

 

 

 

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