U.S. Civil War History & Genealogy

The Drummer Boys

Armies would regularly recruit young boys for service as drummers, well into the nineteenth century. This wasn't just to provide music, as the drums performed an important role in the battlefield communications system, with various rolls signaling different commands. Recruiting boys for the work freed men for combat duty, and as the boys got older they could be regularly enlisted in the ranks. Drummer boys were usually treated as something of a mascot by the troops, and often entrusted to the good offices of the regimental chaplain. Since they had few military duties to perform, the life of a drummer boy appeared rather glamorous, and so as would be expected, boys of all ages tried to enlist, often running away from home. Officially there were age restrictions, but these were often ignored, and boys as young as ten were occasionally found beating the "long roll" which called the men into action.

Needless to say, drummer boys -- in Confederate regiments they were sometimes black -- were often in the thick of the fighting, becoming casualties on a regular basis. Many lie in unknown graves, such as the heroic boy who fell at the head of Confederate Col. James C. Tappan's 13th Arkansas in an unnamed skirmish along the Arkansas River.

A number of drummer boys greatly distinguished themselves in action, and several became rather well known. The most famous drummer boy of the Civil War was undoubtedly John Clem (1851 - 1937), who added "Lincoln" as his middle name in 1861. At the age of ten little Johnny ran away from home in Newark, Ohio, and tried to enlist in various regiments, until the 24th Ohio took him on. He served at Shiloh, earning the nickname "Johnny Shiloh" for his steadiness. Later transferring to the "22nd Michigan", Clem drummed the long roll at Chickamauga -- where he earned the nickname "The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga" -- and at Chattanooga and several other battles, occasionally finding the time to lend a hand with the fighting as well. After the war he attempted to win an appointment to West Point, but having been otherwise occupied when most children his age were in school, he was a "bit weak" academically. With the support of President Ulysses S. Grant, in whose army he had drummed at Shiloh, and Maj. Gen. George "The Rock of Chickamauga" Thomas, for whom he had drummed on that disastrous occasion, Clem was given a direct commission into the army as a second lieutenant in 1871, retiring 45 years later as a major general, the last Civil War veteran on active duty.

Willie Johnson, from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, was a drummer boy in "Company D" of the "3rd Vermont". His service during the "Seven Days" retreat in the peninsular Campaign was exemplary, and he was the only drummer in his division to come away with his "instrument", by no means a trivial accomplishment. As a result, he was awarded the Medal of Honor on the recommendation of his division commander, thereby becoming the youngest recipient of the highest decoration, being then just 13 years old.

John McLaughlin, a native of Lafayette, Indiana, enlisted as a drummer in the 10th Indiana in 1861, being then "a little over ten years of age." McLaughlin had numerous adventures. During the Henry-Donelson Campaign he put aside his drum to take up a musket and join the firing line. Subsequently transferring to a Unionist Kentucky cavalry regiment, he fought as a trooper at Perryville, where he took a wound in his leg and took part in the pursuit of Col. John Morga, during which he received a saber cut in the same leg. His wound proving serious, he was discharged. Although he recovered only partial use of the leg, he fought the discharge, appealing to Lincoln. After a private interview with the president, McLaughlin was enlisted as a bugler in the Regular Army.

"Little Oirish" was a Kentucky lad of about eleven who enlisted in the Confederacy's famed "Orphan Brigade." At Shiloh he is credited with stemming a rout by grabbing the colors and rallying elements of the brigade which were in danger of breaking under a Federal assault.

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