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The Civil War drummer

November 4, 2012
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

When we think of the Civil War, we think of the generals, the battles and the losses. Many people overlook the most important member on both sides the drummer.

The Civil War is sometimes called "The Boys War" because so many soldiers who fought in it were still in their teens, and many of the very youngest boys served as drummers. They weren't supposed to be fighters, but they did a very important job during the war. When the federal government needed troops to answer the call, either North or South, these troops never left home without a drummer. Usually they were boys who were too young to do the actual fighting, rather they walked beside the marching soldiers, beating the drum to keep them together, however his most important job was that he acted as a communicator for the unit. Because of the noise and confusion of battle, it was often impossible to hear officers' orders, so each order was given a series of drumbeats to represent it. Both drummers and soldiers had to learn which drum roll meant "meet here, attack now and retreat," among many others. The most exciting drum call was "the long roll" that was the signal to attack. The drummer would just beat-beat-beat, and every other drummer within hearing distance would do the same until all that could be hears was an overwhelming thunder, pushing the army forward.

When the drummer boys weren't needed for sounding the calls, they doubled as stretcher bearers. They walked around the battlefield looking for the wounded and brought them to medical care.

It is believed that Johnny Clem, (John Lincoln Clem), who ran away from his home in Ohio when he was 9 to follow Union troops, was the youngest to fight in the war. The Union army turned him away for in addition to being so young he was small for his age, but when he tried again, and was turned down again, he refused to go home, so the Michigan troops adopted him as their mascot and drummer boy. The story goes on to say that some of the officers contributed part of their pay so he could earn a salary, they had a uniform made for him, and a rifle cut down to his size. He was involved in battles at Shiloh, where he was referred to as Johnny Shiloh, Chickamauga "The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga" and battles of Murfreesboro, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and Atlanta. He was discharged from the Army in 1864, but an appeal to President Ulysses Grant allowed him the commission of second lieutenant. He then saw action during the Spanish American War and continued to rise in the ranks until 1915 when he was promoted to Brigadier General, and retired as such. He lived to the age of 85, and is buried in Arlington Cemetery.



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