Beat­ing hearts

His­tor­i­cally, drum­mer boys have played a cen­tral role on the bat­tle­field, es­pe­cially in the Amer­i­can Civil War

BBC Earth (Asia) - - History -

The use of drum­mer boys on the bat­tle­field has been a long­stand­ing western tra­di­tion. Th­ese mu­si­cal mas­cots had a practical role to play, us­ing dif­fer­ent drum rolls to en­able of­fi­cers and troops to com­mu­ni­cate with each other.

De­spite their wide-span­ning his­tory, drum­mer boys have be­come syn­ony­mous with 19th-cen­tury Amer­i­can war­fare: sen­ti­men­tal­ist po­etry, art, sculp­ture and au­to­bi­og­ra­phy from the era jux­ta­posed th­ese in­no­cent chil­dren with sweep­ing bat­tlescapes.

The Amer­i­can Civil War pro­pelled drum­mer boys to semi-celebrity sta­tus. The youngest re­cruit of the war, nine-year-old John Clem, rose to fame after he opened fire on a Con­fed­er­ate colonel who’d or­dered him to sur­ren­der, and man­aged to es­cape. ‘The Drum­mer Boy of Chicka­mauga’, as he be­came known, was sub­se­quently pro­moted to sergeant, mak­ing him the youngest sol­dier ever to be­come a non com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer in the US army.

Other no­table Civil War drum­mer boys in­clude 13-year-old Charles

King, the youngest re­cruit to be killed in the war; 12-year-old Wil­liam Black, who lost his left arm dur­ing bat­tle; and Louis Ed­ward Rafield, who in­spired the sen­ti­men­tal Con­fed­er­ate song ‘The Drum­mer Boy of Shiloh’, writ­ten by

Will S Hays in 1863:

On Shiloh’s dark and bloody ground The dead and wounded lay; Amongst them was a drum­mer boy, Who beat the drum that day.

A drum­mer boy, c1861. Boys as young as nine learnt dozens of drum pat­terns that helped keep or­der on the bat­tle­field

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