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