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Historic Collectible: Civil War Drums

In our last installment we looked at drums made during World War II. Let’s hop back into our time machine and dial in 1861, the beginning of the American Civil War.

Unlike WWII, when, by that time, most Americans believed that war was an unpleasant and remote tragedy, the Civil War was initially embraced with an inexperienced, intense, sometimes romantic interest. It was your basic, “How are you going to keep them down on the farm?” The Civil War offered bored young men toiling in the fields the adventure and excitement they yearned for.

Though the legal enlistment/conscription age at that time was 16 years old, younger boys often falsified birth certificates or simply lied about their age to recruiting officers with a less than discernable eye. Those who couldn’t pass as 16 did, however, have a recourse: they could enlist as drummer boys. “I wanted to fight the Rebs,” a 12-year-old boy wrote, “but I was very small and they would not give me a musket. The next day I went back and the man behind the desk said I looked as if I could hold a drum and if I wanted I could join that way. I did, but I was not happy to change a musket for a stick.”

Charles W. Bonner carried a drum (the one pictured above) from April 20, 1861, until November 23, 1862, in Company A, 11th Regiment, Missouri Volunteers, Union Army. At 19 years of age, Charles Bonner was probably one of the oldest drummer boys in the army.

Able-bodied men were desperately needed in the front lines, so the position of drummer was often filled by slight young men or very young boys, some as young as eight years old – absurd as that may sound, unlike the drummers in today’s modern army, Civil War drummer boys were an integral part of the war machine.

The role of a Civil War drummer boy went far beyond a ceremonial accoutrement, as they were responsible for troop movement. “Drum Calls” were a means of communicating the commands of officers to their men. You may be familiar with some of these calls: “Three Camps” was reveille, “Tattoo” meant bedtime, “Commence Firing,” “Quick Step,” “Advance” and “Retreat” were all part of the repertoire of the well-trained drummer boy. Drummer boys controlled virtually every daily activity of the infantry soldier. With this responsibility, it was not surprising that the drummer boy’s training was rigorous. Of course, there were formal schools of instruction, like the Schools of Practice at Governor’s Island, New York Harbor, and Newport Barracks, Kentucky, but most drummer boys learned by “on the job” training. Some were aided by texts; the most popular by far was Bruce and Emmettt’s The Drummers’ and Fifers’ Guide.

It was the drumbeat that told the soldiers how and when to maneuver as smoke poured over the battlefield. Small boys carrying huge field drums could be heard above the roar of a battle. The sight of a drummer boy also provided a visual location for a soldiers’ unit, helping to keep them close together. This placed drummer boys at high risk. The enemy knew that if he took out the drummer boy, the commanders lost contact with their troops. “A ball hit my drum and it bounced off and I fell over,” a Confederate drummer at the Battle of Ceder Creek recalled. “When I got up, another ball tore a hole in the drum and another came so close to my ear that I heard it sing.” Supply met demand though, as over 32,000 regulation drums were manufactured from 1861 to 1865 for the Union Army alone.

Drums were made primarily in the important industrialized centers of the Northeast: Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Though there were no governmental standards for drum construction, snare drums were generally 15" to 16" in diameter and 10" to 12" deep. Shells were made of ash, maple, white holly, or similar types of pliable wood. Like modern day drums, shells were strengthened with reinforcement rings at the top and bottom. However, glue not being what it is today, the lap or seam of the shell required nails. The nail pattern was sometimes very elaborate, utilizing circles, triangles, diamonds, and/or vertical and horizontal lines. Often a manufacturer can be identified by their particular nail pattern, though a company’s paper label was usually placed inside the shell, opposite the air vent hole. Calfskin or sheepskin heads were tensioned by rope, laced either through holes in the wood hoops or through cast hooks clasped over the hoops. Tension was applied by sliding the tugs or braces down. The decorative braid also provided an extra supply of rope should it break. Snares were usually made of catgut, though rawhide was sometimes used.

The crowning glory of many of these drums was their handpainted decorations. The painting on Charles Bonner’s drum is on the batter head of his drum, probably in commemoration of his service during the Civil War. Normally the drummer boy would receive his drum with the painting on the shell of the drum. Again, although there were no standards, a blue background was designated for an infantry unit, while a red background signified artillery. An American bald eagle most commonly emblazoned the Federal Army drums but sometimes the Confederates used it as well. Federal drums were also decorated with 13 stars for each of their 13 states. Confederate states were represented with 11 stars. With these beautiful decorations, it is no wonder that these drums were treasured long after the passionate sentiment of America’s bloodiest battle had abated.

Today, you can expect to pay dearly for a Civil War—period drum, if you can find one. Many postwar drums are being offered as period drums. I wasn’t specifically into the Civil War era of collecting when I found this drum. In fact, I was negotiating with Nick Fatool (Benny Goodman’s “favorite drummer”) for a Gretsch Gladstone drum when he offered to sell me the Bonner drum. Fortunately, my instincts were correct and I bought the drum. About a year later I saw a Union Regimental drum with an eagle painted on the side offered in an antique shop for $7,500. Even though this was considerably more than I paid for mine, when I returned to the shop two days later, it was gone.

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