American Civil War: Billy Yank--Drummer Boys

Figure 1.--

A wonderful source of information about the individual Confederate and Federal soldiers are two companion books written by Bell Irvin Wiley. He authored both The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank in the 1950s. The books primarily focus on the lives of older fighting soldiers. Unfortunalely Johnny Reb didn't have any page references to drummers, perhaps because there are fewer surviving accounts of Condederate drummer boys. Billy Yank did , however, have an interesting discussion. He cites from the personal accounts of several actual Civil War drummer boys.


Wiley writes, "The youngest wearers of the blue were the drummer boys and cavalry buglers. Apparently no minimum age was specified for the juvenile musicians until March 3, 1864, when an act of Congress prohibited the enlistment of any person under sixteen."

Wiley continues: "By no means all the youngsters who wore the blue were musicians. Despite issuance of War Department orders as early as August 1861 forbidding acceptance without parental consent of minors under eighteen, and an unqualified barring of them the next year, thousands of boys seventeen years and younger found their way into the ranks. Benjamin A. Gould, a United States Sanitary Commission actuary who compiled vital statistics for 1,012,273 Union volunteers reported that 10,233 of them were under eighteen at the time of their enlistment...most of them apparently were full-fledged soldiers."(Most were 16 and 17 years old.) (Pages 298 - 299, Wiley)

"The number of boys under eighteen was actually greater than that shown in the surveys," Wiley reports, "for the figures were compiled from muster rolls and many Yanks listed as eighteen and above in these records were in reality below eighteen; they misrepresented their age in order to get into the service." [Wiley quotes from G.L. Kilmer, "Boys in the Union Army," Century Magazine, LXX (1905), 269. "Joseph T. Bushong of the Eighteenth Ohio Regiment, who claimed to have completed a three-year enlistment before his eighteenth birthday, declared that his false statement to the recruiting officer concerning his age was 'the only lie I ever told in my life.'


"The principal duties of the drummer boys were to sound the daily calls on drum, fife or bugle and to assist the band in providing music for ceremonies and drill. In addition, they performed sundry chores about the camp."


Wiley mentions several individual drummer boys. We have added them to our list of individuals. We hope to find more about them and hopefully some photographs.

Observations about the Boys

Wiley writes that some of the boy soldiers deserted after a few months but most gave a good account of themselves. "On hard marches the ponies, as the boys were called, sometimes showed greater stamina than their mature comrades, a fact which afforded them much satisfaction." [Wiley, p. 300.] "The buoyancy and blitheness of the teenagers often spread to their comrades and helped make soldiering more tolerable for all." Wiley also reports, "A substantial though indeterminable number of the boy soldiers paid the supreme price for their patriotism." [Wiley, p. 301.] "One of the most interesting things about the boy soldiers was the speed with which they matured under the stress and strain of army life...Some of those who as boys donned the blue rose to high rank before the end of the war. Arthur MacArthur, father of General Douglas MacArthur," was awarded the Medal of Honor at age 18 and was promoted to the command of the Twenty-fourth Wisconsin regiment, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant general." [Wiley, pp. 301-302.] One other quote is a more realistic and less romantic assessment about the experiences of many drummer boys. It clashes with the stories of gallantry we read about in the anthology of juvenile literature during the Civil War. Alfred Davenport in a letter to his family in 1862 wrote: "If you think soldiering cures anyone of wild habits it is a great mistake, it is like sending a Boy in the Navy to learn him good manners. We have Drummer Boys with us that when they came at first could hardly look you in the face for diffidence but now could stare the Devil out of countenance and cant be beat at cursing, swearing, and gambling." [Wiley, p. 247.]


Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Louisiana State University Press, 1952. (The edition quoyed here is the 1978 reissue.)


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Created: 5:13 AM 9/2/2005
Last updated: 4:10 AM 9/10/2005