The drummer boys of the Civil War were not just musicians performing in parades and ceremonies. Their drums directed military life. Drummers used dozens of different drum calls to get the men out of bed in the morning, tell them when food was being served, when different duties were to be performed, and when to retire for the night. In battle, drummers told men when to form up in units, when and how fast to cover ground, and when to retreat. 'Lijah, the younger brother of my protagonist in The Bent Reed describes the drummer's repertoire this way:
“There’s drummer’s call, what the lead drummer plays to assemble the other musicians first thing in the morning. Then there’s reveille, breakfast call, surgeon’s call, drill call, assembly of the guard, Adjutant’s call, 3 cheers, dinner call, to the color, tattoo, and taps. An’ that’s just the reg’lar calls. Then there’s the marches and the break camps and the battle calls like commence firing and cease firing. A drummer boy’s gotta know a lot to direct the troops.”
Drummer boys were noncombatants who did not carry weapons, but that doesn't mean that their service wasn't dangerous. But at times the buglers and drummers were involved in the action. Because the noise of battle made communication difficult, drummer boys issued commands on the battlefields. Soldiers on the other side, who knew that their enemies listened to drum calls for direction, often targeted drummer boys.
Jimmy Harlow, the Confederate drummer boy from Georgia who has lost a leg in my novel is fictitious, but many real drummer boys suffered similar injuries. The youngest soldier injured during the war was a twelve-year old drummer boy named William Black, whose left hand and arm were shattered by an exploding shell. Avery Brown, enlisted when he was just 8 years old, played the snare drum at recruitment stations to boost enlistments until he was finally deemed old enough to work as a drummer boy on the front. He was medically discharged in 1863.
The most famous of all the Civil War drummer boys, Johnny Clem, was 9 when he joined the 22nd Michigan. Clem, better known by the nickname of Johnny Shiloh, was wounded twice. He became the youngest soldier ever promoted as a noncommissioned officer. When the war ended, John Clem re-enlisted. He finally retired in 1915 as a major general.
Several books have been written about Orion Howe, a twelve-year old boy from Ohio who ran away from school to join the Fifty-fifth Illinois Regiment as a drummer boy. Howe earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery.
Marlene Targ Brill's Diary of a Drummer Boy is the fictitious diary of this real life boy. It is a simple book with stunningly beautiful illustrations that will make the era come alive for middle school readers with low reading skills.
For more advanced readers, G. Clifford Wisler's Drummer Boy of Vicksburg is a longer first-person narrative based on the same real boy's wartime experiences.
You can see pictures of these two real life drummer boys here.