Michigan's Little Drummer Boys of the Civil War

RHYTHM SECTION: Michigan’s intrepid drummer boys played their part in beating the enemy during the Civil War


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all images courtesy of richard bak


Amid the panoply of waving flags and patriotic speeches in the summer of 1861, Charlie Gardner ached to go off to war. The Flint youngster, eager to show the upstart Confederacy a thing or two, begged his mother to allow him to follow his favorite teacher, Samuel Guild, into the ranks of the 8th Michigan Infantry Regiment. Charlie’s father, Charles, was serving with the 2nd Michigan, so his mother was reluctant to see him go as well. Finally, she bowed to Charlie’s insistence that he be allowed to “take the place of a man who can handle a musket.” Charlie enlisted as a drummer boy in Company A of the 8th Michigan, commanded by Captain Guild.

The excitement and naiveté with which the schoolboy went to war quickly faded. By the end of 1862, both of Charlie’s father figures were dead. Captain Guild was killed in battle, while Charles Gardner died ingloriously of typhoid fever. Little Charlie soldiered on, shouldering the daily miseries of his older companions until he was wounded during the siege of Knoxville, Tenn. The regiment was recalled to Detroit, but for the Gardner family there was no happy homecoming at the train station. Charlie, who was thought to be recovering nicely, had died en route. He was 14 years old.

Nobody knows exactly how many Charlie Gardners served in the Civil War, the last conflict in American history to field large numbers of drummer boys and underage soldiers. According to historians’ estimates, as many as one in 10 Union soldiers were 17 or younger. Some were as young as 12. Government policy regarding the age of enlistees was inconstant. When the war began, the minimum age requirement of 18 could be waived with a parent’s or guardian’s permission (the same rule in effect in today’s armed forces). In 1862, the War Department forbade minors completely. Regulations concerning drummer boys, fifers, and other musicians specified no minimum age set until 1864, when Congress, alarmed by the growing number of casualties among this group, issued an act prohibiting the enlistment of anybody younger than 16.

It hardly mattered. Enterprising youths still found a way into uniform. Record-keeping was nothing like it is today, so in lieu of a birth certificate or other documentation it was easy to have an accomplice vouch for an eager recruit’s age. Boys concerned with committing the un-Christian act of lying often placated their guilty conscience by placing a slip of paper, the number 18 written on it, in their shoe. Thus when the recruiting officer asked the boy his age, he could truthfully answer, “I’m ‘over’ 18.”  

Thousands of Michigan lads served in the ranks, including Robert Hendershot of the 8th Michigan Infantry, who became a national celebrity by dint of a single audacious act. According to an account that first appeared in the Detroit Free Press and then was reprinted in other papers and the magazine Youth’s Companion, the 12-year-old drummer from Cambridge had clung to the side of a boat as Michigan troops crossed the icy Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Va., on Dec. 11, 1862. Once on the other bank, Hendershot’s drum was “blown to atoms,” but he managed to capture one of the enemy. Hendershot reportedly had earned the praise of a general at the scene, who declared, “Boy, I glory in your spunk.”

Hendershot, a fatherless hellion who found himself an object of admiration for the first time, spent the rest of the war — indeed, the rest of his life — capitalizing on his fame. He accepted an expensive and ornate drum from a New York newspaper, traveled to England to be showered with praise, appeared at P.T. Barnum’s museum of curiosities, and visited the White House to meet Abraham Lincoln. He posed for countless photographs, shamelessly promoting himself as “the most wonderful Drummer in the World.” Several poems were written about him, including “The Hero of the Drum.” Hendershot’s presence at a recruiting rally in Michigan “created much enthusiasm,” the Free Press reported. More than a few wide-eyed boys in attendance could envision themselves standing on the platform, boasting of his exploits, and soaking in the admiration and the applause, just like “The Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.”

Years later, it would develop that Hendershot, by now a staple of the convention circuit, was a fraud, the tale he had weaved for newspapers wholly discounted by members of the Michigan regiments on the scene. The real story of his time in service revealed a litany of discharges, desertions, and other unseemly behavior. “Worse than useless,” was one veteran’s appraisal of the boy who had demonstrated absolutely no ability to play an instrument or shoulder a weapon. If Hendershot was remembered for being at Fredericksburg at all, it was for joining in the looting that took place there — “the Forager of the Rappahannock,” said another Michigan vet. But in the early stages of the war, the North was hungry for all the heroes it could get — authentic or manufactured. Hendershot, undaunted by the controversy, would keep on beating his own drum right up until his death in 1925.

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