“The Drummer-Boy of Our Regiment”

December 19, 1863

Thomas Nast

“The Drummer-Boy of Our Regiment”

Children; Civil War, Battles; Civil War, Homefront; Civil War, Union Military; Home Life; U.S. Military; Wars, American Civil War;

Clem, Johnny;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption.

During the Civil War, some children participated in the military, although estimates of the number of volunteers under the age of eighteen are uncertain and vary widely from one to 20 percent.  In 1864, the federal Congress enacted legislation banning the enlistment of those below the age of 16, but thousands of underage boys served both the Union and the Confederacy during the conflict.  The age of the youngest recruit is not known, but reports of boys as young as 12 and 13 are not uncommon.  In 1888, Harper’s Weekly noted that the Reverend Albert C. White of Massachusetts attested to have been the youngest enlistee in the Civil War at 9 years and 20 days of age when he became a drummer for Company D of the 64th Ohio Volunteers, for which his father served as a lieutenant.  Whether White’s claim was valid, the very youngest military participants were drummer boys or other musicians, if for no other reason than that the Civil War muskets were too heavy for young boys to shoot accurately. 

The dominant theme of the featured cartoon shows through contrasting pictures how the military experience of a Union drummer boy transformed him from a child into a man.  When he leaves home (center-left) to serve as a drummer boy, he is crying like the women in the scene, his mother and grandmother.  However, when he returns home after the war (center-right), he stands straight and looks confident; he has attained manhood.  The scene (lower-center) of the boy drumming while Union troops advance in battle is more a figment of the imagination of cartoonist Thomas Nast, sketching in his New York studio, than a depiction of the likely activity of a drummer boy.  Drummer boys were often not on the battlefield during action, and, if so, they certainly were not drumming.  Instead, they worked with the ambulance corps, helping retrieve and relieve the wounded with canteen, bandages, and (for the stronger boys) stretchers; aided the surgeons and nurses at the hospital camps; and ran messages and supplies (including alcohol and tobacco) to the officers.  Nevertheless, the idealistic image of the drummer boy tapping the troops to patriotic glory was widespread in Civil War illustrations.

In camp, the drummer boys did keep tempo while the soldiers drilled, and played at morning reveille and evening taps (the buglers and fife players were often boys, too).  In addition, the drummer boys assisted the camp cooks, cleaned and sharpened surgical instruments, ran errands for officers, cut the soldiers’ hair, and, if physically able, helped bury dead animals and (sometimes) soldiers.  By contrast, the images in the featured cartoon of camp life for the drummer boy do not depict his busy work schedule, but scenes of relaxation, reflection, and personal routine (washing and eating).  The picture of “The Favorite” (upper-center) reassures viewers that the boy is safe, and a special object of concern and camaraderie, as he sits on the knee of one soldier while the others casually form a protective and friendly circle around him.  The correspondence of soldier-fathers to their children back at the homefront reveal that the men sustained, and perhaps increased, their commitment to parenting while serving in the Civil War military.  Here, the cartoonist emphasizes the continued involvement in family life of the drummer boy, who dutifully writes and happily receives letters to and from his family at home.

The most famous drummer boy for the Union was Johnny Clem.  Shortly after the war began in April 1861, when he was a few months short of his tenth birthday, Clem was allowed to join the 22nd Michigan Volunteers as a drummer boy.  He was officially enrolled in May 1863, after which he began receiving pay for his duty.  At the battle of Chickamauga on September 20, 1863, Clem escaped capture by shooting a Confederate officer, and was subsequently promoted to lance corporal by General George Thomas.  Union newspapers made a great deal of the episode, nicknaming him the “drummer boy of Chickamauga.”  He was captured the next month while guarding a train, but the Confederates soon released him, condescendingly observing to “what sore straits the Yankees are driven, when they have to send their babies out to fight us.”  In January 1864, Clem became a mounted orderly on General Thomas’s staff.  In September 1864, the 13-year-old Clem was discharged from the army.  In adulthood, John Lincoln Clem (as he began calling himself during the Civil War) served in the U.S. Army until his retirement in 1915 at the rank of major general.  He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The underage boys who served in combat roles usually did not receive special treatment, and suffered from the same illnesses, anxieties, and wounds (or death) that other servicemen did.  That equality of condition apparently existed at prison camps, such as the infamous Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia.  When President Abraham Lincoln met two emaciated boys released from Andersonville, he reportedly exclaimed, “My God, when will this accursed thing end?”  Children in the Confederacy and the Union states of Pennsylvania and Maryland were sometimes witnesses to battles and other war-related events, even though they were not participants themselves.  Children in the Confederacy often endured the deprivation, and occasionally the horror, that the war entailed, but children in the North were also economically affected by the conflict.  The number of children in New York City almshouses increased by 300 percent during the Civil War, and thousands of children (and women) moved into the workforce to replace the men away at the battlefield.  The number of children arrested rose to unprecedented highs in the urban North.

At the same time, there was an outpouring of charity during the Civil War.  The number of orphanages doubled (although still not meeting the need), and children themselves contributed to benevolent work by raising money, rolling bandages, helping at the sanitary fairs, and packing supplies and treats for the servicemen.  At home, children took on extra chores to help their short-handed families.  Some Northern children printed their own newspapers to encourage patriotism and the Union war effort.  In Union-occupied New Orleans, Confederate children wore mourning ribbons and mocked the Union soldiers.  Across the North and South, boys formed themselves into play militia units to practice drilling and fighting.  Whether as participants or observers, and with whichever side their loyalties resided, American children were affected in numerous ways by the Civil War.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Drummer-Boy of Our Regiment”
May 21, 2024

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to