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Spirit of '76 was painted in 1875 by Archibald Willard, one of many depictions in 19th-century art of drummer boys in heroic or sentimental contexts.

Drummer boys were children recruited as drummers for use on the battlefield. Until well into the 19th century, western armies recruited young boys to act as drummers. The drums were an important part of the battlefield communications system, with various drum rolls used to signal different commands from officers to troops.[1] Although there were usually official age limits, these were often ignored; the youngest boys were sometimes treated as mascots by the adult soldiers. The life of a drummer boy appeared rather glamorous and as a result, boys would sometimes run away from home to enlist.[2] Other boys may have been the sons or orphans of soldiers serving in the same unit.[3] The image of a small child in the midst of battle was seen as deeply poignant by 19th-century artists, and idealised boy drummers were frequently depicted in paintings, sculpture and poetry.[4]

Notable drummer boys[]

Drummer boy John Clem during the American Civil War.

Nathan Futrell, (1773-1829) was said to have been the youngest drummer boy in the American War of Independence; he joined the North Carolina Continental Militia at the age of 7.[5]

André Estienne was a drummer with Napoleon Bonaparte's army at the Battle of the Bridge of Arcole in 1796, where he led his battalion across a river while holding his drum over his head, and on reaching the far bank, beat the "charge". This led to the capture of the bridge and the rout of the Austrian army. Despite being 19 years old, he became famous as Le Petit Tambour d'Arcole (French language: The Little Drummer of Arcole), and is depicted in the Panthéon in Paris and on the Arc de Triomphe, also in paintings by Charles Thévenin and Horace Vernet.[6]

At the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon's troops spent much of the day trying to capture the fortified house at Hougomont, which was defended by British Foot Guards. Finally,a detachment of French infantry broke in through the gate, which the were able to close behind them; all the French soldiers were killed except for their drummer boy who was spared.[7]

On 19 April 1855, at the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, there was a bayonet attack by the British 77th Regiment of Foot on some rifle pits which the Russians were using to snipe at British positions. Accompanying the attack was an unnamed drummer boy of the 77th, who seeing a Russian boy trumpeter trying to escape, caught hold of him and beat him with his fists "in truly British fashion" until he surrendered. The boy presented the Russian trumpet to Sir George Brown and he was later rewarded by General Lord Raglan, the British commander.[8]

At the Siege of Lucknow during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, 12 year-old Drummer Ross of the 93rd Highlanders signalled the arrival of his regiment to the besieged garrison, by climbing the spire of the Shah Najaf Mosque and playing the regimental march on his bugle, while under heavy fire from the rebel forces.[9] On 28 November at the Second Battle of Cawnpore, 15-year-old Thomas Flynn, a drummer with the 64th Regiment of Foot, was awarded the Victoria Cross. "During a charge on the enemy's guns, Drummer Flynn, although wounded himself, engaged in a hand-to-hand encounter with two of the rebel artillerymen". He remains the youngest recipient of the medal.[10]

Twelve-year old drummer boy William Black was the youngest recorded person wounded in battle during the American Civil War. John Clem, who had unofficially joined a Union Army regiment at the age of 9 as a drummer and mascot, became famous as the ""The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga" where he played a "long roll" and shot a Confederate officer who had demanded his surrender. An 11 year-old drummer in the Confederate Orphan Brigade, known only as "Little Oirish", was credited with rallying troops at the Battle of Shiloh by taking up the regimental colors at a critical moment.[11]

In Costa Rica, the Drummer boy Juan Santamaría died in an act of self-sacrifice in the war against the US Filibuster William Walker and is commemorated as his country's National Hero.[citation needed]


The Last Stand at Isandlwana by C E Fripp shows a small drummer boy in the ranks, despite the youngest soldier present being over 16 years old

The use of drums beyond the parade ground declined rapidly as the 19th century progressed, being replaced by the bugle in the signalling role, although it was often the drummers who were required to play them. A widely reported incident at the Battle of Isandlwana during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, spelled the end of boys being sent on active service by the British Army. Part of the British force returned to their camp at night to find that it had been overrun by the Zulu army a few hours previously. An eyewitness reported that "Even the little drummer boys that we had in the band, they were hung up on hooks, and opened like sheep. It was a pitiful sight". Doubt has since been cast on this account, since the youngest drummer to be killed was 18, and the youngest boy present was 16.[12] Despite this, Charles Edwin Fripp's famous painting, The Last Stand at Isandlwana, shows a small blond-haired boy amongst the adult soldiers.[13]

See also[]


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