The Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock


By Bruce Catton


(From Waiting for the Morning Train - An American Boyhood)



More than half a century had passed since he left the army, and the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock was getting on into his mid-sixties. He was spry enough, trim and erect in the blue uniform of the Grand Army of the Republic, with the double row of brass buttons marching down the coat, badges on the left lapel, black campaign hat on top of a gray head; and although he was undeniably getting old he did his valiant best to seem ageless, as if he always carried his boyhood with him. He was, as you might say, a professional Civil War veteran, and for years he had made his living - whose base, to be sure, was the regular check from the government pension office - by reminding other veterans of the great days that used to be. He had a set line of patter, memorized and carefully rehearsed; he had a partner, also a veteran in old soldier's blue, who fed him his lines and acted as master of ceremonies; he had a few songs that had stood the test of years of peacetime campaigning; and, most important of all, he had his drum, on which he was more or less a virtuoso.


The Drummer Boy, in short, was a commercial entertainer whose circuit was strictly limited to the G.A.R. posts of the middle west. Over the years I suppose a number of performers played this circuit. They never could have survived in the regular theater, because the entertainment they offered was highly specialized, and pretty thin stuff to boot; they needed a preconditioned audi­ence, and they could find that only among the old soldiers. A Grand Army post that booked a performance by one of these artists would sell tickets to the general public, but the purchasers were almost always close friends or relatives, fully prepared to like any program the old soldiers liked. Also working in the performer's favor was the fact that he had little competition. There were no movies in the smaller towns and villages, and no regular theaters either, and most of the time the citizen in search of entertainment simply had no place to go. The average audience was prepared to make allowances.


The Drummer Boy was engaged to appear before the Benzonia (Michigan) G.A.R. post sometime early in 1916. His primary function, aside from bringing a few dollars into the post's treasury, was to make old memories vivid for men to whom nothing but memories mattered any more, and he did this smoothly enough. He beat the long roll, and rattled off some of the shorter calls by which orders were occasionally transmitted, and he solemnly beat out "Taps," the formalized arrangement of slowly tapped-out strokes on the drumhead that ordered quiet and lights out in camp in the days before a bugle call did the job more melodiously. He and his partner ran through their regular line of jokes, anecdotes and reminiscences, and they came at last to the big set piece of the performance - the reproduction, on a taut drumhead, by a drum­mer boy grown gray with years, of the mighty sound and tumult of a Civil War battle.


The Drummer Boy's partner announced this number, telling us to imagine a line of soldiers prowling forward across fields and woods in the dim light of early morning. First, he said, we would hear single musket shots, as skirmishers made contact; then, here and there, there would be clusters of shots, as squads and platoons went into action. Later there would be volley firing, where whole regiments and brigades became involved, and the volley firing would soon give way to intense file firing, in which every infantryman loaded and fired as rapidly as he could without further orders. All of this would be accompanied by bursts of artillery fire, piece by piece at first as the guns tapped experimentally at enemy positions, then fire by batteries rising to sustained gunfire all along the line, with unbroken musketry running along as treble over this booming bass . . . the whole rising to a climax that seemed likely to lift the roof off of Case's Hall.


All of this kept the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock extremely busy. Whatever its other merits may have been, this performance was impressive as an exercise in sheer acrobatics. My impression is that the Drummer Boy's partner brought out a drum of his own and pitched in to help; he must have done so, because all of the noise that exploded across the auditorium could not have come from just one drum. However that may have been, the battle reached its peak and then rolled on to victory, the enemy presumably driven off in rout, and at last the racket subsided, coming down finally to scattered sniping by rear-guard parties - then silence. The battle was over, and so was the per­formance, and we applauded vigorously and went home, vastly edified.


I would not have missed it for anything; and yet that evening did something to my attitude toward our home-grown Civil War veterans. Instead of looking heroic, larger than life-size, giants from the magical mist of an age of greatness, they suddenly looked pathetic. I think this was because of the way the Drummer Boy's partner introduced the battle scene. Remember, this was taking place in 1916, and the war in Europe had been going on for the better part of two years, and so this master of ceremonies had adapted his patter to present-day conditions. He did not tell us that we were going to listen to the sounds of a Civil War battle; in a noble effort to come up to date the old chap assured us that we would hear the sounds of battle as they were currently being heard on the Western Front, in France - and that was the pinprick that exploded the toy balloon.


We may have been living in an isolated backwater but we did read the daily papers and the weekly and monthly magazines, and we knew that this was no battle from the Western Front. In the war that was going on in 1916 there were no skirmishers prowling out across empty fields, looking for invisible enemies, and the batteries in today's war did not pick up their parts one gun at a time, firing tentatively until the fight beat itself into shape. This was a war of barbed wire, a war that was all taped and measured, confined within rigid limits but at the same time taken beyond all conceivable limits; its stuttering machine guns swept every field and hillside from Switzerland to the English Channel, its artillery barrages might go on for days at a time, and when its gunners spoke of "drum fire" they meant something that was beyond either the experience or the comprehension of drummer boys from Virginia's river valleys. Two drums in a rural town hall might effectively create the illusion of an imaginary battle from the age of fable, but Verdun was beyond them. It became clear, suddenly, that our gallant old Civil War veterans had simply been left behind by time. They had been part of the present for half a century, but now they unmistakably belonged to the past. For the first time in my life I felt sorry for them. Pity diminished them, and they did not look quite the same after that.


And to see them in a new light was to see everything else in a new light, because they and what they stood for were basic to what I supposed to be the immutable order of things. Unintentionally but effectively, the Drummer Boy forced me to see that the world was changing. This of course should have been evident to anyone who grew up in the despoiled lumber country, where permanence was subject to revision or indeed to outright cancellation every few years, but the most obvious of lessons sometimes comes hard. To understand that the conditions under which life is lived must change is simple enough, but the terms on which it is lived ought to be unchanging; so said all the law and all the prophets. The trouble now was not so much the fact that the world was changing as the cold hint that the world was going to exact terms unlike anything I had imagined. Its whole scale of values had quietly been transformed.