Saturday, March 22, 2008

Civil War drum: the beat of history

The old drum stood in a dark corner of the second floor at the former Cleveland County, N. C., courthouse building, artifact of the historical museum once housed there. Volunteers cataloguing the artifacts could find no identification number on it. Without that, its history couldn’t be immediately looked up in the former museum’s accession registers.

Volunteer Ned Cash (left) took on the job of classifying and documenting the artifact. A percussionist himself, he could virtually hear the sound of the old drum even though its drumheads are long gone, its barrel gouged, and its fittings in disarray. He pointed out the drumsticks (right), explaining how one made big booms and the other quick and light.

And he had the nudging feeling that somewhere he’d heard about an old drum such as this, quite likely through his work with the Broad River Genealogical Society. His day at the old courthouse done, he researched further and made some calls.

Back came his report: “It was Alexander Norton Harmon’s drum,” Ned said. “He was field drummer in Company G of the 49th Regiment of the North Carolina Infantry during the Civil War. It was donated by his grandson, Earl Harmon.” And the old drum suddenly had stories to share.

Alexander Harmon, the sixth of eight children of Mr. and Mrs. Heywood Harmon, was born in 1845 in the Kings Mountain, N. C., area. So he must have been less than 20 years old when he enlisted in Company G of the 49th Regiment formed in March 1862. The company was called the “Kings Mountain Tigers,” and it functioned as a part of the regiment throughout the war.

According to regimental history, the 49th “fought with the Army of Northern Virginia from the Seven Days’ Battles to Fredericksburg….[I]t was active at Drewry’s Bluff and Cold Harbor, took its place in the Petersburg trenches south of the James River, and saw action around Appomattox. This regiment lost 14 killed, 75 wounded, and 16 missing at Malvern Hill, had 16 killed and 61 wounded during the Maryland Campaign, and had 9 wounded at Fredericksburg. Many were disabled at Sayler’s Creek, and it surrendered 11 officers and 95 men on April 9, 1865.”

Ned heard the story of young Alexander’s coming home on a train after the war. With a crowd of troops there was no room inside the train for his drum. Determined to keep it with him, Alexander tied the drum onto a ledge on the back of the train. And thanks to that ingenuity, it survives today in the historical old county courthouse.

Alexander Harmon died in 1914 and is buried at El Bethel Methodist Church cemetery near Kings Mountain.

Vivid information about field drums and the unique role of drummers and other musicians in Union and Confederate armies is available at the Web site of the Gettysburg National Military Park. A sample:

“Each company in an infantry regiment had a musician who was usually a drummer,” the Web site says. “They were relied upon to play drum beats to call the soldiers into formation and for other events. Drums got the soldiers up in the morning, signaled them to report for morning roll call, sick call, and guard duty. Drummers also played at night to signal lights out or 'taps.' The most important use of drums was on the battlefield where they were used to communicate orders from the commanding officers and signal troop movement.”

Would you like to hear how the old drum might have sounded? The Civil War Fife and Drum Page contains a schedule and sound clips of daily calls sounded by musicians in military camps. The site also has details and diagrams of drum construction.

Contributors: Pat Poston and Ned Cash

1 comment:

Ellis said...

Please see "Large Tacked Snare Drum", an article on my blog "Field Drums" at http://www.fielddrums.com/2008/07/large-tacked-snare-drum.html about a drum that looks to be approximately the same size.

I am interested in your drum and any information and additional photos you might be able to provide for publication on our blog "Field Drums".

I would very much appreciate hearing directly from Ned Cash who can contact me at Blogmaster@FieldDrums.com.

Thank you very much.

Ellis Mirsky
Blogmaster@FieldDrums.com