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Collecting Vintage Field Drums

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Church-bells ringing on Sunday morning are a familiar sound in communities all over America. There was a time, though, that the faithful were called to worship by the sound of drums.

Thomas L. Purvis notes in his book “Colonial America to 1763” that the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony built a platform atop their meeting house whereon a drummer would stand to call citizens to public meetings, militia musters or to give warning of a raid. Many Colonial town records indicate that special tax assessments were levied in order to cover the expense of hiring a Town Drummer.

Today, field drums have been relegated to parade grounds, museums and private collections. Collectors covet antique drums not just for their beauty and craftsmanship, but for the fascinating history that surrounds their usage.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, drummers were required to be part musician and part James Bond. Documents of the day stated that drummers must be “faithful, secretive and ingenious, of able personage to use their instruments and office, of sundry languages, for often they are to be sent to parley with their enemies, to summon their forts or towns, to redeem and conduct prisoners and diverse other messages which of necessity requireth language. If such a drummer or fifer should fall into the hands of the enemy, no gift nor force should cause them to disclose any secrets that they know.”

Drumming as a military function was brought to the New World by both the French and the British. Most drummers of the American Revolution received their training from drummers who had served in the French and Indian (Seven Years’) War. The soldier’s manual issued to the Continental Army in 1778 contained a list of drum cadences and signals that was based on those used by European armies. Every drummer was required to be able to play them and every soldier was required to recognize and respond to their meaning.

Drum Construction
Eighteenth- and 19th-century field drums were deeper than they were wide, since their sound had to carry some distance outdoors. Drum shells were made from hardwoods: oak, ash, tulip and maple. Drum heads were made of calfskin and held in place by hoops made of maple or ash. Drum heads could be tightened by means of rope and leather “ears” threaded through holes in the hoops or through brass hooks attached to the hoops. Across the bottom, drum head stretched gut snares that, when tightened, provided a drum’s characteristic “snap” when struck with a drumstick. Often, drums were painted with a regimental insignia, folk art or inlaid with decorative marquetry or tack patterns.

Beginning in the early 19th century, military drummers were typically trained by the U.S. Army’s school for field musicians at Governor’s Island in New York Harbor. When Civil War broke out, the demand for field drummers rose dramatically and regiments began to train their own drummers.

One such recruit was young orphan John Clem, who was “adopted” as a mascot by the soldiers of the 22nd Michigan, United States Army. Clem trained as a drummer and worked for tips rather than pay. When he turned 12 he was allowed to enlist, and shortly became the most famous drummer in American military history.

In September of 1863, the Army of the Confederate States of America broke the Union Army’s line at the battle of Chickamauga, Tenn. In the Union retreat, young Clem was stopped by a C.S.A. Colonel who demanded his surrender. Clem pulled out his modified musket and shot the Colonel, enabling him to escape with his regiment.

After the battle, the “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” was promoted to sergeant, becoming the youngest non-commissioned officer in the history of the United States Army. Clem went on to a distinguished career in the military, retiring with the rank of Major General in 1915. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The chief provider of drums to the U.S. Army during the Civil War was the Granville, Mass. firm of Noble & Cooley. The Noble & Cooley “contract drum” was the standard drum ordered by the Union Army. It was a single ply, steam-bent shell of either tulip wood or ash with oak hoops and calfskin heads. The company is still in business today, making high-quality drums for professional use, as well as a reissue of their Civil War field drum. The reissued drum is 12 inches deep and 16 inches in diameter. The wood is steam-bent using the same steam chest and methods used 154 years ago.

Few 18th- and-19th-century field drums survive in what might be called “very good” condition. Their skin drumheads are susceptible to humidity and will crack if they get too dry, and will mildew if they get too wet. Ropes and leather tongues break, wooden shells de-laminate and painted artwork fades.

But, in the hands of a competent restorer, all can be brought back to life. Such a restored drum was recently sold by Heritage Auctions for $1,673, and another on eBay for $1,094. Unrestored drums can be found for less than a hundred dollars.

Drums with provenance (maker’s tags, etc.) are more valuable than those without, and a drum’s painted artwork may add considerably to its value.

Previously published on WorthPoint.com

Originally posted 2016-02-13 11:27:04.

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