Drummer boys often had to clean up battle areas after confrontations. They carried wounded soldiers on stretchers and buried the dead. Because of their familiarity with battle, drummer boys often joined the army ranks when they got older. This reduced the need to finding new, inexperienced soldiers to enlist. Some drummer boys grew up to be distinguished soldiers with long careers.
Of course, there were formal schools of instruction, like the Schools of Practice at Governor’s Island, New York Harbor, and Newport Barracks, Kentucky, but most drummer boys learned by “on the job” training. Some were aided by texts; the most popular by far was Bruce and Emmettt’s The Drummers’ and Fifers’ Guide.
Able-bodied men were desperately needed in the front lines, so the position of drummer was often filled by slight young men or very young boys, some as young as eight years old – absurd as that may sound, unlike the drummers in today’s modern army, Civil War drummer boys were an integral part of the war machine.
John McLaughlin, a native of Lafayette, Indiana, enlisted as a drummer in the 10th Indiana in 1861, being then "a little over ten years of age." McLaughlin had numerous adventures. During the Henry-Donelson Campaign he put aside his drum to take up a musket and join the firing line. Subsequently transferring to a Unionist Kentucky cavalry regiment, he fought as a trooper at Perryville, where he took a wound in his leg and took part in the pursuit of Col. John Morga, during which he received a saber cut in the same leg. His wound proving serious, he was discharged. Although he recovered only partial use of the leg, he fought the discharge, appealing to Lincoln. After a private interview with the president, McLaughlin was enlisted as a bugler in the Regular Army.
A number of drummer boys greatly distinguished themselves in action, and several became rather well known. The most famous drummer boy of the Civil War was undoubtedly John Clem (1851 - 1937), who added "Lincoln" as his middle name in 1861. At the age of ten little Johnny ran away from home in Newark, Ohio, and tried to enlist in various regiments, until the 24th Ohio took him on. He served at Shiloh, earning the nickname "Johnny Shiloh" for his steadiness. Later transferring to the "22nd Michigan", Clem drummed the long roll at Chickamauga -- where he earned the nickname "The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga"
The youngest known Union soldier was John L. Clem (aka. “Johnny Shiloh” or “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga”). He enlisted in the Union army at age 9 as a drummer boy. His drum was destroyed by an artillery shell @ Shiloh. At age 12, he was promoted to Sgt. After shooting a Confederate Officer @ Chickamauga. He later suffered 2 battle wounds in combat. He remained in the army after the war & retired from service on the eve of WWI, as a Major General.
These letters show that an idealist spirit was in the hearts of even the younger soldiers who wished nothing but kill the confederates to the last. These are part of the literature of the Civil War, and offer a true to life account of what being in the Civil War was, thanks to many true to life little anecdotes.
Without a drummer to establish communications and keep order among the units in the field, many campaigns would have ended in failure. The drummer had many responsibilities, including using one of many drum calls for everything from assembling officers for strategy meetings to sounding retreat in the midst of severe enemy fire. A drummer could always be seen near a high ranking officer because at any time he might be needed to alert the troops of an upcoming movement or operations.
Many of the youngest boys served as drummers; they weren’t supposed to be fighters, but they did a very important job during the Civil War. You’ve probably seen pictures of a boy walking beside the marching soldiers, beating his drum to keep them together. But this wasn’t the drummer’s most important — or most difficult — job.
The Civil War is sometimes called “The Boys’ War,” because so many soldiers who fought in it were still in their teens. The rule in the Union Army was that soldiers had to be 18 to join, but many younger boys answered “I’m over 18, sir,” when the recruiter asked.