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The Drummer Boy - A Poetry Lesson Plan

Background Notes

Young boys served in the Civil War, usually as drummers. Johnny Clem, an Ohio boy, became the drummer boy for the 22nd Michigan Infantry. The Make a Civil War Drum activity provides information about Johnny. Charles Howard Gardner and Robert Henry Hendershot were two young Michigan boys who also served as drummers in the Civil War.

Charles Gardner lived in Flint. When Charley was thirteen years old his father joined the Second Michigan Infantry. Then his favorite teacher, S.C. Guild, signed up with the Eighth Michigan Volunteer Infantry. Charley, already a good drummer, pleaded with his mother to let him volunteer and "take the place of a man who can handle a musket." His mother eventually consented, and Charley, too, joined the Eighth Michigan. As Charley's regiment was on its way to Port Royal, South Carolina, Charley and his father met in Washington, DC. It was the last time they saw each other—his father died of typhoid fever in Alexandria, Virginia, later that year. Captain Guild was killed in the battle at James Island, South Carolina, June 16, 1862. Charley stayed with the regiment, enduring long marches, short rations and weeks of being besieged in Knoxville, Tennessee. During the siege of Knoxville, Charley was wounded, but appeared to be recovering. However, he died on his way back to Detroit with his regiment. His mother, sister and brother, expecting him to arrive at any time, received instead a message about his death.

Robert Henry Hendershot, became known as "the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock." Like Charles Gardner, he was a drummer boy for the Eighth Michigan. His regiment was stationed near the Seventh Michigan during the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. On December 11, 1862, the Seventh was trying to cross the Rappahannock River under fire. Robert answered a call for volunteers and ran to help push the boats. He had crossed the river when a shell fragment hit his drum and broke it into pieces, so he picked up a musket. He encountered a Confederate soldier and, taking him as prisoner, brought him back to the Seventh Michigan. The story of a boy capturing a man made him a hero. Robert survived the war and toured the nation putting on drumming performances and telling of his experiences. Many poems were written about him; "The Hero of the Drum" is one of those poems.

Poetry was popular during and after the Civil War. The poem, "The Dead Drummer Boy," provides a sentimental look at the role of the drummer boy. It has the maudlin tone found in the poetry and prose of the era. In this lesson students can read and examine the poem for historical insights and to learn about the feelings of the poet and characters in the poem.


  1. Students will understand the role of the drummer boy in the Civil War.
  2. Students will appreciate the often drastic consequences of war.
  3. Students will recite a poem and/or write their own poem.

Michigan Social Studies Curriculum Content Standards

This lesson presents an opportunity to address, in part, these standards:

  • 1.2.4 (8, 12, 15). HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Identify and explain how individuals in history demonstrated good character and personal virtue.
  • 1.3.2. HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations.
  • 1.4.3. HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Identify problems from the past that divided their local community, the state of Michigan, and the United States and analyze the interests and values of those involved.

Materials Needed

Copy of poems, "The Dead Drummer Boy" and "The Hero of the Drum"


  1. After reading the background information (on this page and for the Make a Civil War Drum activity), tell students about the role of drummer boys in the Civil War. Use the poem "The Hero of the Drum" to help describe the exploits of drummer boy Robert Hendershot.
  2. Put the vocabulary words on the board and explain their meaning.
  3. If you can obtain a copy of the book Johnny Shiloh, a fictionalized story about drummer boy Johnny Clem, read it (or selected passages) to the class. (A 90-minute movie based on the story, Johnny Shiloh, (Walt Disney Home Video) may be available from your local library or rental center.)
  4. Read "The Dead Drummer Boy" aloud and talk about the different moods conveyed. Read "The Hero of the Drum" to the rhythm of someone tapping out a beat that gets faster at the end of each stanza.
  5. Ask students to imagine themselves in the Civil War as drummers. Ask them to each write a poem (or prose) about his or her "experiences"—or why they wanted to be drummers, or what they liked or feared about being a drummer, or why the job of drummer is important.

Questions for Discussion or Research

  1. Why did the regiment need a drummer?
  2. What in "The Dead Drummer Boy" makes you think of sadness and death? What in "The Hero of the Drum" makes you think of action and adventure?
  3. How will people of the future know about the drummer boy and what he did? (The page of War and Glory" might refer to an actual document such as a role of honor or to a remembrance kept in the memories of people afterward.)
  4. Compare the themes, rhythm and emotions in the two poems "The Dead Drummer Boy" and "The Hero of the Drum."
  5. What do band instruments sound like? These are instruments used by one Union cavalry band: bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, B Bass, B tenor, E clarinet, E cornet, B Cornet, cornet, alto, tuba and key bugle. Ask members of your school band to demonstrate as many of these instruments as they can for the class.
  6. What did the different drum beats mean in military life? Invite a knowledgeable drummer from a local orchestra or band to illustrate the various types of historical military beats for the class. General Custer's wife, Elizabeth, wrote a book about their military life in which she quoted Grose's description of the drum beats used in the infantry:
The General: this is beat instead of the Reveille, when the whole camp and garrison are to march.
Reveille: beat at daybreak to awaken the camp or garrison, after which the sentinels cease challenging.
Assembly, or Troop: at this beat the troops fall in, the roll is called, and baggage loaded.
Foot March: to march.
Grenadiers' March: beat only to that company.
Retreat: this is beat at sunset in garrisons and at gun-firing in camp, at which time the pickets are formed; in fortified places it is a signal for the inhabitants to come in before the gates are shut.
Tap-too [our modern name is tattoo]: the signal for soldiers to retire to their quarters or barracks, and to the sutlers to draw no more liquor, from whence it derives its name. The tap-too is seldom beat in camp.
To Arms: a signal to summon the soldiers to their alarm-posts on some sudden occasion.
The Church Call (called also Beating the Bank): a beat to summon the soldiers of a regiment or garrison to church.
The Pioneers' Call: known by the appellation of Round Heads, come dig. This is beaten in camp to summon the pioneers to work.
The Sergeants' Call: a beat for calling the sergeants together to the orderly-room, or in camp, the head of the colors.
The Drummers' Call: beat to assemble the drummers at the head of the colors, or in quarters, at the place where it is beaten.
The Preparative: a signal to make ready for firing.
The Chammade: a signal to desire to parley with the enemy.
The Rogue's March: this is beaten and played by the fifes when a soldier is drummed out of the regiment.
The Long Roll: for turning the regiment out in camp or garrison.

At the Museum

  • See the drums on display in the Civil War Gallery. What other instruments do you see in the case? How would they be used?
  • Find the photograph of Corydon Foote, a Flint boy who posed for his photograph on his way to join the Union army as a drummer boy.
  • What instruments do you see in the photograph of the musicians of the 4th Michigan? Where are the two drums in the photo?


  • Long roll's call: Continuous drumming to summon the regiment to assemble.
  • Martial air: A military tune; a musical piece with war and patriotism as its theme.
  • Memento mori: Latin words meaning, "I remember the dead."
  • Reveille: A call to soldiers to awaken in the morning. Often sounded by bugle, drummers also beat reveille.
  • Tattoo: A tattoo is a long period of continuous even drumming. It also describes the signal that calls soldiers to their quarters at night after which no liquor could be sold. (Originally called "tap-too.")


  • Custer, Elizabeth B. Following the Guidon. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1890.
  • Dodge, William Sumner. Robert Henry Hendershot; or, the Brave Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock. Chicago: Church and Goodman Publishers, 1867.
  • Downey, Fairfax. Fyfe, Drum & Bugle. Ft. Collins, CO: The Old Army Press, 1971.
  • Rhodes, James A. Johnny Shiloh: A Novel of the Civil War [by] James A. Rhodes and Dean Jauchius.. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1959.
  • Wise, Arthur, and Francis A. Lord. Bands and Drummer Boys of the Civil War. NY: Thomas Yoseloff, 1966.

Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.

Updated 11/29/2010

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