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Across the Hands of Time- The Speech of the Drummer Boy (A Short Story)
Written by Tammy Sinclair
The following is a work of historical fiction. May we always remember those generations throughout the decades who have sacrificed for our freedom.
The small breeze which lazily jostled the leaves gave relief to those who gathered on the otherwise hot May afternoon. The crowd respectfully hushed as the old gentleman slowly rose up from his seat where he had been sitting on the platform and walked toward the podium. For his advanced age, he moved with agility, needing no assistance even as he stood and began speaking into the large microphone.
The small platform, where other dignitaries sat, was decorated in patriotic banners and above the old man now speaking, hung a large sign commanding the readers to “Buy War Bonds”. But all eyes were on the speaker now. For they all knew his story. He was one of the last remaining of those who served in another war, eons ago, in a world that seemed distant and ancient. He had been just a boy, then, a drummer boy who had moved with his regiment and saw firsthand with childish eyes the brutality of war. He had risked his own life as he served where brother battled against brother in the war which the children seated before him now read about in their history books.
But this was a different war which encompassed the entire world and evil seemed to threaten at every side. And lately, the news had only gotten worse through newsreels and headlines. Since the attack on Pearl Harbor six months before, so many American lives had been already been lost. With every piece of news came the realization that this would not be over as soon as everyone had hoped. A looming fear of the unknown now hovered in the air.
But now, the small town crowd listened to the soft, somewhat feeble voice of the man before them, who had seen firsthand the country’s previous battles over the generations.
“… I did not get a chance to know him, as he died shortly before I was born,” he was saying now of his own great-grandfather. “But my own father told me often how he would sit upon his grandfather’s knee and hear his tales of battle and fighting under Major General Nathaniel Greene, and watching General George Washington command with regal grace. Already by the time my father was a young lad, George Washington had become a legend for leading us to independence and as our admired first president, so it was with wide eyes that my father sat and listened to his grandfather’s true tales of war.”
Every eye was upon the old man as the words came out of his mouth with more eloquence than perhaps they were prepared to hear from a man in his ninth decade. His voice, though a bit shaky, was spoken as a true orator would speak and it was evident his mind was as sharp as a young man’s. Even the children who listened seemed to grasp the significance of what he was saying. Here, standing before them, was a direct link back to the very beginning of their great nation, of which was now fighting to stay free.
“Many a battle of my own did I see. At the age of twelve I carried a drum onto the battlefield, conveying messages to the troops with the beats. Other times, we plodded along through fields and trees, as I kept a steady rhythm. I saw boys not much older than I fall and then I helped carry them off of the field on stretchers. But such valor I witnessed! For two years I saw determination and bravery in the face of great danger and pain. I myself came close to meeting my end on occasion. But through it all, we prevailed.
I am now a man of ninety-two and I have seen our nation face many conflicts and disasters since.
As we face this current struggle, let us not give up hope. For anything important is worth fighting for. Our country’s freedom is one of the most important gifts and so fight on we must! And the good shall prevail, just as it has since the beginning of this great nation. With God’s help, we shall be victorious once again.”
With that, he gave a slight bow of his head and turned to go, the crowd in hushed silence. Then abruptly, an explosion of applause. He looked back at them, watching them as they stood to their feet.
Later that afternoon, a group of the town’s people gathered around the picnic tables, fanning themselves and making conversation. A tiny crowd had gathered at one particular table, where the old gentleman speaker was sipping lemonade and seated in a separate chair nearby. The group was made up of mostly men in their middle and older years, as the majority of the younger men in the community had already been shipped off in service. A couple women and a few young boys made up the rest of those who hovered nearby, hoping to catch a few more words from the old veteran. He did not disappoint, though he seemed a little overwhelmed at all the new found attention.
“Sir,” one boy dared to shyly inquire as he approached the gentleman. “What was it like? Right out there- in the middle of the civil war with cannons and everything, I mean.”
The man squinted in the sunlight at the boy, who he surmised, was not that much younger than he had been on the battlefield all those years ago. The decades had blurred some of those memories, but others were as fresh as if they had just happened. He could still smell the smoke from cannon fire and hear the resounding booms throughout the air. But he could also hear the mournful sounds of the wounded, some of whom would never recover. These and many other vivid scenes he wished not to remember at all. But all he said was,
“Lad, it was both exciting and terrifying. Glorious and grand, yes…but also wretched and horrifying.”
“Were you scared?” another boy standing nearby asked.
“I would be lying to say I wasn’t scared. Especially when those cannonballs and gunfire were coming so near I could feel the wind on my cheek. One battle was tough…I remember putting my drum down and picking up a musket to help stave off the enemy. Many of those I had gotten to know didn’t make it that day, but God saw fit to let me live with just a minor wound. Within a week, I was able to take up my drum again.”
The boys exclaimed a “wow” in unison and the adults murmured in appreciative tones.
A younger boy who looked about five years old stepped away from his mother, just then, and slowly walked closer to the old man seated before him.
“My daddy’s in the war right now.”
The elderly man reached out his wrinkled hands to the boy, who came closer and let him touch his shoulders with his aged fingers.
“Son, your daddy is a brave man and you should be proud of him. I have three great-grandsons who are also out there fighting. I got to meet all of them when they were wee babies, and now they are fighting for our country.” He kept to himself the added fact that a fourth had been killed at Pearl Harbor.
“Maybe my daddy knows them!” the little boy answered.
The old man smiled. “I hope so. We must remember to pray for them, Lad.”
“I do. And maybe I could go play the drums for them like you did!”
He glanced over his head to his young mother.
“Well, best you stay with your mama and help take care of her. She more than likely needs you right now.”
The little boy appeared to consider this for a moment, and then nodded. Then he suddenly and impulsively threw his arms around the old man’s neck and hugged him. He then stepped back to his mother without a word.
After a minute or so had passed, others began walking over and reaching out to shake the old gentleman’s hand, one after the other. Some verbalized their appreciation for his service to their country; others simply silently conveyed it with their gesture. But there was not likely one who left the gathering that afternoon who didn’t ponder the significance of a man whose great-grandfather fought alongside Washington himself, who risked his own life in the Civil War and now had great-grandsons in the current war. His life, in a roundabout way, stretched from the country’s birth until this current great world war. Not only was his contribution great, but he had lived to see the nation’s struggles and had faith that it would once again be victorious if it continued to trust in God.
And they were grateful. Not just for his contribution but because he represented the reminder they knew they all needed to hear in the midst of all the current news filtering in from the front.
“And the good shall prevail, just as it has since the beginning of this great nation. With God’s help, we shall be victorious once again.”
It hadn’t come at a better time.
Drummer Boy Facts
- During the Civil War, there were twenty drummer boys or fifers in each regiment
- During battles, drummers were essential because their drum beats carried much further than an officer's voice.
- Drummers were required to learn the over 100 drum calls and signals from the "Drummers and Fifers Guide"
- Typical duties of a drummer boy would be communicating each camp activity. When not on active duty at camp, they were called upon to help with meals, and even with surgeries and grave digging. They also were asked to play during times simply to lift moral.
- Some playtime happened in between their many tasks- such as dominoes, checkers and foot races.
- One of the most famous drummer boys was Johnny Clem, who ran away from home at the age of 11 and joined the 22nd Michigan regiment. During the Battle of Chickamauga, he rode a caisson to the front and wielding a musket fitted to his size, shot a Confederate colonial.
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