Many had heard the tale of the "Drummer Boy of Fort McHenry," the 16-year-old who joined the militia and played his drum during the march to Fort McHenry, where the decisive Battle of Baltimore occurred during the War of 1812. The drummer, who stood out in a red coat, carried commanders' orders to the embattled troops.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 1814, Lightner helped sound the alarm that the British army was approaching. Then, he stood at the shoreline and drummed well-practiced beats, all through a night of bombs bursting in air.
When he died in 1883, at the age of 84, Lightner was buried in grassy plot at Baltimore Cemetery, without even a humble stone to mark the spot.
Now, Lightner's rank, service in the Maryland Militia and dates of birth and death grace the new headstone, provided by the Veterans Administration at the request of descendants. The family added a footstone, which they had engraved with "Drummer Boy of Fort McHenry," a flag and a drum.
"We really wanted that wording," said Pam Russell, a great-great granddaughter.
Lightner survived the battle and lived a long life, working in the roofing business. He fathered 12 children and according to family lore, adopted several others. He grew in respect among the citizenry as one of the Old Defenders, those men who saved the city from an invading army. Despite advancing years and white hair, he was forever dubbed "the drummer boy of Fort McHenry."
The war story, passed down through the family, always fascinated Elaine Sauer, five generations removed from Lightner. She decided research was in order and ultimately pushed for long overdue funeral honors.
Through Internet research, she came across others, most of them distant cousins doing similar ancestry searches. One cousin had traced the Lightner family tree back to John Michael Lightner, Henry's father, also a drummer boy but in the Revolutionary War. He had bequeathed the drum he played at Valley Forge under Gen. George Washington's command to his son Henry, who carried it with him, when he joined Capt. John Berry's Washington Artillery of the 1st Regiment.
The wooden instrument remained in the Lightner family through 1961, when Henry Lightner McCulloh, namesake and grandson of the drummer boy, donated it to the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House in Baltimore, where it remains on permanent display. Visitors can still see the drum's faded ornamentation: an American eagle and 13 stars.
"The drum is still very important to our visitors," said Annelise Montone, executive director of the museum. "The fact that a 16-year-old boy, Henry Lightner, marched into battle armed with nothing but his drum and his spirit, remains resonate and moving even today."
Russell said her grandfather made the donation to preserve the drum.
"We used to go into the attic and play it," she said. "Our grandfather didn't think it would survive another generation of children."
The ropes and leathers have been replaced, but the wooden cylinder and drum head are original, she said.
The ancestral search eventually led to the archives at Zion Lutheran Church, where Henry Lightner was a member, and through records and maps at Baltimore Cemetery, where the Lightner family plot is a broad grassy area among hundreds of simple stones and imposing monuments.
"We looked through maps, diagrams and really old records," said Sauer. "When we located the grave site, things really fell into place. We contacted the VA, filled out the papers and got the stone."
Then, they organized a ceremony to dedicate the memorial. On a sunny fall Saturday, about 100 descendants assembled at the grave site. They came from near and far and reconnected or in some cases, met for the first time. Sauer and Russell grew up in the same neighborhood and attended Towson University about the same time. Their quest to honor Lightner introduced them to one another.
Bernardine McCulloh Madden, the oldest in attendance at 85 and the mother of Russell, read the city proclamation that designated Oct. 13, 2012, Henry Lightner Day.
A member of the Fort McHenry Guard, in 19th century military garb, played Lightner's favor fife tune — "The Girl I Left Behind" — and carried a ceremonial drum. He left miniature drum sticks at the grave.
The family then gathered for a reception at the Flag House.
"They even let us take the drum out of the case for the family photo," said Russell.
She wants the connections to endure and is already planning a family reunion on Defenders Day next year at Fort McHenry, hoping it will be an annual event.
Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.