Young musicians served in armies Patapsco Guard Fife and Drum Corps re-creates battlefield role; Revisiting Gettysburg


Imagine that you are 12 years old, marching on a Civil War battlefield with the sound of gunfire exploding around you. Too young to carry a weapon, you have been chosen instead to play a fife or a drum to help communicate commands to the soldiers.

But that's not all. You might have to haul firewood and water and guard the soldiers' tents. You might also be ordered to tend to the wounded or even bury the dead.

Though the Patapsco Guard Fife and Drum Corps - a group of about 10 boys ages 11 to 16 - only re-creates these scenes with other Civil War re-enactors, its members get a realistic look at what many boys their age faced during the War Between the States. The kids dress in period uniforms and carry out all the camp duties of actual Civil War musicians.

"We sleep on straw and [in] canvas tents just like they did," said Dave Runner, director of the Patapsco Guard Fife and Drum Corps. "By the end of a two- to three-day battle, you feel like you've been through the war. You really do gain an appreciation for what these boys ... went through."

Though they were too young to handle firearms, Fife and Drum Corps members were considered a key part of the war effort, said Ed Williams, director of the B&O; Railroad Museum in Ellicott City. Because voices could not carry far enough, the troops relied on the high-pitched fife or the beat of drums to instruct them.

For example, a certain drumbeat would call the men to dinner. Another would call officers together to announce certain types of drill assemblies.

"The duty drummer ... would be told by the officer, 'Sound first sergeant's call,' and he would go out in the company street and play the correct beatings," Williams said. "All the men knew they were supposed to assemble in the designated area."

Music was vital to the war effort, Williams said.

"Fife and drum corps and brass bands were used not only in the military ... but they were also used as recruitment tools," Williams said. "[Music] was used to instill patriotism and commitment and fervor from the populace."

The young musicians also had responsibilities in combat, including sounding the call to charge or retreat. If the surgeon needed help with the wounded, the boys pitched in, and they even buried the fallen when necessary. "It was not a pleasant duty," Runner said.

Williams said the B&O; Railroad Museum decided to create the group as an authentic representation of what musicians did during the Civil War. The boys, who are volunteers from as far away as Reston, Va., come to the museum for lessons and rehearsals. Some even make their own instruments, Williams said.

"A lot of the boys have an interest in the Civil War," Runner said. "They're fairly well-tuned into the battle and the year we're re-enacting. We won't play a song that was written in 1864 if the battle was 1862."

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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