American Drummer Boy was created as a motion picture for audiences who desire good old-fashioned entertainment. My goal was to make a dramatic film based on a true story, that would explore the personal lives of soldiers on both sides of our nation’s most emotional conflict; depict the horrors of war without graphic barbarism; and reveal the life-threatening decisions a young boy faces on his journey to manhood.
To do this, I decided to utilize the dramatic voice of a young Drummer Boy, Johnny Boone, whose innocence provides a wide-eyed view into both the glory and the insanity of the Civil War. I undertook an extensive research period to better understand the life of young soldiers of the Civil War: how they lived, the hardships they faced, and the great adventures they had, together with the harsh consequences many suffered. While immersed in this Civil War history, I came upon the extraordinary true life stories of three boys, providing the inspiration for drummer boy Johnny Boone. Young Johnny faces the transition from boyhood to manhood, and just as so many others, the innocence of his youth becomes lost to the guns of War.
William Horsfall is the first boy whose experiences help create Johnny’s story. Horsfall was a young Kentuckian who felt the pull of patriotism and the call to war. He later wrote “I left home without money or a warning to my parents…stealthily boarded the steamer ‘Annie Laurie,’ moored at the Cincinnati wharf in Newport (Kentucky)… I kept in hiding until the boat was well under way and then made bold enough to venture on deck. I was accosted by the captain of the boat as to my destination…” Although caught, the young stowaway was allowed to remain on board, and made it to a Federal regiment without further problems. Horsfall’s adventures continue to influence American Drummer Boy, in the fighting near Corinth, Mississippi, where his brigade was in battle… “The regiment had just made a desperate charge across the ravine. Captain Williamson was wounded in the charge, and, in subsequent reversing of positions, was left between the lines…so I…in a stooping run, gained his side and dragged him to the stretcher bearers, who took him to the rear.” This act of courage won him the Congressional Medal of Honor making him the nations youngest recipient, and is depicted in the film.
Johnny Boone’s great adventure is also influenced by the real life adventures of Johnny Clem. Nine year old Clem ran away from home and attempted to sign up as a drummer boy. The Federal Commander refused to enlist him, but Clem acted “just the same as a drummer boy,” becoming a mascot for the regiment and eventually was allowed to join up. Johnny Boone and the real Johnny Clem display similarities in the plucky courage that they both muster in the face of great horror and tragedy. The young Clem’s exploits brought him to national attention, earning him the name Johnny Shiloh. In fact, Clem even rode an artillery caisson to the front line of the Battle of Chickamauga where he proceeded to fight with a pint-sized musket. He was brought under the wing of General Thomas and appointed as a member of his staff. Clem’s military career continued until his retirement in 1915 as a general, just like my Johnny Boone character.
I chose to add a dramatic twist to the finale of American Drummer Boy, the idea taken from the exploits of young Kentucky Confederate soldierAsa Lewis. Lewis enlisted at the beginning of the war for only twelve months, but remained with his regiment, the 6th Kentucky, when it was reorganized. Sometime following his enlistment, his father died, leaving his mother and three sisters dependent on him for their welfare. He requested a furlough from his brigade to return home to plant the crops, and when denied, did so anyway. Lewis intended to return to his unit after putting in the crops for his starving family. He was brought back, charged with desertion, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Though the officers of his unit pleaded with their commander General Bragg, he refused to repeal the sentence, stating that the desertion rate was growing and an example had to be set. Asa Lewis was marched out before the brigade and in front of the 6th Kentucky, executed. Though Johnny Boone’s fate takes a different turn, his situation is based on fact.
The resulting composite character of Johnny Boone allowed me to provide audiences young and old, a first hand look into the drama of our nation’s greatest conflict. Bringing this story to life against a backdrop of three major battles and two armies movements was a huge challenge. But thanks to Civil War reenactors from seven states I was able to achieve the dramatic reality the story required.
My goal in making this film was to take audiences on an emotional ride that explores the difficult choices that confront soldiers at War as told through the eyes of the innocence of youth.