American Drummer Boy

The History behind the Story

The Real Drummer Boys

“As we lay there and the shells were flying over us… I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away and get into such a mess as I was in.  I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me.”

–Elisha Stockwell, 15, Drummer, Union Army

During the Civil War, boys considered too young to fight were allowed to enlist as Musicians or Telegraph Operators.  The principle Musician position needed to be filled was Drummer.  The Drum was used by both the North and South to communicate commands in camp as well as on the battlefield.  Although initially considered a non-combatant role, it was the Drummer that was on the battlefield signaling orders to engaged troops through the various drum calls.  It has been estimated that 40,000 young boys served the North while 20,000 the South.  When not drumming, these boys served their various camps by carrying water, cooking, gathering wood, rubbing down horses and after a battle, they assisted in carrying wounded soldiers off the battle field.

Source: The Boy’s War by Jim Murphy

The stories of these real-life drummer boys formed the composite character of Johnny Boone allowing audiences young and old, a first hand look into the drama of our nation’s greatest conflict. Click below to visit the stories of William Horsfall, Johnny Clem and Asa Lewis.


William Horsfall

shapeimage_2Horsfall is the first boy whose experiences helped create Johnny’s great adventure. 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 underway 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 advertures continue to influence American Drummer Boy, in the fighting near Corinth, Mississippi, his brigade was in battle . . . He writes, “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 one of the nation’s youngest recipients and is depicted in this film.


Johnny Clem

Johnny ClemJohnny Boone’s great adventure is also influenced by the real life advertures of Johnny Clem (also know as Johnny Shiloh). 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. Indeed, 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 our own Johnny Boone.

shapeimage_3Asa Lewis

A dramatic twist is added to the finale of American Drummer Boy, the idea taken from the exploits of young Kentucky Confederate soldier Asa Lewis. Although not a drummer boy, young 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 guillty, 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 marched out before the brigade and in front of the 6th Kentucky, was executed.

1 comment

  1. Roselyn Philpot - May 30, 2016 12:27 am

    William Horsfall is my great grand father and I’ve been looking to find out where my great grandmother is beared at ! If you could help me I’d really appreacite it ! Thank you Rose philpot

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