When the Civil War broke out in 1861, 40% of the population was under the age of 16. To enlist, those under 16 had to sign up as drummer boys or cavalry buglers as there were places for 40,000 in the Union armies alone. There are numerous tales of buglers too small to climb into saddles unaided and who rode into pistol-and-saber battles with their regiments.
On the Union side in the military, out of 2,700,000 serving duty, one million were 15 to 18 years old. 100,300 were 11 to 14 years old. Twenty-five were age ten or under. The youngest was only 7 years old! Confederate figures are harder to come by.
The drummers, buglers, and fife players day was very long. He was the first one to get out of bed in the morning, and the last to go to bed at night. The primary duties of these boys was to play calls for various periods of the day and while in battle.
The boy's first call was at 5:45 AM and was the Drummers Call. It assembles the other musicians and warns the troops to get ready. All of the drummers then beat the second call for formation.
Next was playing Reveille at 6:00 AM. This was a series of several tunes which creates basically an alarm clock than rings for five minutes straight.
At 7:00 AM he blew the breakfast call. At 8:00 AM was the Surgeons Call. It summoned the sick to the designated noncommissioned officer who then leads them to the hospital. The drill call was played at 8:30 AM; 9:30 AM the Drummers Call was played again. Throughout the day more calls were played at 9:45, 11:45, 12:00, 1:00, 1:45, 2:00, 5:45, 6:00, 6:45, 7:00, 8:00, 9:30 and 10:30 PM. Also, while in battle it was the drumbeat that told the soldiers how and when to maneuver. It was often the drummer boy who manned a position signaling orders to the troops.
In addition to playing calls, his duties were to assist wounded comrades who were injured in battle. He often saw fellow soldiers with a leg or arm blown off or a chest torn open by a cannon ball. During a battle, the drummers were expected to carry the heavy stretchers with wounded soldiers from the battlefield back to the hospital. It was his duty to also help bury the dead.
Drummer boys were also called upon to be spies. He would hike to nearby enemy camps to count the number of troops and, if possible, enter the camp and listen for battle plans. The younger the boy, the more successful he was. After all, who would suspect a 9 or 10 year old to be a spy?
Many of these boys also went into battle with the rest of the troops. The most famous of these on the Union side was Johnny Clem, who became drummer to the 22nd Michigan at nine, and was soon a mounted orderly on the staff of General George H. Thomas, with the rank of lance sergeant. When he enlisted he was only thirty inches in height and weighed about sixty pounds. At the Battle Of Chickamauga, he rode an artillery caisson to the front and wielded a musket trimmed to his size. In one of the Union retreats, a Confederate officer spirred his horse after the cannon Clem rode with, and was heard to yell out, "Surrender you damned little Yankee!" As the officer neared, Clem pretended to surrender by raising his harms, sawed off musket still in hand. As he did this he squeezed the trigger blowing the officer clear off of his horse. This courage and daring won for Clem national attention and the name "Drummer Boy of Chickamauga."
George S. Lamkin of Winona, Mississippi, joined Stanford's Mississippi Battery when he was eleven, and before his twelfth birthday was severely wounded at Shiloh.
E.G. Baxter, of Clark County, Kentucky, is recorded as enlisting in Company A, 7th Kentucky Cavalry in June, 1862,when he was not quite thirteen and a year later was a second lieutenant.
John Bailey Tyler, of D Troop, 1st Maryland Cavalry, born in Frederick, Maryland, in 1849, was twelve when war came. He fought with his regiment until the end, without a wound.
Often these young boys got into trouble for not doing their duty. Perhaps they overslept or fell asleep while on guard. In some cases they were sentenced to death. A few of them appealed directly to President Lincoln for leniency. Lincoln often granted a pardon for him. Other times Lincoln ordered that the boy be spanked!