Sergeant of Drummers
By Brooks Carver
The letter was written in a dim, spidery hand. Mr. Lincoln rubbed his eyes and turned up the lamp to better see the missive. It had been at the bottom of a large pile of pleadings, rantings, requests and denials. It was past time for him to stop reading so much mail--he could never answer it all--but he was the commander of all the people, so he pressed onward through the stack. He began to read.
March 4th, 1865
Dear Mr. Union President Lincoln Sir,
I take pen in hand in the hope that this letter will get read by your own personal eyes. My name is Maudie Jacoby and I bring you the news that my oldest son was killed at Stones River and now my husband has been caught up in the recruiting drive to fill out the Reb forces with every available man, no matter how old he is. Sir, my husband has gone missing somewhere around Richmond. He used to send me letters right regular, but not no more these many long months. I fear that he is killed, too and this leaves me alone with my three year old daughter, since my ten year old son, Luke, run off to be a drummer boy.
My little gal is starving, sir, and I am not far behind. A bunch of bluecoat renegades come through here a few weeks ago and just cleaned me out. They even picked my corn crop and took it all away. I have nowhere to go and no way to get there. If my proud sweet drummer boy, Luke, is killed, too, then I won't have to worry about starving. You see, sir, I will perish from a broke heart. Before God I tell you, Mr. President Lincoln, that me and my baby will die soon.
Some say that you are a murderous fiend, but I know that isn't so. I heard that you had a compassionate heart for the poor children took up in this awful war. Can you get my little drummer boy home to me, sir? I need him so bad. Can you find him, sir? He is around Petersburg with our General Bushrod Johnson. I pray to our common God that you can do this for me.
Yours with prayers,
President Lincoln sighed and put his head into his hands for a long moment. He then glanced at an aide who was asleep in a chair in a dark corner of the office. It was just past one a.m. "Tom," he whispered. "Tom, wake up, my boy. I need you."
"Yes, sir," Tom staggered to his feet, smoothing back his disheveled hair.
"Is Matt Granger on the key tonight?"
"Yes, sir, he is."
"Well, he's a good one. Are the telegraph lines open all the way to Richmond?"
"Last I heard they were, sir."
"Good. Get this message to General Grant as an addendum to this lady's letter. Make sure that Matt copies the letter exactly as written with no shortcuts or changes and gets it off at once."
March 5th, 1865
Gen. Grant's Headquarters
My dear General,
Send a courier under a flag of truce to the Confederate lines in front of Petersburg to fetch this boy, Luke Jacoby, and get him home as a paroled soldier. His mother thinks that he is under the command of Bushrod Johnson. There aren't that many drummer boys left among the Confederates. He shouldn't be that hard for the Rebs to find. I believe that you will agree with me that the grave situation this poor woman finds herself in cannot be tolerated if we are going to begin rebuilding this country. I realize that we cannot do favors for every widow across the South, but we can begin here. This is where it can start. See to it at once. Also make sure that Mrs. Jacoby receives some food to last her until she can get some garden growing. Make this a high priority for one of your subordinates. Inform me when this deed is done.
* * *
Luke Jacoby hid under the straw pallet that belonged to a man on sick call. He pulled the makeshift bed up over his head and remained very still. Luke was warm for the first time in days and fell deeply asleep. The word came down that the army was sending him home through enemy lines to his mother. He didn't know the particulars because he hadn't gotten a letter from his mother for several months, but Luke knew that he liked it a lot better here with his soldier friends than chopping cotton and hoeing corn under his father's strict and watchful eye.
* * *
Luke was awakened as a hand grabbed him by his collar and slid him out from under the pallet. He kicked and swung both small fists, trying to beat back the inevitable event that was going to separate him from all of his friends. Sergeant Major Jim McCann held the boy at arm's length until Luke wore himself out flailing and kicking.
"Stop thrashin' around and pack your kit, Drummer Jacoby. We're goin' for a little walk."
"I ain't goin'. You're just tryin' to send me home."
"Two choices. Either pack your stuff and come along or I'll just carry you. You wouldn't like for the boys to see that happenin', would you?"
"But, Ol' Jim, the boys need me. I'm the best drummer in the Division."
"Don't matter," Jim replied, "You're goin' home and don't start snifflin', neither. We got no call for no drummer boys nowadays. You ain't even got a drum no more." His drum had been shot away a few weeks ago by a whistling cannon ball while he was drumming a charge. He had been shocked to find only the untouched straps swinging there on his left hip below his sticks.
"Well, golly, I know that. But I do pretty good on this here fryin' pan, don't I?"
Jim didn't reply, but helped the boy into his raggedy jacket, took Luke by the arm and walked him toward the trench line. The weather was rainy and cold. The entire area was a vast wasteland of broken equipment, bloated dead horses and mud. The drummer boy and the Sergeant Major looked over the mounded dirt and crisscrossed logs to a littered misty theatre of war. Corpses representing both sides had been removed, those that were still mostly whole. A South Carolinian sharpshooter, with his Enfield placed between two large logs, peered toward the Union lines through a telescope. He blew on the scope and then wiped it with a soft rag.
"What's it look like out there?" Jim asked of the sniper.
"Well, there's a bluebelly on a horse standin' real, real still just outside their trenches." The sharpshooter adjusted the focus. "He's got a white flag on his sword. Nice lookin' horse, too. Rider's unsightly though. He's damned lucky I don't shoot 'em just 'cause he's so ugly. "
"Well, we ain't all that pretty our own selves right about now. I suspect we might as well get to walkin'." Jim sighed and put a white flag on the end of a long stick. "Come on, Drummer Jacoby." Luke began to sob. "Hush up with that! We'uns is Reb soldiers here. Straighten yourself up."
"Dang, Ol' Jim, I'm tryin' to." Jim boosted the boy over the trench and into the muddy killing ground between the lines. The sniper called out in a soft voice from behind them, "We got you covered, boys. There's three of us sharpshooters up and down here. If any of those bastards try anything unruly, we'll just shoot 'em out of their boots. Walk easy. Take your time. We're all watchin' out for you."
"Thank you kindly. Me and Luke appreciate it. Don't we, Drummer Jacoby?"
"Yes we do. Don't let nobody shoot me, please."
There was a low-to-the-ground mist rising and swirling from the mud as Jim took Luke's hand, watchfully stood erect and began their slow walk through the gooey mass. His white flag hung limp in the cool, still air.
"Ol' Jim, this mud is just awful. I can't hardly git my boots to carry me along."
"I can tote you a little bit," Jim whispered. "You want me to?"
"I'm fine." He sloshed, stumbled and plodded along holding tightly as he could to Jim's hand. "I'm the best drummer in the Division," he mumbled to himself. "Dang it all. Nobody's carryin' me."
* * *
The Union Cavalry officer sat ramrod straight upon his fine black mount, patiently waiting as the man and boy trudged across the misty ground. They finally arrived.
"Good morning, Rebs."
"Hidy," Jim said. Luke said nothing, but the officer, even while mounted, could hear the muffled sobbing.
"Well, get him up here in front of me."
"Just a dang minute, Yank. We ain't quite finished here." He turned to the boy. "I got a message for you from Jeff Davis, Luke."
"Aw, you ain't got no such a thing." Luke wiped his nose with the back of his sleeve.
"Well, I do too. Turn on around here and face me and come to attention while I tell it to you. It's real important." The drummer boy straightened to attention then looked through his tears up into the man's face. "By order of President Jefferson Davis, I am hereby authorized to promote Drummer Luke Jacoby to the rank of Sergeant of Drummers." Jim swallowed hard. "This here is a battlefield commission gave to this boy. Sergeant of Drummers Luke Jacoby is the first Confederate soldier ever to receive this high honor."
"Where does it say that, Ol' Jim?" Luke asked with wonder. "Show me."
"I was so busy gettin' you on over here that I forgot to bring the official paper with me."
"Shoot, you can't even read. Don't talk to me about no paper."
"Well, I surely can and I'll just send the official document along to you later. You can show it to your youngsters some day when you're a man. Now I want you to turn your own self around and face our boys, Sergeant of Drummers Jacoby, and play The Long Roll on that there fryin' pan drum. That's an order. Git to it."
* * *
Luke pulled out his nicked and dirty sticks, adjusted the battered frying pan to his straps, turned to the Rebel entrenchments, took a deep breath and began to play. Jim saw their troops, spectral, wet and ragged, yet with dry powder, rising through the mist along the top of their trenches. Jim hoped the Yanks didn't notice that the few men remaining were around twenty yards apart. He put his hand on the drummer boy's shoulder. There wasn't a sound for a quarter of a mile up and down the battlefield except the drumming. Luke finished and then tucked the sticks under his belt. He unstrapped the frying pan and handed it to Jim.
"Here, Ol' Jim. Give this to the boys. When they git to cookin' over the fire some night soon maybe they'll think of me kindly." Jim took the pan but couldn't reply.
The Union cavalryman smiled, and then said. "Come on, Sergeant of Drummers. Climb up here in front of me. We got a chaplain to carry you home. Don't be afraid."
"Aw, I ain't scared. Am I, Ol' Jim? I ain't." He allowed the officer to pull him up onto the horse. They headed toward the Union lines. Jim stood motionless, ankle deep in the muddy ground, silent and watchful, holding the battered frying pan at his side.
From atop the Confederate battlements arose a fine Rebel yell, and then another, then someone shouted through the mist. "Good-bye, Drummer."
"So long, kid, Mind your mamma now."
"You was the best drummer ever, kid," called out another.
"Be a good boy, Luke," from far down the line.
* * *
The drummer boy disappeared into the mist that softened the hard edges of the Union lines. Both sides, once more, settled down to war.
Sergeant of Drummers © 2004 by Brooks Carver
Brooks Carver is a poet and writer of historical fiction. His family comes from the Blue Ridge region of North Carolina. He has a Reconstruction era novel set in eastern Tennessee, The Angels' Share, now out on speculation. At present he is working on the sequel and another manuscript about Confederate Cavalry General John Hunt Morgan. Brooks has a lifelong love affair with 19th-century America.
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