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Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock

Part 10 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

‘Behind the Lines,’ by Donald C. Pfanz

ROBERT HENRY HENDERSHOT was a rambunctious boy. No, he was more than rambunctious, he was downright rebellious.

Hendershot had grown up in Michigan at a time when that state was still something of a frontier. His father died when he was just a few years old, leaving him to be raised by his mother. He was the sort of child every parent dreads.

“Robert had always been of a high-strung temperament,” his biographer, H. E. Gerry, explained, “with a force of willpower and temper hard to govern. He did not like attending school, absenting himself without leave or ceremony, and in preference hunted watermelon patches, fished, skated, blacked boots, sold papers, in fact anything suited to his fancy which was directly in opposition to the wishes of his mother and the family at home.”

The Civil War gave Robert an outlet for his adventuresome spirit. In the fall of 1861, a company from Hendershot’s town left the state and headed to the front. Although he was under age, the boy tagged along. Time and again, the officers sent him home, but each time he came back. As Gerry noted, “The officers were destined to find the little warrior a persistent fellow, and decidedly hard to get rid of.”

Hendershot eventually joined Company B, 9th Michigan Infantry. In a skirmish at Murfreesboro, Tenn., he was captured and sent to Camp Chase, Ohio, to await exchange. The impetuous youth had no intention of wasting time in an exchange camp, however, and he slipped away and re-enlisted in the 8th Michigan Infantry on Aug. 19, 1862, under an assumed name, Robert Henry Henderson.

The 8th Michigan belonged to the Army of the Potomac, and Hendershot soon found himself on his way to Virginia. He joined his new regiment on Nov. 28, just in time for the Battle of Fredericksburg. In an effort to seize the town, Union commander Ambrose E. Burnside ordered the 7th Michigan Infantry Regiment to cross the river in pontoon boats under fire and drive Confederate riflemen from the Fredericksburg waterfront.

Although Hendershot was in the 8th Michigan rather than the 7th, he tried to climb into one of the first boats as it pushing off from shore. Instead, he slipped and fell into the icy water. Rather than give up, he grabbed on to the boat and was dragged across.

When the boats touched shore, the 7th Michigan dashed into town and engaged the Confederates in house-to-house combat. Robert had a different agenda. Following in the wake of his adopted regiment, he “went into a house and set it on fire, stole a clock, two blankets, and some other small articles.” Somehow he managed to get the purloined items back to his camp in Stafford County.

Grabbing a discarded rifle, he then returned to Fredericksburg for additional booty. “He went into a different house,” wrote Gerry, “and assisted in destroying mirrors, pianos, and other valuable property.” He had just applied a match to another residence and was heading out the back door when he encountered a Rebel with a shotgun. Hendershot had the drop on him and demanded the man’s surrender. At the prompting of some other soldiers, he then personally escorted his prisoner to the rear, presenting him to Gen. Burnside in person at the Lacy House (Chatham).

The Union commander praised the boy for his gallantry. “Well, boy,” he was quoted as saying, “if you keep on in this way ... you will soon be in my place.”

Hendershot was then just 12 years old.

Burnside advised the youngster to return to camp, but Hendershot replied that he “preferred to go and capture another Johnny Reb.” Inspired by his spunk, the general and his staff raised “three cheers for Robert Henry Hendershot, ... the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” The nickname stuck.

Hendershot remained at the front and was slightly wounded two days later in the Union attacks on Marye’s Heights. As a result of the wound, and possibly his age, he was discharged on Dec. 27. By then, Hendershot’s fame had spread across the country. When he reached Washington, Northern citizens hailed him as a hero. He dined with President Lincoln at the White House and appeared as a guest at both houses of Congress.

Later, when he visited New York City, the New York Tribune's editor, Horace Greeley, presented the lad with a fancy new drum. Capitalizing on the boy’s popularity, showman Phineas T. Barnham engaged Hendershot to play his drum at Barnham’s museum. In the years following the Civil War, a poem and a play were written about Hendershot, extolling his courage.

Hendershot enjoyed his celebrity status and milked it for all it was worth. In the decades following the war, he performed on his “Greeley Drum” at meeting halls throughout the nation. At Wa–Keeney, Kan., more than 200 people turned out to hear the now-middle-aged drummer play. (Wa–Keeney apparently was hurting for entertainment.)

Miss Ruth Welch, a local dignitary, brought the house to its feet with a stirring recital of the poem “The Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock,” after which the curtain opened and Hendershot appeared, beating his drum to the tune, “Marching Through Georgia.” His young son played the fife at his side.

The crowd went wild, wrote a Western Kansas World reporter, calling for encore after encore until Hendershot “had far more than exhausted the pieces which had been so industriously published as constituting his part of the program.”

The only ones not enamored with Hendershot were the soldiers of the 7th Michigan Infantry, the regiment that had stormed Fredericksburg. No one in that regiment remembered seeing Hendershot on Dec. 11, 1862. In their estimation, the real hero of the fight was their own drummer boy, John S. Spillane.

In 1891, the Grand Army of the Republic (an association of Union veterans) held its national meeting in Detroit and invited Hendershot to take part in its parade. The 7th Michigan was outraged by the invitation and publicly challenged Hendershot to produce even one witness who had seen him at Fredericksburg. “Failing this, we feel ourselves justified in declaring in a public manner our belief that this claim is a fraud.”

Hendershot answered his critics the following night at a reunion of the 7th Michigan. Taking the stage, he produced letters from President Lincoln, Gen. Ulysses Grant, and Horace Greeley attesting to his bravery. But none of those men had been at Fredericksburg, his critics countered; they had. Did any of the 200 veterans in the room know Hendershot? When no one rose to Hendershot’s defense, pandemonium broke out.

“Throw him out of the window,” cried one man. The crowd seemed at the point of doing just that, when the 7th’s own drummer boy, John S. Spillane (now a captain on the Detroit police force), entered the room. “There,” shouted a veteran, “there is the drummer boy of the Rappahannock!” The veterans hurried Spillane to the platform and unceremoniously booted Hendershot down the stairs.

After the meeting, the citizens of Detroit presented Spillane with a medal proclaiming him, not Hendershot, to be the real “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.”

Was Hendershot a hero or a fraud? As is so often the case with history, we shall probably never know. The witnesses, like the tap of Robert Henry Hendershot’s drum, have fallen silent.

NEXT: Civilians in the Crossfire

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of “Abraham Lincoln at City Point” and “Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life.”