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
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
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.”