American Revolution: Wet Drumheads Saved Lives

Scott K Fish

Silver Member
American Revolution: Wet Drumheads Saved Lives

SKF NOTE: An interesting news report. I learned new information and concepts on the use of drums during the American Revolution. The idea of “hearing” history, of drums as communications technology, and of wet calfskin drumheads saving lives.

Drums of history sound off at Fort Meigs presentation
By EMILY GORDON, Sentinel Staff Writer | Posted: Tuesday, March 1, 2016 9:32 am

Mark Logsdon and 1824 drum

PERRYSBURG — History buffs read extensively about their favorite aspects of the past, but...don’t often get to actually hear them.

...Mark Logsdon...talked to local history fans about the importance of music in battle....

During his presentation, entitled “Music in the Military: The Story of Fifes and Drums,” Logsdon, director of the 1st Michigan Colonial Fife and Drum Corps, explained how musical instruments were used as disciplinary tools as well as ways to relay commands on and off the battlefield.

With a reproduction rope tension drum hooked onto the drumstick carrier slung over his shoulder, Logsdon described the thrill of hearing what soldiers and citizens would have heard in the late 18th century.

“Musically, sonically, what you’re about to hear are the kinds of things you would have heard over two centuries ago on the technology of the time period,” he said.

The loud, rapid sounds signalling soldiers around the time of the American Revolution were so loud, they could be heard...five miles away.

“Fifes and drums became so important as communication devices that some towns levied taxes on the colonists so they could be purchased,” he said.

Logsdon played songs and signals soldiers would have heard throughout the day from fifes...and drums, such as a call to wake, dress and stand at attention, a call to go to church and a call to dinner.

“Paul Revere never said ‘the British were coming.’ It wouldn’t have made any sense. We were British. What he did say was, ‘The regulation is coming.’ It was a scary time,” he said, referring not only to the looming presence of soldiers marching through a village on their way to war, but also the intimidating sounds of their drums.

Although historians have questioned whether drums were used during the battles themselves, Logsdon is confident they were, citing numerous anecdotes in diaries, letters, memoirs and pension applications.

He also relayed a story about how General Mad Anthony Wayne wanted to move out earlier than planned before the Battle of Fallen Timbers...but...the drummers’ calfskin drum heads were wet from the night before.

“He had to wait for them to dry out. There were campaigns that didn’t happen because drums were wet,” Logsdon said. “The drums were the voice of the battle.”

Drum and fife signals told soldiers which way to turn and how to get in formation.

...Logsdon played a restored Brown Family drum circa 1824, an almost entirely original solid shell drum made of tiger stripe maple and ash that was found in a garbage pile in Baltimore, Maryland, held together by its tack pattern.

Logsdon sent it to the Smithsonian, where it was “saved from having its voice silenced,” he said.

“You can be old and still have something to say. It’s a privilege to be able to hear history,” he said,

“Because of the Grand Army of the Republic, thanks to old veterans, drummer boys from both the Union and Confederate sides getting together to play, the tradition has carried on,” he said. “We speak for the dead. We honor the veterans we cannot thank in person. In playing these drums, we hope we make those ghosts happy,” Logsdon said.

Full Story and Photos

Scott K Fish: Life Beyond the Cymbals
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Gold Member
The drummers were up late playing drinking black drink and playing stomp dance, water drum style, and didn't have time to dry the heads out the next day.


Gold Member
Great article! When I started drumming, I ended up playing fife and drum music for a Rev War reenactment group, and the drummers were the ones relaying orders. Everyone knew the songs for retreat, cease fire, and attack.

Even the firing of muskets was carefully coordinated by the drummers, something which wouldn't work very well in today's world.