"On The Ropes…." is a series of essays focusing on rope drums and many of the things and people associated with them. Within this group are two distinct yet related collections: The “Drums of Music;” and drums of the military, known here as the “Drums of WAR!”……The gig that could get you killed!
The story of the man is also the story of the drum. In many ways, they are one and the same; sharing the very vortex of Hell on Earth in the meat-grinder of what would become the Army of the Potomac. At only five foot, three inches tall, a 35 year old cigar maker from Jackson County, Maine, "took the dollar," the oath of allegiance, to become a Private in the Union Army as a Drummer. James D. Deas mustered into Company C, 5th Maine Infantry Volunteers in Portland, Maine, for 3 years of duty that would change his life forever.
When the 5th Maine was mustered into service on June, 24, 1861, it had a full complement of 1046 men and received an additional 500 recruits during the next 3 years. By the time the original members of the regiment mustered out at Saco, Maine, on July 27, 1864, only 216 men were left present. Of what was left of the 500 additional recruits that still had time to serve, they were transferred to the 7th Maine Regiment. During its 3 year term, the 5th would serve under Generals McDowell, McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, Meade and Grant, and would be engaged in every major battle fought in the Eastern Theater from First Bull Run to Petersburg.
When this old drum was first bent from a tree, the Young American Republic was in its bare infancy. The wood came from a tree that started growing long before there was an American Nation, a time when Europe's superpowers vied for advantage to rule the North American continent, while Native Peoples aligned and resisted…..a time of the flint-lock and the tomahawk…… an ever-changing cultural climate of struggle and triumph. George Washington had just taken the office of the first President of the United States in 1789, only a few short years before this drum was first pieced together. As a nation, we were just getting started.
This rather shallow and plain field drum was once carried into battle by the son of a preacher. A young, 22 year old single farmer named Charles W. Bonner answered the call to duty and enlisted in Company I, 8th. Illinois Infantry as a Musician, for a 3 month tour. The 8th ILL mustered into service at Springfield on April 25, 1861 and did its duty at Cairo, ILL, mustering out on July 25, 1861. Many of the regiment re-enlisted with the 8th for 3 more years' of service, however, Bonner did not re-enlist with them. Instead, one month later, on August 20, he enlisted with Company A, 11th Missouri Infantry Volunteers, also as a Musician. The 11th MO participated in several smaller actions that led to their involvement in the Battles of Iuka and Corinth, Miss. At the Battle of Corinth, on October 4th, the 11th Mo was found defending the Union's Battery Robinett against the Confederates under General Earl Van Dorn.
William S. Tompkins was not just any drum maker, but an incredible craftsman in general. He worked on the cutting edge of the technology available in the then burgeoning martial state that was the 1850's and 1860's. It is thought that he was born around 1812 and served in the Mexican War, possibly in his 30's. Exactly when he started making drums is a matter of speculation. His drums are very well made and virtual works of art that are fairly hard to find. Most of Tompkins drums have very innate designs of inlaid wood placed directly in the shells outer ply of (usually) mahogany. However, there seems to be a very limited supply of Tompkins drums that have been ornately painted rather than adorned with inlays. As of this writing, I only know of two....this is one of those two rare drums.
The design on this Civil War "Contract" Eagle drum is one of the most iconic examples ever produced by the U.S. Military. The eagle and shield design is more accurately referred to as the "United States' Arms." During the four year conflict, the Union government ordered around 32,000 drums, with up to 40,000 drummers filing out the ranks of the Union Army. Images of eagles had been adorning American drums in a variety of designs for decades and continued for decades after the Civil War. I have found no actual records indicating how many of the drums made during the War had the Arms or "Eagle & Shield" design, but they have seemed to have captured the image of what a Civil War drum looked like. The ranks of service men were mostly filled with volunteer state regiments, but at the very core were the "regular army" veterans. Many of these soldiers were fresh off the frontier and only made up a small portion of the massive number of troops clad in blue needed to put down the rebellion. This drum is from one of those veteran, Regular U. S. Army regiments.