|Bill Gordon's Bass Drum|
On August 20th 1861, barely five months after the first shots of the Civil War, twenty-one year old Wm. H. Gordon found himself enlisting in Company “E” 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry as a musician. Bill’s weapon of choice was a 50 year old barrel bass drum that had already seen better days. Private Gordon was to see service in the South under such soon-to-be-famous Generals as Butler, Sherman, and Banks, until mustering out on September 5, 1865. Under General Butler, the Sixth Regiment would be among the first to enter New Orleans, and take part in engagements against Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Mobile Bay, Spanish Fort, Baton Rouge, Tunica Bayou, Fort Blakley, and numerous other actions. After the surrender of Port Hudson, the regiment received the personal thanks of General Banks for “gallant service and efficient services during the siege” and was by his orders, on July 10, 1863, converted to a Regiment of Heavy Artillery, retaining its infantry number. This being a rather rare occurrence by far, the Sixth was one of the few regiments who could claim an official double title.
After the War, Bill returned to his home in Calhoun County, Michigan and worked as a blacksmith until his death in 1917 at the age of 77. Sometime later, his son Elam Gordon, then loaned the drum to a local museum in Cassopolis MI, where it remained until Bill’s grandson, G. E. Gordon, removed the drum from the museum’s care and stored it in his attic for many years. At some point, G. E. sold the drum to a collector in Lancaster, PA, from whom I indirectly purchased it.
|The signature inside the drum- July 14th, 1812|
Inside this old war relic, I found the date “July 14, 1812” written in the brown ink of old “iron pen.” Whether this is the date that the drum was made or the first time it was repaired is uncertain, however, I am inclined to think this may be the date of origin. There is no maker’s mark, but, there is a small square mark where a paper label may have been affixed long ago. Also inside the shell is “William H. Gordon to Elam Gordon” and “(?) Michigan,” written in a different hand and of “iron pen.” This may actually be the “autograph” of Wm. Gordon himself! An old museum tag is attached to the ropes of the drum: “Wm Gordon, Eckford Michigan, Sept. 30, 1862.” That date would have him pulling guard duty at Metaria Ridge, LA, so it may not be of importance other than an indication of Civil War service. Included with the drum is the original heavy bass drum beater, tattered and covered with thin leather.
Among the documents I found was a local newspaper article from the Jackson Citizen Patriot, Jackson Michigan, published in the 1950’s. Pictured is G. E. Gordon, grandson of the late Wm. Gordon, holding the drum and beater, showing an old repair made to the one of the calf skin heads, still present on the drum. In the article, G. E. reminisces about a story his Grandfather told him when he was a boy. Saying that “his grandfather told him that he once supplied a head for the drum by stretching a skin from a recently slaughtered calf over it. The drum was put into use the following day.” After examining the inside of the drum and calf heads, I found the remnants of “old calf” still attached, leading me to believe that this is that skin from the War.
|Note the museum tag that was on the drum when displayed at the museum|
The shell is made of a single ply of maple, stained dark brown, with 2” wide black counter hoops, also made of maple. Mounted on each of the counter hoops is a loose brass ring with which to attach the carrying sling, which is missing. There is a simple tack pattern consisting of a circle centered on the vent hole, flanked by a vertical border of brass tacks. The rope seems to be made of hemp and all but two of the leather ears are present, two of which may be period replacements. Everything about this drum seems to be original or from the Civil War period.
|2” wooden hoops were all the rage back in those days.|
With the 1812 date written on the inside of the drum and the style of craftsmanship found in its construction, I don’t think it far-fetched to believe that this drum may have seen duty during the War of 1812 as well as part of a militia unit. Many times drums used during the Civil War had already amassed a rich history of use. It was certainly not uncommon for a grandfather to refit a drum he may have used during an earlier campaign and send the next generation off to war beating familiar rhythms to inspire the troops.
|The brass ring is where the sling would attach.|
From the days before the Revolution, many drums have found active duty over seceding decades up to and beyond the years of the Civil War, surviving even till today. This is great testimony to the craftsmanship and durability of the drums made by men of an era long before the Industrial Revolution brought great machines, mass production and standardization. When I find a drum in this kind of “museum condition,” restoration must be very limited, so a light cleaning was all that was involved. Being a true “Drum of WAR!” invites me to wonder about the original sound if new skins were installed, but a calmer head has prevailed so these old skins will stay in place.
From Lancaster County, PA.....
Thoughts from the shop....... Brian Hill ....