Daniel Williams: the Youngest (and "Littlest") Drummer Boy

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John Hartwell

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Daniel Williams: the Youngest (and "Littlest") Drummer Boy
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The story of Dan Williams is a truly extraordinary one. Not only was he certified in 1893 as the Youngest drummer boy (he being aged 11 years, 5 months, and 16 days at the time of his enlistment), but, at 4’1” tall, very likely the “Littlest” as well.

He had been born in Philadelphia, on March 14, 1851, but by the war’s outbreak, he was living with his family in the small Quaker town of Burlington, New Jersey, about 18 miles north of Philadelphia. That April of 1861, just weeks past histenth birthday, young Daniel appeared at the enlistment office of Co.C, 3rd N.J. three-month volunteers, seeking the position of drummer-boy. But,his parents got wind of it, and embarrassed the youngster bt dragging him home. In a long, very poorly-written and maddeningly disconnected report of an “exclusive” interview he gave in 1908 (it is attached below for those who wish to read it), he tells an elaborate story of his mother’s efforts to restrain her headstrong 10-year-old from following the sounds of the drum.

Suffice it here to say that he made his escape, and on September 1, 1862, enlisted as drummer in Company I, 24th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, a new regiment being raised for a term of just nine-months. How the diminutive, if determined, youngster persuaded Capt. William J. Shinn to accept him, I can’t imagine. But, he did. Dan was mustered in the U.S. service at Beverly, N.J., on Sept. 15th, and on the 28th set out for Washington (via Philadelphia). They went into camp on East Capitol Hill, currently the site of Lincoln Park.

After training there for two months, the 24th was ordered to join Burnside’s army before Fredericksburg, and assigned to Kimball’s Brigade of French’s Division, of the 2nd Corps. They crossed the pontoons on December 12th, and went into action on the 13th “in the rear of the town, between the railroad cut and the plank road.” In his first battle, Dan Williams did his duty well, laying aside his drum, and joining the other musicians in carrying stretchers and helping the wounded, his own Capt. Shinn among them. The regiment’s loss was, in all, 160 officers and men killed and wounded.

Drummer Martin also carried out his medical responsibilities during the battle of Chancellorsville, where the regiment was also engaged, with a total of 40 casualties. Following the fighting, he was assigned as a nurse at the Division Hospital. The youngster was personally commended by the hospital’s chief, Dr. Jacob H. Stewart, Surgeon of the 1st Minnesota. With its 9 months expired, the 24th New Jersey, was mustered out and discharged in Philadelphia on June 29, 1863.

But, Dan Williams wasn’t ready to go home -- not with Lee’s army on the march. Pa. Governor Curtin issued a call for Emergency Volunteer Militia to serve only as long as the immediate threat lasted. The now-12-year-old veteran promptly signed up as drummer in Co. C, of the 51st Pennsylvania Emergency Militia. The great battle was over by the time they arrived, and Dan Williams and his fellows spent nearly two months “in and around Gettysburg, assisting in clearing the ground of its dead comrades and abandoned property.” They returned to Philadelphia for discharge on September 8.

“The following morning the little drummer boarded the steamer for Burlington. On his arrival his mother was there to greet him and escort him home.” It’s hard to imagine the sufferings of this woman -- she had gone to extremes to prevent her child from running away … and yet he did. Her agony must have been unbearable. And then, just as she learns her boy is coming home, her husband, Dan’s father, Charles Williams, is drafted into the 23rd New Jersey, and leaves her (he would eventually be that regiment’s Color Sergeant). It must have been a wonderful relief for her to have young Daniel safe at home with her. She had finally persuaded Dan to go back to school. But, by December …..

“At South Amboy strikes and riots threatened, and the governor ordered out the state guard to be in readiness to protect life and property.” There was no stopping the young drummer boy. He joined the Burlington Home Guard company, and soon was off to South Amboy. The company spent a few weeks housed in an old glass factory, but had little to do. The mere presence of armed troops had defused the threat of violence, and soon all was quiet. But during those weeks, Dan Williams suffered his only service injury: he slid down some icy steps and sprained his ankle.

February 8, 1864, Daniel Williams has thrown away his crutches, and is off again, this time taking a school chum, Benson Smith, with him. Back in Philadelphia, the two boys enlist as drummers in the 23rd Pennsylvania, better known as Birney’s Zouaves, for a term of three years, or the duration of the war. That regiment had been in the field since the war began. Offered a 30 day furlough if they re-enlisted now "for the war," many accepted and were home. When they went back, they would bring with them new recruits: Dan and Ben were among those replacements.

The boys joined their new regiment at Johnson’s Island, Ohio, in Lake Erie, where the non-re-enlisted members had spent the winter guarding the Prisoner of War camp there. And there they remained until May 9th, when they set out for Washington, D.C., and thence to Belle Plain, where they were once again put to work guarding rebel prisoners. By the end of the month, however, they were heading back to the front with the 6th Corps, for the Rapidan campaign..

We have little mention of Dan Williams' doings personally for the remainder of the war. But, his record is clear, that he was always “present” on duty with his regiment throughout the overland campaign. The 23rd Pennsylvania fought (and Dan doubtless drummed & carried stretchers) on the North Anna, at Topotomoy, and Cold Harbor (75 killed, 116 wounded). They crossed the Appomattox on June 19, in the first attack on Petersburg, were engaged at Ream’s Station and the Weldon Railroad. In July, they moved to Washington to counter Early’s offensive. Later they engaged in operations in the Shenandoah Valley … Winchester, Cedar Creek.

With the non-re-enlisted men of the regiment about to be discharged, the veterans, along with the recruits (Dan Williams among them), were transferred on August 21st to the 82nd Pennsylvania, to serve out the remainder of their time. This was, if you are counting them as they go by, the young drummer’s 4th regiment (not counting his Home Guard episode), and he had not yet attained the age of 14!

The 82nd, another long-serving regiment, would go on to fight at Opequan (3rd Winchester) and Cedar Creek. They finally left the Valley on December 1st, bound for Petersburg. They were among the first to enter the defenses at the April 2, 1865, assault and fall of that city. At Sailor’s Creek on April 6, they suffered 19 killed and 80 wounded. Three days later they witnessed Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. They were marching South to join with Sherman’s army when the war ended.

“The little drummer boy received his final discharge at Camp Cadwallader, and within a few days returned to Washington D.C., where he found his parents residing. During those thirty months of army life the boy can safely say he never was absent from his command nor sick in the hospital.”
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So ends the extraordinary Civil War history of Drummer Daniel Williams. But, his warlike spirit was not yet quenched. Just three months later, on October 31 1865, he enlisted as a drummer in the U. S. Marine Corps. He served on board the USS Albany, flagship of the North Atlantic Squadron, and was on board in 1868-9, when the Albany “rendered very efficient service protecting American interests in the island of Cuba while an insurrection was on.” On February 2, 1870, Marine drummer Williams was honorably discharged at Washington Marine barracks.

Nine days later, the 20 year old veteran had signed up yet again, and joined the marine contingent aboard the steam frigate USS Colorado, which was soon making sail for the Far East. On June 10, 1870, Dan Williams joined a party of marines and blue jackets that stormed a Korean fort on the Seal River (punishment for having fired on U.S. flag ships). “Williams was one of the first to enter the well-fortified citadel and engage in a hand to hand struggle with his yellow foe, who were driven out and across the open country. The Stars and Stripes were run up to the peak of the staff amidst the beating of Williams’ drum and his fifer playing the national air.”

Williams left the Marine Corps in 1873, this time, apparently, for good. He settled down to civilian life, married, had two sons. In 1878, he was appointed to the Washington Metropolitan Police Force, a position secured for him by Minnesota Congressman Dr. Jacob H. Stewart, who remembered him from his work in the division hospital, after Chancellorsville. He was on duty at the Washington Police Court in 1893, when new legislation rendered him eligible for a pension. He went to the Pension Office to apply, and the agent he encountered there turned out to be Capt. William P. Sevill, who had been one of the wounded men the young drummer had aided at Fredericksburg. It was during record searches in connection with his pension application that it was officially verified that Daniel Williams had been the Youngest Drummer boy.

Then, early in 1898, news broke of the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor. And, Daniel Williams felt “the itch” again. Even before President McKinley requested a declaration of war, the now-47-year-old ex-soldier and ex-Marine, “offered his services in any capacity the naval authorities saw fit to give him.” But, as he had been under-age in 1862, now he was over-age! But he was not about to let that stop him. He went to see Capt. Hawley at the Navigation Bureau, whom he had known on board the USS Colorado in the 1870s. Hawley arranged a special age waiver, and two days later Williams stepped aboard the receiving ship Vermont at Brooklyn Navy Yard. He was then assigned to the cruiser USS Columbia, as “a full-fledged Yankee sailor of the Master-at-Arms class.” His service was spent patrolling the American coast, from Maine to Delaware, on guard against the widely-expected Spanish raiders.

Following the war, he was employed as a watchman at the Government Printing Office. He attended the 1913 Gettysburg 50th Anniversary reunion, but died the following year, at the age of 64.
 

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John Hartwell

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OBITUARY: Washington Evening Star, December 9, 1914”


Daniel Williams, who was employed on the watch force of the government printing office for ten years, died of Bright's disease at his home in this city November 25. The funeral services were held last Saturday, and interment was in Arlington cemetery, where the Grand Army of the Republic and Masonic services were conducted, members of both these orders acting as pall bearers. He was buried with full military honors, a firing squad having been provided by the War Department. Mr Williams, who was born in 1850, served two and one half years in the civil war in the 6th Army Corps, enlisting when he was but eleven years of age, and was known as the “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock,”{1} He also served in the Navy as master-at-arms on the United States cruiser Columbia during the Spanish-American War. He was past Commander of the Lincoln Post, No. 6, G.A.R., and was active in its affairs. Capt. Williams, who had been a resident of Washington for forty years, is survived by his wife and two sons, one of the latter, Joseph Williams, being employed as keyboard operator in the city monotype section.”


{1} Note: Williams had been dubbed the “Drummer Boy of Fredericksburg,” not of the Rappahannock.


EDITED to ADD: However, I find this in the Evening Star of 22 September 1892:
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DBF

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Interesting that his mother, concerned that her son would run off to war, went to a neighboring farmer to request that he be kept there “for the purpose of binding him over until he reached the age of 21”. Sounds like he was kept there as a virtual prisoner all at 11 years old. No wonder he wanted to escape. Interesting thread - thanks for posting.
 
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JPK Huson 1863

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He sounds like he was an exhausting kid to raise. Some are all kinetic energy looking for a place to get into something.You just know that was already a very tired woman by the time he enlisted the first time. You suspect he'd already survived falls from trees and windows, narrowly escaped from being run over by carts, hobnobbed with bulls and vicious dogs and brought home snakes for pets. Mom probably knew the whole running off to war thing was inevitable, as was his inevitable return. Kids like that are also teflon.

First time I've heard of Daniel, thanks for posting his story!
 

John Hartwell

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Central Massachusetts
Interesting that his mother, concerned that her son would run off to war, went to a neighboring farmer to request that he be kept there “for the purpose of binding him over until he reached the age of 21”. Sounds like he was kept there as a virtual prisoner all at 11 years old. No wonder he wanted to escape. Interesting thread - thanks for posting.
I presume that it was an apprenticeship, he was to be taught to be a farmer. I don't know what the Williams family did, but it was "in town," and not on a farm, so young Dan was supposed to be learning a 'trade.'
 
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