Music and Art: Painted Martial Drums


One of the things I think about when I harken back to the American Revolution, the Federal period, or the Civil War is the sound of fifes and drums. When I hear them today it helps bring me back to a different era. Edward Jarvis in his Traditions & Reminiscences of Concord, Massachusetts mentions hearing a bass drum for the first time together with fifes and snares in preparation for the spring militia muster “They had music-drum and fife, and one or more of each, and the bass drum after it was introduced. This was considered an important accession to the martial music, and a wonder to the boys. I remember well the time when I first heard one. It was one May evening when Capt. Sanderson led the artillery. It was my early bedtime. My brother Charles had gone to the chamber before me. As I followed, passing near the front door, I heard drums, and besides, the heavy booming sound, strange and beautiful to me. I could not resist going to the door to see, if possible, what the instrument was that made it. The music was at Capt. Sanderson’s shop 20 rods distant. Barefooted and bareheaded I ran to it, and there I saw the bass drum. I stood close to it and heard its full sound. I wished that Charles could be there to see and hear it. But I was told that it would appear when the company should come out and [so] was satisfied with my discovery and hastened home and to bed.”

But not only could beautiful music be played by bass or snare drum accompaniment; they were sometimes painted with wonderful patriotic artwork. Like powder horns, painted canteens and knapsacks, drums also cross over from the arms and militaria collectors to folk art. Here is an example, a Civil War Regulation Painted Rope Tension Drum.

It has red-painted upper and lower hoops, a blue-painted shell with an eagle, shield, sunburst, and banner marked "REGT./U.S./ INFANTRY." Since there is no regimental designation painted before “REGT.” this example was never issued. It has brass tacks around the side vent vent, and if you peep through the vent you can see on the opposite side the original manufacturers off white paper label marked "ERNEST VOGT,/MANUFACTURER OF/DRUMS, BANJOS, TAMBORINES, &c.,/No. 225 BEAVER STREET,/PHILADELPHIA./Contract, December 29th, 1864." This example also has its original calfskin heads, rope, and nine of the ten original leather ears for tensioning the drum. It’s rare to have such a complete drum that hasn’t been restored.

Like young Edward Jarvis, as a kid I got the same feeling listening to the fifes and drums and began to play when I was 10. Not only did the music stir me, but so did the artwork painted on the outer shells. Forty-five years later I still find myself in awe of these pieces of American history and art.

music, art, drums


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