Robert Henry Hendershot
Robert Henry Hendershot, known as the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock, was a American Civil War drummer boy who achieved fame because of his supposed heroics at the
Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862.
In 1861, Robert was living with his widowed mother in Jackson, Michigan. His enlistment papers, pension application, and early biographies indicate that he was somewhere between 10 and 14 years old that year, and that he had been born in either New York or Michigan. That fall Robert began drilling with a local volunteer unit, the Jackson County Rifles. He accompanied the Rifles to Fort Wayne, outside Detroit, where the unit became Company C of the Ninth Michigan Infantry. Robert did not enlist with the rest, but did accompany the regiment to its first encampment, at
West Point, Kentucky, either as a stowaway, or as a servant to Captain Charles V. DeLand, the commander of Company C. Robert remained with Company C until March 1862, when he formally enlisted as a musician in Company B. He was with Company B at the Murfreesboro, Tennesseecourthouse, when it was attacked by a Confederate cavalry brigade under command of Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest, on July 13, 1862, an engagement since known as Forrest’s Murfreesboro Raid or the first Battle of Murfreesboro. Robert was captured with the rest of his regiment, and paroled with the enlisted men. Shortly thereafter he was discharged for disability. He suffered frequent and severe epileptic seizures, an affliction he had endured since early childhood. In December 1862, Robert enlisted in the Eighth Michigan Infantry. Because of his parole, he signed on with an alias, “Robert Henry Henderson.” Robert accompanied the regimental chaplain, George Taylor, to the camp of the Eighth Michigan Infantry, when he again began to suffer such frequent seizures that he was ordered off duty, to await a discharge.
On December 11, 1862, Robert wandered away from his regiment, and was near the banks of the Rappahannock River when the Seventh Michigan Infantry volunteered to cross the river under intense enemy fire and drive rebel sharpshooters from their nests. Robert later claimed that he helped push off the first boat, and tried to climb aboard, but slipped and made the voyage across clinging to the gunwale. He claimed to have taken part in the ensuing battle, had picked up a rifle when a shell burst his drum, and had captured an enemy soldier.
Reports of such an episode appeared in the northern press; however, the young hero remained nameless until late December, when Robert visited the offices of the Detroit "Free Press" and Detroit "Advertiser and Tribune", and staked his claim to the title “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” Robert’s story was repeated in national papers, including New York "Tribune", whose publisher, Horace Greeley, summoned Robert and presented him with a silver drum. For the next eight weeks Robert performed at P. T. Barnum museum, and then spent a few weeks more in Poughkeepsie, New York, at the
Eastman Business College, which had rewarded his heroism with a scholarship.
In April 1864 Robert left Poughkeepsie and enlisted as a first class boy aboard the U.S.S. "Fort Jackson", at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Robert claimed that fell overboard while in a seizure, and was discharged, on 26 June 1864. The ship's log listed him as a deserter.
The next few months were hectic, if Robert's tales are believed: a grand tour of England, service as a page with the Treasury Department, dangerous missions for General Grant, as a spy operating behind enemy lines. Whatever the case, by war's end Robert had collected an impress portfolio of endorsements, from President Lincoln, Generals Burnside, Meade, Logan, Parkhurst and others, recommending him for an appointment to West Point. Robert claimed that he had been denied admission to the Academy because of his wounds, or because of his inability to pass the entrance exams; however, no application exists in the Academy's records.
After the war Robert bartered his fame for a while longer, then returned to Poughkeepsie Business College for a brief time, during which he married a fellow student. In 1867 he collaborated with a writer, William Sumner Dodge, who produced a 200-page biography, "Robert Henry Hendershot; or the Brave Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock".
For the next two decades Robert labored in relative obscurity, first for the
Union Pacific Railroad, in Omaha, Nebraskaand then as a federal mail clerk for the Michigan Lake Shore Railroad, in Chicago, Illinois.
After his retirement as mail clerk, in 1885, Hendershot took out his drum and began touring the country with his son, Cleveland, who played the fife. Although they principally performed at GAR functions and other patriotic gatherings, their tour also took them into Canada, and to the Kingdom of Hawaii, where they entertained Queen Lill’uokalani.
By July 1891, the month Hendershot posted a letter to the "National Tribune", restating his claim to the title, “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock,” as well as that of “youngest soldier,” he was one of the best known veteran drummer boys in the country. As such, he was invited to lead the Michigan Department during the
Grand Army of the Republic(GAR) parade during the organization’s annual national encampment, which was to be held in Detroit during the first week in August.
There were certain old soldiers, however, who were not pleased by the fame and honors Hendershot enjoyed. One of them was the Seventh Michigan’s former drum major, Wilbur F. Dickerson of Grand Rapids, Michigan. In a letter to the encampment’s organizers, Dickerson pronounce Hendershot a fake, and asked them to remove him from his place of honor. In other letters Dickerson asked members of the Seventh Michigan to help him spearhead an attack to discredit Hendershot.
Hendershot kept his place of honor in the parade, but during the next few days the GAR hierarchy, following the lead of veterans of the Seventh and Eighth Michigan Infantries, pronounced Hendershot a fraud and stripped him of his title, which was then awarded to John T. Spillaine, a Detroit policeman and former Seventh Michigan drummer boy. Several months later a number of Detroit citizens awarded Spillaine a gold medal, two inches in diameter, upon which was a raised figure of a drummer boy and the inscription “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” Spillaine readily accepted the title, and proudly wore the medal for the rest of his life.
Only one man claimed to have seen Hendershot on the day in question—the Reverend George Taylor. In a letter published in the Detroit Tribune the day following the encampment, Taylor recounted the events of that day, and stated his “firm conviction” that Hendershot was “the individual who was known from the first as the ‘Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock’.” It should have ended the controversy; instead it only fueled it. The controversy continued in the Detroit newspapers and in the GAR newspaper, the "National Tribune". It was still raging a year later, in 1892, at GAR’s annual encampment at Washington, D.C. There, the membership reaffirmed Spillaine's right to the title, Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock. Spillaine, flanked by a guard of honor composed of members of the Seventh Michigan Infantry, then tapped the cadence for the Michigan Department as it marched up Pennsylvania. Hendershot did not attend the encampment, the "National Tribune" stated, “as it was clearly shown at the Detroit encampment that he was not entitled to this honor.”
But Hendershot was not going to let his title go without a fight. During 1892 he traveled from coast-to-coast, from G.A.R. posts to regimental reunions, winning back the support of other old veterans. By the time of the national encampment of 1893, in Indianapolis, he had won his fight. There the GAR reinstated his title and presented him with a diamond-studded, solid-gold medal inscribed “Robert H. Hendershot, Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock, from G.A.R. and W.R.C. comrades, Indianapolis, 1893.” Soon after Hendershot strengthened his claim with another biography, "Camp Fire Entertainment: the True Story of R. H. Hendershot, Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock". Although Spillaine also continued to claim the title, and used it as a springboard to commandership of the Michigan Department of the G.A.R., in 1912, Hendershot apparently felt no further need to defend his title. He continued his career as a professional veteran drummer boy until at least 1913, when he performed during the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Hendershot had one fight left, however.
Hendershot had first filed for an invalid veteran's pension in 1890. The claim was based only on his service in the Ninth Michigan Infantry. The Pension Bureau three times scheduled a medical examination for Hendershot, and three times he failed to appear. After that the Bureau moved his application to the inactive file. Hendershot let the matter rest for two more decades, while he and his son toured the country, entertaining at G.A.R. gatherings and other patriotic functions.
Then, in 1912, he applied for a veteran's old age pension, based on his service in both the Eighth and Ninth Michigan Infantries. The Bureau could find no record of his service with the Eighth (probably due to his use of an alias), and requested additional information. Hendershot responded with too much detail: he now added an account of his naval service aboard the U.S.S. "Fort Jackson". After checking with the Navy Department, which still listed Hendershot as a deserter-at-large, the Bureau summarily rejected his application. For the next ten years Hendershot gathered affidavits, hired lawyers, and exchanged reams of letters with the Bureau. All his pleas fell on deaf ears. Even his portfolio failed to impress the bureaucrats. During this time age wore him down. In 1921, he modified his application, stating that he was an invalid, bedridden, suffering from Parkinson's disease, and in need of constant attention. Again, his naval service stood in the way. Finally, Hendershot appealed to Congress, which by a special act, on 23 December 1924, granted him an old age pension of $50 per month.
Still, Hendershot was not satisfied. After all, he was now an invalid, entitled to an invalid's pension of $72 per month. Another fight with the Pension Bureau ensued, but Robert was destined to lose this one. It was cut short by his death from pneumonia, on the day after Christmas, 1925
Manuscripts & Newspapers
*Washington, D.C. National Archives. War Department.Record Group 15. Pension Records, Robert Henry Hendershot.Record Group 93. Service Records, Robert Henry Hendershot.Abstract of Naval records, R. H. Hendershot.
*Detroit, Michigan "Advertiser & Tribune", 1861-1865, 1891-1893
*Detroit, Michigan "Free Press", 1861-1865, 1891-1893.
*Detroit "Journal", 1891-1893
*Detroit "Tribune", 1891-1892
*Ingham (Michigan) "County News", 1862-1863
*"National Tribune" (GAR Newspaper), 1881-1912
*Bennett, Charles "Historical Sketches of the Ninth Michigan Infantry " Coldwater, MI: Daily Courier. (1913)Gerry, H. E. "Campfire Entertainment: the True Story of R. H. Hendershot, Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock" Chicago: Hack & Anderson, 1903
*Dodge, William Sumner "Robert Henry Hendershot, or the Brave Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock" Chicago: Church & Goodman, 1867
*Matthews, Monie "Robert Hendershot: Youngest Civil War Soldier" Baltimore: Publish America, 2008.
*Ray, Delia. "Behind the Blue and Gray, the Soldier's Life in the Civil War" Outton: Lodestar Books, 1991.
*Glesner, Anthony Patrick "Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock: Hero or Fraud?" "America's Civil War" 16 ( January 2004).
* [http://www.fredericksburg.com/CivilWar/Battle/0331cw.htm/ Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. com]
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