The Drummer Boy from Quebec (with Marie Gagné Boucher)
Another in a series from Tom Rozman
The 13 year old was about to turn 14. He loved his small farm community in Beauce, Quebec but as all boys do he dreamed of adventures far from the small farming community. To the south in the United States in the boy’s mind a great adventure beckoned. The American Civil War was into its third year. Somehow even in Quebec news and stories had reached into the small farming communities. The boy had heard that lads his age could enlist as drummer boys in the Union Army. Already some young men from old Quebec had traveled south to enlist in volunteer units for adventure and the promised enlistment bounties.
The U. S. State of Maine was not far from Beauce, even by walking and Maine had many volunteer units in the Union Army that needed recruits. Late one night as his family slept, the boy gathered some belongings and quietly slipped out of the family home to begin his adventure. He did not have parental permission for what he was about to do. But he would send word back to his family when he could—after he entered the Union Army and had his suit of Union Blue.
The boy somehow covered the distance to Maine and a recruiter for a volunteer Maine infantry regiment. He enlisted as a drummer boy. He and other volunteers traveled in a small group to a rendezvous and eventually assembled at a location where some initial training occurred and uniforms and equipment were issued. In stages they moved to the location of the regiment. Their destination was Virginia and their regiment a unit in the Army of the Potomac.
The boy was able to send a note to his family in Beauce from Virginia. The family, greatly worried by his departure had a sense of what he had done. On learning where he had gone, his stepfather and and his older brother determined on a plan to locate him and send him back to Beauce.
The boy’s deceased father had been a magistrate in the community before passing away a few years earlier, a man in his early 40s. The family held some prominence in the community so his absence was noted. His stepfather was a cousin several times removed but deeply invested in his family. He was a strapping man in his late 30s.
On learning that the boy was in a Maine infantry unit in Virginia, the stepfather and older brother formed a plan to support their travel to Virginia. An infantry unit in combat was no place for a 14-15 year old boy. They would travel from their town in Beauce to Farmington, Maine. From information they had, a light artillery battery was recruiting there. The stepfather had smithing skills and was a good horse handler and his 19 year old stepson had comparable skills. Light artillery batteries could use men with these skills. They had also determined that the battery was located in Virginia as a unit of the Army of the Potomac.
The reasoning of the two men from Beauce was that they could use the enlistment in the battery and transport to Virginia as means to successfully reach the vicinity of the boy’s unit, travel to it and appeal to the commander to release the boy from service because he did not have parental permission—that he had presented such approval falsely—then send the boy back to Beauce.
It was early 1864, they also reasoned that the war, from reporting that had reached their community in Beauce, seemed to be moving toward a climax and might end in a relatively short time. As well they could use the late war bonuses for volunteers. If God was with them the plan would work. As well the war seemed to have a moral justification in that if the Federal Government of the United States prevailed, the institution of slavery would finally be removed from North America. There was a justification to serve as a soldier in such a struggle.
The stepfather and stepson made arrangements with friends and family, said their good byes, then set out on their mission to recover the boy. What would be interesting in the character of these men of ancient Quebecois heritage was what they would do on recovering the boy and honoring their obligation as soldiers. Both, among other ancestors who early in the 17th Century began to settle Quebec, descended from soldiers of the Carignan Salieres Regiment. The family understood honor.
The men journeyed to Farmington from Beauce arriving safely. They located the recruiting officer for the Maine artillery unit. The unit had been in existence since the beginning of the war, now almost three years as an active unit of the Federal Army.
The men were examined by a physician and were deemed medically fit. The recruiting officer than enlisted the men who enlisted for the remaining duration of the war. He then initiated and completed the necessary administration. The men, with other recruits, moved to an assembly location and were provided initial issues of uniforms and equipment. Some initial training was provided. The men in stages moved south to Virginia. Ultimately they joined the battery where they were assigned to a gun and section. The unit was in camp and training was non stop.
The battery had been engaged in many operations and fights and was a veteran and seasoned unit. As a light battery it was horse mounted and drawn. It operated in close proximity to infantry formations that its fires supported tactically. The battery was a four gun battery. It was equipped with 3” ordnance rifles. It usually occupied firing positions that took advantage of the greater range capability of the 3” rifled gun over the 12 pound Napoleon Howitzer. Batteries of both types made up a significant portion of a Civil War army’s artillery.
Both men understood the need to establish themselves with the battery and dedicated themselves to the training. The stepfather wanted to ensure that they established themselves with good reputation as soldiers. But he also sensed that the tempo of operations was accelerating and time was short to find his stepson and send him home. He had since gotten more information regarding his stepson’s unit and through information available to the soldiers of the battery he had determined that the regiment was assigned to a brigade in a division of a corps not too distant.
The stepfather and his stepson had rapidly established themselves as good soldiers in the battery and he now felt the time was right to go to his section sergeant and first sergeant. Both understood his concern. The battery first sergeant presented the case to the battery commander who agreed to assist the soldier in his family mission. Authority was granted to the two soldiers to travel to the stepson’s regiment.
Leaving early the next morning, it took a good part of a day for the two men to move through the army’s cantonment areas to the location of the regiment. The stepfather presented himself to the regimental commander with verifying documentation provided by his captain. The regimental commander, a father himself, understood and had the drummer boy summoned. When the boy reported and recognized his stepfather and his brother, both now soldiers, he was almost overwhelmed by feelings he had not known before. These two men loved him so much that they had taken on the duty of a soldier to find him.
The commander began an enquiry of the boy. But first he praised him for his élan and spirit of adventure in seeking out the life of a soldier. The boy had already established himself as a drummer of ability with good spirit and attitude. Than the commander asked an important question of the boy…had he the permission of his mother and father when he enlisted? The boy with his stepfather and brother present, soldiers in the same army, knew he must answer truthfully. He said he did not. The commander than stated that he honored the courage and desire of the boy to serve but under the circumstances he would discharge him from the service to return to his home in Beauce.
The two artillery soldiers thanked the colonel and gathered the boy’s possessions then traveling back to the battery. Shortly afterward they obtained transportation for the boy to return home. Two weeks later he was in Beauce with his mother and younger siblings.
The stepfather had strongly made the case to him that his mother and the rest of the family, now that stepfather and older brother were in the U. S. Army in Virginia, would need his leadership. He would be the oldest at home and his mother would need him to help with the household. He honored his stepfather’s request. The family weathered the next year well.
The boy had returned home at the right time. The Army of the Potomac was soon in motion again, it would grab hold of the Army of Northern Virginia and it wouldn’t let go until the exhausted Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox. The two artillerymen from Beauce would honor their oath and serve the United States loyally and well in the light artillery battery they had enlisted into until the end of the war and demobilization. Among other major battles, they would be with the battery at the siege of Petersburg. The older man would years later appeal to the U. S. Government for disability pension due to the effects of long periods in the wet winter trenches in front of Petersburg, Virginia.
The battery was active till the end. The activity made the months pass rapidly and then the events that led to the Army of Northern Virginia’s evacuation of Richmond, the burning of Richmond, the Battle of Sailor’s Creek followed by the Army of the Potomac’s sanguinary pursuit of the remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia to Appomattox and its surrender. Soon afterward the Army of the Potomac was reviewed in Washington and demobilized.
The battery made the journey back to Maine. The state recognized its service publically and the soldiers were released from duty. The two men from Beauce, Quebecois speakers, returned home. They would live for three more decades.
These private soldiers made a leadership statement about family and honor that resonated through the generations in their family. They put their lives and everything they held dear at risk for a brave but rash and too young family member who had gone into harms way. They too entered harms way to return him to his family.
They then honored their commitment to duty and served until the end of their service obligation. By their example, they set a high standard of honor for following family who would later serve in the armed forces. Five of the stepfather’s natural grandchildren would follow his example in World War I and World War II. One grandson would be killed in action while serving as a junior non-commissioned officer in an infantry regiment in a key battle in France that blunted the final drive of the Imperial German Army on Paris in 1918—Belleau Wood.
Note, this is a story that has occurred in forms in many families with roots in Canada and now in the U. S. It is one truly shared story between the two countries. The two U.S. artillerymen from Beauce are not buried in the U. S. But many family that followed are. Some 32 known descendants and relations would serve in the U. S. Armed Forces in later years while many others served in the Canadian Forces. Clearly, there was a sense of duty in these people. The unit the two soldiers served in was 4th Maine Light Battery (Battery D, 1st Maine Light Artillery).