Yankee Drummer Repeats Civil War Veteran’s 1913 Trek from Pittsburgh to Gettysburg

 My story below comes at a poignant time, on the cusp of Memorial Day, a holiday originally established to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the American Civil War (1861-1865). I had the extreme pleasure of talking to a musician and military veteran from Greensburg, Pennsylvania who will soon embark on a historic trek to Gettysburg. Accompanied by a friend and fellow veteran on his trek, Jim Smith hopes to not only acknowledge the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) but also honor the memory of a Civil War drummer and highlight the significant role that musicians played in military history.

The Original 1913 Trek

 At 9:00 a.m. on May 26, 1913, 70-year old Peter Guibert, a Civil War drummer boy who saw war on the battlefields of Gettysburg with the Union Army, left what was then known as Allegheny City Hall, located on Pittsburgh’s Northside. He was accompanied by  62-year old John Conroy, a friend and veteran of the Comanche Indian Wars in Texas, and several instruments including a brass-shelled snare drum.

19 days and almost 200 miles later, the two men arrived in Gettysburg on June 13, joining other Union and Confederate soldiers to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Although they hitched a ride on a Bell Telephone wagon to finish off the last few miles to their destination, Smith and Conroy primarily walked the entire distance, stopping in towns along the way to entertain and educate crowds with their music.

The Yankee Drummer: Jim Smith, of Greensburg, PA

The Yankee Drummer: Jim Smith, of Greensburg, PA (courtesy of Leonard DeCarlo)

A hundred years later, Guibert and Conroy’s modern counterparts – Jim Smith of Greensburg and Ray Zimmerman of Acme – plan to repeat that 1913 journey with the purpose of honoring the role that military musicians played in war and educating the public of their importance. Peter Guibert’s snare drum will accompany them.

Smith and Zimmerman plans to step off from the former site of the city hall, now West Park, at 9:00 a.m. on May 26, 2013 and cover the 200 miles that their early 20th century counterparts did a century ago, also arriving in Gettysburg on June 13 to take part in the Battle of Gettysburg Sesquicentennial events.

Ray Zimmerman, of Acme, will portray veteran John Conroy (courtesy of Leonard DeCarlo)

Before embarking on the journey, they will perform at a ceremony at Peter Guibert’s grave in Highwood Cemetery in Pittsburgh on May 24. During the 18-day trek, Smith and Zimmerman will also stop in various Pennsylvania towns and participate in educational events and “campfire entertainment,” featuring Guibert’s drum. Places they are scheduled to appear include: Pittsburgh’s Soldiers and Sailor’s Memorial Hall and Museum on May 27 for Memorial Day; Greensburg and Latrobe on May 29; in Ligonier on May 30; the 1806 Old Log Church in Schellsburg and the Bedford Historical Society on June 2; Chambersburg on June 8; and the James Gettys Hotel in Gettysburg on June 13. Although subject to change as more dates are added, the current schedule can be found by clicking here.

Joining them at several stops along the way will be Professor Guibert’s Blue and Gray 1913 Reunion Band, established by Smith, after learning that Peter Guibert had performed with a band comprised of Union and Confederate soldiers at the Gettysburg 50th Anniversary reunion, thanks to a picture found at the National Archives.

Between Greensburg and Gettysburg, Smith and Zimmerman plan to follow the original 1913 route of the Lincoln Highway as it was most likely the route that Guibert and Conroy followed a hundred years ago, based on newspaper account that placed the pair in towns that were located along the road.

Officially established in 1913 from already existing roads, the Lincoln Highway is also celebrating its centennial this year. The route is considered America’s first transcontinental highway and served as the main thoroughfare through major cities and towns across the country.

The Yankee Drummer: Jim Smith

 Known professionally as the “Yankee Drummer,” Smith has been passionate about drumming ever since was he was young boy growing up in Palmyra, New York. It’s an avocation that has stayed with him almost seven decades. His maternal grandfather, C.F. Palmer, was a draftsman and “quite a musician” who played both drums and piano and established a Boy Scouts drums and bugle corps in the 1920s. After World War II, the corps was reorganized into American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars drum corps.

“I can remember walking along my grandfather’s side with the drum corps,” said Smith, via phone interview.

Although he didn’t immediately take to the instrument, he began taking drum lessons in elementary school, after his grandfather passed away, and joined a drum and bugle corps.

“My two loves have always been the drums and the fifes, the military kind of music,” said Smith.

Smith’s passion for military drumming specifically was sparked by a record he purchased, Civil War – Its Music and Its Sounds by famed conductor Frederick Fennell at the Eastman School of Music, which was based on Fennell’s experienced growing up in New York with Civil War encampments.

“I was blown away by the record,” Smith said, later getting in touch with Fennell, who subsequently connected him with Bill Street, the head of the percussion department at Eastman, who worked with him on drumming fundamentals.

At age 17, Smith started his own drum and fife corps with best friend Craig and Craig’s father, who was a fifer. He named the C,A. Palmer Fife and Drum Corps after his late grandfather.  The band recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

“There are hundreds of kids who have since gone through and been members of the C.A. Palmer Fife and Drums Corps” and started corps of their own, according to Smith.

Smith attended Purdue University and studied engineering, which would be his chosen industry throughout his life. Yet he chose the school because of the opportunity to play in the band and continue his avocation in music, and was selected for the New York All State Band and Rochester Junior Philharmonic Orchestra. By the time he finished college, Smith was teaching a full schedule of drum students and leading several drums lines at local high schools in New York.

In 1965 Smith was drafted and joined the United States Navy Reserve, later attending the Officer Candidate School. He became the drum section leader in the boot camp drum corps and a band master.

Since college, Smith has been instrumental in establishing multiple drum and fife corps throughout the United States and internationally, several of which remain active today or have inspired spin-off groups. In 1968 he founded the Tippecanoe Ancient Drum and Fife Corps, the only French-style drum corps in the United States.

After serving as an engineering officer in the South China Sea and Vietnam, where he saw 18 months of combat and operations, Smith was home ported in Japan, where he married and raised a daughter until returning to the United States in the early 1980s. During his stint in Japan with the navy reserves, he organized the Ancient Mariners of Japan, who performed during the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. The 13-member group developed a strong repertoire of drum and fife music and was renowned all over Japan.

Smith settled in western Pennsylvania and now lives in Greensburg. His intermittent engineering work allows him to travel and continue to perform with various music groups throughout the country, as well as teach his drumming skills.

“Drumming has been a part of my life for a long, long time,” said Smith.

Reprising the Journey

A serendipitous chain of events set this project into motion 30 years ago, according to Smith. Guibert’s drum, inherited by his niece Betty Mower, sat dirty and damaged in her attic for years 1982, when she saw a newspaper article touting Smith’s drum and fife corps background and experience in drum restoration and contacted him about restoring the drum.

Smith ended up purchasing Guibert’s drum, later deciding to restore the “old rusty relic” to its former glory. Likely made in France or Germany, the brass-shelled snare drum measures just under 16 inches in diameter and is decorated with red-stained counter hoops. During his restoration of the drum, he found a silver-tipped drum stick inside the head, which matched drumsticks pictured in a 1910 carte de visite taken of Guibert performing with another drum, authenticating the original ownership of the Civil War instrument.

Prompted to investigate Guibert’s life after performing with the drum at the request of the former director of Pittsburgh’s Soldiers and Sailors when the museum was threatened with closure, he discovered that the drummer boy had embarked on this epic march to Gettysburg.

Over the years, Smith has connected with relatives and descendants of Guibert and conducted research at local historical organizations between Pittsburgh and Gettysburg to piece together the drummer’s background. He credits researchers like Joyce Hernacane of Schellsburg for helping dig up valuable information about the Civil War musician

Two years ago, a discussion about Guibert’s drums and trek during an open house in a Gettysburg antique about Guibert’s drums, his journey, and the upcoming Gettysburg sesquicentennial prompted the idea for a reprise. Soon, friends, family, peers, Civil War buffs and Guibert’s descendants were encouraging him to undertake the journey.

The tour is being coordinated by Leonard DeCarlo, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam and longtime friend of Smith’s. Ray Zimmerman, a fellow member of the Armbrust Veterans Association, was recruited to fill the role of John Conroy and play the bass drum along the way.

 The Master of Military Militia Music: Peter Guibert

Over the years after purchasing Peter Guibert’s drum, Smith started researching the drum and the life of the German Pittsburgher who formerly owned it, thanks to descendants he tracked down and information he found in local archives and historical organizations.

Born on January 4, 1844 in Germany, Guibert enlisted with the Union Army in Pittsburgh and began his military career as a drummer boy in Company F of the 74th Pennsylvania Infantry, a German-speaking regiment mainly comprised of recent German immigrants like Guibert’s family. Later, he served with the 77th Pennsylvania Volunteers and may have also been part of Company D of the 79th Pennsylvania Infantry. He participated in several engagements during the Civil War, including the Battle of Gettysburg.

For many years Guibert’s descendants had a difficult time tracing the drummer as his name was misspelled  on 74th Pennsylvania Infantry monument in Gettysburg (a mistake later corrected with help from Smith).

A Pittsburgh Press article from May 23, 1932, published a year and a half before his death, described Guibert’s stint as a drummer boy and related a “stirring tale” in which the drummer was involved during the Civil War.

Thanks to childhood experiences in Pittsburgh, he was one of only three Yankee soldiers encamped on an island in South Carolina who knew how to row a boat and subsequently selected to transport men and ammunition under cover of darkness to a Confederate encampment across the way.

The newspaper quoted the 88-year old Guibert’s recollection of his experience: “Our officers were anxious to send a few men and ammunition to the other side, under cover of darkness, believing if they could get a stronghold there, they would be able to route the ‘Rebs’ and thereby chalk up one more step toward ultimate victory.”

After arriving in Gettysburg on June 13, 1913, Guibert and Conroy performed a free concert with The Blue and Gray Reunion Band of 1913. Guibert, billed as “Wizard of the Drums” and “Master of Military Martial Music” performed as the featured artist at the Walter’s Theater for three weeks. He was also featured as the opening act for The Battle of Gettysburg, an epic silent film.

“He was busy. He was very busy there during the three weeks between his arrival on the 13th and the actual commemoration of the battle and the reunion itself,” said Smith, surmising that these performance earned Guibert enough money for his stay in Gettysburg.

Guibert continued in music as a one man band and well-known entertainer, and knew how to play the fife, harmonica and slide whistle, in addition to his trademark drums. He passed away at age 89 on December 7, 1933.

The striking parallels between the two drummer boys, born almost an exact century apart, led Smith to believe that a guide hand has been involved in his endeavor. Not only did the pair share a mutual love of drumming and participated in multiple bands throughout their careers, but they were born almost 100 years apart, Guibert on January 4, 1844 and Smith on February 2, 1944. Both men served their country in the armed forces, Guibert in the army, and Smith in the navy reserves. Both men planned a 200-mile trip at age 70.

Throughout their military careers and their civilian work (Peter as a barber and Smith as an engineer), both men remained passionately involved in music and continued to play the drums. The Pittsburgh Press article notes that “Although [Guibert] was a barber for many years, his drums were never still for long.” Smith’s research corroborated this assessment by revealing that Guibert was a member of multiple Pittsburgh-area bands.

Unfortunately, John Conroy’s life is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. Smith hopes that the trek will spur relatives and descendants of Conroy to turn up information about the veteran, who served in Texas during the Comanche Indian Wars, from 1870-1872. Although Smith is unsure if Conroy was originally a musician like Guibert, he assumed that if Conroy wasn’t a musician, he would have been by the time the pair arrived in the Gettysburg.

 Drummer Boys

 According to Smith, the purpose for this trip is to educate the public about the important role that military musicians, particularly drummers, played on the battlefield before and during the Civil War.

“There’s a very strong tradition for military drumming that has been lost,” explained Smith.

Although soldiers had to be 18 to join the Union army, many of them were actually teenagers and these young boys served as drummers. It’s possible that Guibert may have fudged his own age, as he would have been 17 years old in October 1861 when mustered into service, but a Civil War Veterans Card found at the Pennsylvania State Archives lists his age at enrollment as 21.

However, this information is questionable; although the card refers to Company F and the 74th Infantry, it enlists Guibert’s enrollment at Hunters Chapel, Virginia instead of Pittsburgh. If any readers can shed some light on this, it would be much appreciated.

Each company, comprised of about 60-100 men,  typically had a pair of drummers or one drummer paired with a fifer or bugler that played very specific signals in order to direct the soldiers on the field at a moment’s notice. It would have been impossible to hear the commander’s spoken (shouted) orders on the field, over the noise of marching soldiers, horses and gunfire, so the drumbeats were a critical means of communication.

“You had to have at least one strong drummer to serve as the voice of the commander and to help coordinate the movements of the troops,” explained Smith, who knows about a half dozen of the approximately thirty commands a drummer needed to know.

“There were very specific signals that the drummers had to known and be able to execute and the troops had to be well practiced to they would respond in the heat of battles and in the chaos and confusion,” he added.

Off the battlefield, a drummer was also responsible for camp duty – a series of signals that marked the soldiers’ daily events and tasks, from sunrise to sunset. Camp duty began with a wake-up call (reveille), and progressed through the day to included morning assembly, breakfast, sick call, guard duty, various drills and a clean-up alert, among other signs, finishing the day with an evening parade (tattoo) and a lights out call (taps).

Another of the musicians’ jobs was to provide ceremonial music for marches, parades and other events, sometimes combining to form regimental or brigade bands.  Smith says this is the only aspect of the military drummer culture that has survived today.

“Drummers and fifers would adapt the folk tunes of the day and turn them into marching airs,” said Smith, and that’s how well-known marches like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” originated.

Since they usually had a strong right arm, developed by leading the troops on the battlefield, drummers could also be called upon to administer punishment with a multi-tailed whip called a cat o’ nine tails that they carried around with them, Smith said.

However, by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the role of the drummer began to decline, with the advancement of rapid-fire weapons that afforded smaller contingents of troops better range and accuracy from anywhere on the battlefield.

“The fact of the matter is that technology of weaponry that had changed so dramatically in the 1850s that the use of a drummer and the use of standard Napoleonic tactics were just made obsolete,” explained Smith.

Missing Memorial

 The ultimate goal of this project is to raise awareness and funds to build a memorial to all of the military musicians that served on the battlefield. The Peter Guibert Trek is currently funded by the Northside Leadership Conference but Smith is working to establish a non-profit organization for the proposed memorial.

 “Nowhere in the country is there a memorial to the world of the drummers, the fifers and the buglers, who served with the infantry on the field of battle,” lamented Smith.

One way the Yankee Drummer hopes to raise funds for the memorial is by selling pairs drumsticks patterned after sticks used during the Civil War and made from the wood of trees that were actually on the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863. Collaboration between Civil War period drumstick maker George Carroll in Alexandria, VA, a wood turner in Lancaster, PA and an engraver in Danville, PA made this fundraiser possible.

Smith will play all 250 pairs of drumsticks during his trek and keep of log of where they are played. The drumsticks will be made out of either White Oak or Pin Oak that stood on the “Bloody Wheatfield,” at the Coaster Avenue brickyard or at James Longstreet’s headquarters.

Each pair of drumsticks will be signed and certified, noting the location where they were played, as well as the source and grade of the wood. The sticks will be made in three different grades of wood with three different price points and will be available for purchase after the trek ends. Proceeds will go to the military musician memorial fund and a portion of the cost will be tax-deductible

Union and Confederate veterans could ride the Pennsylvania Railroad to Gettysburg for free for the Gettysburg 50th Anniversary Reunion, so why would Peter Guibert and John Conroy decide to walk the almost 200 miles instead? That’s the underlying question a hundred years later. Smith admits that, although he’s pondered that question for months, he has yet to shed some insight on Guibert’s motives and thinking. Neither a diary nor a journal from either Guibert or Conroy has yet emerged.

“The only think we can conclude is that Peter for most of his life walked everywhere,” said Smith.

 Follow Jim Smith and Ray Zimmerman as they set out to trace Civil War drummer Peter Guibert’s 1913 trek from Pittsburgh to Gettysburg through their website and Facebook page

Sources Consulted:

Ayers, Ruth. “Drummer Lad Faces Death in Foe’s Camp.” The Pittsburgh Press. 23 May 1932.

Burger, T.W. “Gettysburg’s 150th: Man to retrace Civil War drummer boy’s steps.” PublicOpinionOnline.com.

DeCarlo, Leonard. “Backgrounder.” May 13, 2013. Peter Guibert Trek. Print.

DeCarlo, Leonard. “Yankee Drummer to duplicate 1913 Pittsburgh-Gettysburg trek.” May 13, 2013. Peter Guibert Trek. Print.

“Drummers of the Civil War.” http://www.civilwar.com/overview/soldier-life/148548-drummers-of-the-civil-war.html

Guibert, Peter. “Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1866.” digital images. Pennsylvania State Archives. http://www.digitalarchives.state.pa.us.

Guibert, Peter. “Pennsylvania Veterans Burial Cards, 1777-1999.” digital images. Ancestry.com. http://www.ancestry.com

Reeder, Carolyn. “Drummer boys played important roles in the Civil War, and some became soldiers.” The Washington Post. 21 Feb 2012. Web. 16 May 2013.

Smith, Jim. Phone interview with author. 16 May 2013.

Smith, Jim. Phone interview with author. 20 May 2013.

“Veterans Start on March to Gettysburg Battlefield.” The Pittsburgh Press. 26 May 1913.

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