While doing a little research the other day, I found the following story, and as it was very interesting I decided to share it on the blog. It’s from the Macon Telegraph (Macon, GA), April 23, 1863:
HOW OLD SMITH ESCAPED
‘Old Smith,’ an old German drummer in the 16th Mississippi Regiment, was notorious for
straggling on the march whether advancing or retreating, he was always in the rear. In General Jackson’s great retreat from the valley of the Shenandoah, after whipping Banks old Smith got some miles behind, and while sitting on the roadside, solitary and alone, resting and eating his beef and biscuit he observed a full regiment of Yankee cavalry approaching. He jumped out into the woods and as the Yankees came near he thundered away on his drum beating the long roll with a terrible vim. (The long roll is the signal of an enemy at hand, and to form the line of battle.) His trick was successful; for the Yankees supposing, of course that there was an infantry regiment lying in the thicket, faced about and skedaddled in the regular Bull Run style. Old Smith, replacing his drum on his shoulder, came out into the road again with his beef and biscuit in one hand and drum sticks in the other, resumed his march with his usual equanimity.
It’s a great story – I can just see in my mind’s eye old Smith the drummer, beating furiously on his drum and laughing as he watched the Yankees advance to the rear – but the question comes to mind, is it just a story that was hatched by some reporter looking to entertain his readers, or was this an actual event? I decided to see if I could find out.
The first thing I needed to do was determine if there was a drummer named Smith who served in the 16th Mississippi Infantry. My task was made infinitely more difficult because all I had was a last name, and to make things worse the name was Smith, only the most common name in the Confederacy. I started my task by going to the National Park Service’s Soldiers and Sailors system, and pulled up the roster for the 16th Mississippi, and found that there were 34 men named Smith that served in the regiment. One by one, I clicked on the names to find out if any of them was listed as a musician. Finally on Smith #33, I got a hit – William H. Smith was listed as being in the regimental band.
Armed with a complete name, I went to the Fold3 website, and pulled up the service record of William H. Smith. The newspaper article gave me two pieces of information that I wanted to check against the service record – first it said he was old, and second it said he was German. After looking through a few of the cards in his file, I found a descriptive list that stated William H. Smith was 38 years old, which did make him an old man in that day and age. I also found that his place of birth was listed as Germany, so I was two for two. The card went on to say that Smith was captured in September 1862 by the 8th Illinois Cavalry at “Monocacy,” which was referring to the Monocacy River in Maryland – at that time the 16th was in the area as they took part in General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North, which culminated in the Battle of Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862.
So what does all of this information mean? Well, I did not find a smoking gun that proved beyond the shadow of a doubt the story is real – and I would have been very surprised if I had. But what I did find was that every solid fact about the story that I could check did turn out to be true. There was a man named Smith in the 16th Mississippi; he was 38 years old, which could be considered old at that time; his unit did serve under Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, and our man was with the unit at that time; and he was listed as being a member of the regimental band. So the best that I can say is that the story is very likely true, and something like what was reported in the Macon Telegraph did happen. But true or not, it sure is a good story.