Military Drummers in the Family

While studying the Civil War, I learned that army drummers had more to do with communication than with music. Military drummers have played an important role in warfare throughout history. Soldiers marched to the sound of the drums, including into battle where beat could also regulate loading and re-loading of their weapons. Drum cadences could raise morale during the fight.

While working on genealogy, I learned about two of army drummers among my relatives–one during the American Revolution, the other during World War I.

Revolutionary War

Revolutionary War drummers and fifers were used in battle to signal the soldiers to fire. During fog or smoke, when visual command was impossible, musical instruments were the only way to communicate to the troops. During the Revolutionary War, drummer boys played a valuable role, supporting the troops by helping with camp chores, besides their job of signaling during combat and boosting troop morale with uplifting cadences.

An ancestor, Jacob Jordan (1764-1849) served as a drummer boy with Pennsylvania troops, enlisting on his 16th birthday. He also helped guard Burgoyne’s men after Burgoyne surrendered. About 4000 of his troops were quartered at Charlottesville, Virginia, guarded by old men and boys of the region.

Jacob Jordan was the grandfather of David Jordan, who was Leora Goff Wilson’s Grandpap Jordan.

Civil War

Drummers were important during the Civil War. One drummer boy was John Lincoln Clem who served in the Civil War. This is a 10-minute story about him.

World War I

Jennings Goff

Leora Wilson’s brother, Jennings Goff from Guthrie County, Iowa, was drafted and served with the 88th Division, American Expeditionary Forces, in France. (Co. K, 349th Inf.) Still in France after the Armistice, Jennings wrote home from Reffroy, France, “I haven’t beat the drum since I left Camp Dodge. I haven’t seen it for two months. They don’t use them on this side. . . I have Been attached to Battalion headquarters nearly every since I have been in France, as a signal man.”

WWI Era US military issue wood field snare rope drum

Jennings Goff’s younger son Ron Goff wrote me in 2018 that his father told him and older half brother (Merrill Goff) that he’d been a drummer during the war, but he offered no further details. By then, the army had evidently developed better means of communicating than by drum cadences.

It’s a fascinating rabbit hole of history, isn’t it!

How about an extra rabbit hole: U.S. Army’s Fife and Drum Corps Drumline performing The Adventures of Joe 90.


History of Noble County, Ohio, pub. by L. H. Watkins & Co., Chicago, 1887

Letter to M.S. and Laura Goff from Jennings B. Goff, December 14, 1918


  1. Amazing family history, Joy. I wonder what the odds are of having multiple drummers in your family tree. The info from Jennings about his role changing in France…no drums but he became a ‘signal man’. Interesting! 😉

  2. I’m starting to feel like a copy-cat or maybe?something better. I was motivated to be an aviator due to 4 uncles in WWII. Uncle Warren and our three Wilson Uncles. I did play drums in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, switching to sports in high school. Cadences, yes, and a lot more at Earlham Community School under Mr. Oates. Wow, a drummer boy ancestor 5? generations back!$

    • I didn’t know you played drums! Hey, you could join the SAR through Jacob Jordan! I decided not to pursue it, but a distant relative from “back east” sure wanted to join the DAR. I wonder whether she ever did.

  3. My 3X great grandfather was a drummer in the Danish Army in the first half of the 1800s. He was stationed at Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen, where the Danish Crown Jewels are kept. I could never figure out why they needed a company musician there until we visited in 2013. As I stood looking at the castle, I heard the rat-a-tat-tat of a drum and along marched the Changing of the Guard! The barracks next to the castle are the same ones in which he and the family lived, as they were built in the 1600s. It was an excellent day for family history.

  4. Cousin Joy, A photo of us side-by-side in the percussion section of concert band exists. You are about a foot taller than me. The same as a photo of your cousin, Judy and me leading our 8th grade toward the stage in the gym.

  5. I enjoyed the story of John Lincoln Clem and your brief bios of your family’s drummer boys. Drums that were used to signal is new information to me. It makes total sense!

  6. Interesting piece of military history I was unaware of! I did read somewhere that in Scotland, bagpipe music was used to intimidate the enemy on the battlefield.

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