African Drums in the United States

January 10, 2021

A Brief History

Part 3: Drumming in the Military

One type of drumming that provided an opportunity for the continuation and development of African drum techniques, but which is generally overlooked, is military drumming. African descended drummers played for military bands in the US from the 17th century to the present and created a style of drumming that was distinct. 

Black drummers were a visible part of the colonial American landscape and seem to have filled a variety of roles. For example, on October 5, 1765 two young Black drummers marched through the streets of Philadelphia beating “crepe-festooned” drums to call the citizens to a town meeting. Whether these young men were employed by the town or hired for this specific duty is not clear. Either way they were probably known as drummers in Philadelphia. (Southern, 29)

African Americans have been playing martial music in North America since the early colonial era. After the mid-seventeenth century when white fears limited military service to white men, black men were allowed to enroll “only as drummers, fifers, trumpeters, or pioneers.” (Southern, 43) In addition to playing drums, African Americans had skills and knowledge about making drums. A document from the era of the American Revolution provides a sense of that. In 1777 Prince Hall, the future founder of the African Masonic Lodge, provided Colonel Crafts with five drumheads. (Kaplan, 183)

Prince Hall bill for drumheads

During the era of the American War for Independence the rhythms that soldiers marched to and the cadences they responded to on the battlefield were often played by African descended drummers. That there were so many skilled Black drummers using their talents in the military suggests that there was a drum tradition in existence in the decades after the famed law that banned drumming. It is interesting that a good number of the drummers who found their way into the military were from South Carolina.

In the forty years before the American Revolution there was one African drummer from South Carolina listed as a “runaway.” Between 1775 and 1780 there were 20 Black drummers in South Carolina who emancipated themselves. All of them were from Charleston, the area where the drum ban was enacted. While the recognition of their being drummers in the advertisements for their return indicates a continuation of drumming, it also indicates that their musical talents were known to those who wrote the advertisements; the same people who were charged with enforcing the law against drumming. 

It is significant that all but one of the drummers, the “Negro Bob” who drummed for the South Carolina revolutionaries, joined Hessian regiments. The Hessians were soldiers from Germany who the British hired to fight with them against the Americans. Serving with them came with a promise of freedom for enslaved persons. This was clearly an incentive. 

At least eighty-two people from the colonies joined the Hessian forces during the Revolution. Of these eighty-two, fifty-two were drummers, and thirty-five of the latter were black. Twenty-seven of the recruits, or about one-third of the total, were from the Charleston plantation area. Twenty-four of the Charleston recruits were black, of whom nineteen were employed as drummers, two as fifers and three as laborers. Only one of the Hessians could be identified as African-born. (Rath, 119)

More than half of the drummers who joined the Hessian regiments were black (35 of 52) and the majority of Blacks who came from the Charleston area were drummers (19 of 24). The fact that two of the Black men served as fifers brings to mind the drum and fife ensembles that would become popular in southern Black communities. 

There may have been incentives in addition to freedom that drew Black drummers to the Hessian regiments. No particular facility on the drums was required to become a military drummer for the revolutionary forces. The main task was to send loud, simple coded instructions by means of rudimentary drum patterns. The same is true of the traditional drum and fife units in the British military. But the German military bands were considered to be the best in the world from 1750 to the turn of the century. German military units had been caught by the craze for “Janissary” music which had been slowly sweeping westward through Europe from 1720 onwards.

In theory, the Janissary style was derived from Turkish military music. For instruments it used several large drums, tambourines, triangles and high-pitched flutes and reeds. In Europe, Africans became the preferred musicians for Janissary corps, especially as drummers. They were acclaimed as such and changed the drumming pattern from the Turkish form to what a regimental leader labeled “modern cross-handed drumming.” 

“Janissary” performances included stick work, agile dancing, rhythmic virtuosity, and strict adherence to time. Dressed as flamboyantly as possible, with marching that was actually a stylized form of cadenced dance their movements included leaping and contortions as well as the throwing and catching of drumsticks and the adroit handling of batons and jangled sticks.”

Virtuoso skill, which took years of practice to develop, was a requirement for this style of musicianship. This is a testament to the skill level of African descendants from the low country. Without knowledge and mastery of drum techniques, they would not have been able to find positions in the Hessian “Janissary” bands. (Rath, 119-122; “Early African Musicians in Europe,” 166–168; Malone, 130-131)

Young black men continued to provide cadences for the military during the Civil War. In the Monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in Boston, an African American drummer is leading the troops. The 54th was the first African American regiment to be part of the Union Army in 1863, and is known for its battles in South Carolina, most notably at Fort Wagner. Henry A. Monroe and Alexander Johnson were two of the five drummers that were enlisted in the 54th

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Monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, Boston, MA

Henry Augustus Monroe of New Bedford, MA was possibly the youngest drummer in the Union Army. When he played the directions for the maneuvers of the 54th during the Battle of Fort Wagner he was 13 years old. 

Henry A. Monroe

Alexander Johnson, also of New Bedford, MA, was one of the best-known drummers in the army. When he joined the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Regiment at the age of 16 he was the first African American musician to enlist in the U.S. military. In addition to this distinction, he was regarded as one of the best drummers in the military because of his skills. After the war Johnson continued playing the drum. At the age of 70 he said he could still “drum with the best of ‘em.” He also taught drumming and just about every drummer who marched the streets of Worcester, MA had taken lessons from him. And he created the first drum and bugle corps in Worcester. The drum corps with its 21 snare drums and one bass drum was able to “make things shake.” He told an interviewer that he had “beat a drum every day he has been able since childhood” which indicates how much playing the drum was part of his life. 

(; Sneade)

Photos of Alexander H. Johnson
(left when enlisting in 54th/right as Drum Major of New Bedford’s Drum & Bugle Corp)

Another image of Alexander Johnson provides an illustration of the continuation of drumming. Three musicians, standing in the street, surrounded by lots of people, seem to have been performing. Taken around 1900 the picture depicts a banjo player, a fifer, and at the center of the trio is Johnson, the drummer, dressed in a military uniform. Though used by early military musicians, fife and drum bands had become a common type of music in Black communities during the 19thcentury. The banjo was a central instrument of the African American repertoire from the 17th to the 20th century. They, without doubt, represent an African American music tradition. 

After the Civil War there were many African American groups that grew out of the military marching band traditions. The Jenkins Orphanage Band founded in Charleston, SC in the 1890s is one such group. Another is the Florida A & M University marching band – The Marching 100 – which was started in 1892 and continues today.

These moving musical band tradition usually include a distinctive drum section marked by its musicianship and showmanship. The rhythmic variation called “the big four” developed out of this tradition in New Orleans at the start of the twentieth century. Usually associated with Buddy Bolden, this rhythm became a foundation of jazz. It is also this drum tradition that gave birth to the “Boom-Bap-Boom-Bap” of much of Black popular music today. 

In the final section the continuation of African drums and traditions into the 20th century will be examined. 


Sidney Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution 1770-1800, The New York Graphic Society, LTD. 1973.

Richard Cullen Rath, “Drums and Power: Ways of Creolizing Music in Coastal South Carolina and Georgia, 1730-1790,” in Creolization in the Americas: Cultural Adaptations to the New World, ed. Steven Reinhardt and David Buisseret (Arlington, TX: Texas A&M Press, 2000), 99–130. 

Early African musicians in Europe, The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Autumn, 1973), pp. 166-168 (3 pages),Published by: Professor J. Southern (Managing Editor-Publisher)

David “Chet” Williamson Sneade, The Rhythm of the 54th, Sunday, January 31, 2016, in Jazz Riffing on A Lost Worcester

Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans, A History, second edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 1983. 

Henry Monroe, African-American Drummer Boy, Faces Enemy Fire On the Civil War Battlefield

Alexander H. Johnson, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

Alexander H. Johnson: Civil War Drummer Boy of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, Black Then, Discovering Our History


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