Friday, January 21, 2011

A Drum Full of Bees


Let us begin with a drum full of bees. I hoped to have some accompanying audio for this, but apparently, the internet has some limitations. We'll have to leave some of this--including the soundtrack--to the imagination. Take a moment and picture an old army snare drum lying in the grass on a Pennsylvania farm. A bee emerges from a bullet hole in the drumhead. It flies off. Another one follows. Soon you realize the drum is filled with bees. A persistent buzzing resonates within. They've actually built their nest there. Or someone's prepared it for them. You see, this drum is the centerpiece of several divergent stories.

I first stumbled over the bee-filled drum while perusing the MOLLUS online photograph collection. There's a postcard with a photograph of it, which is useless to post, as the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center apparently feels that the U.S. army's heritage is more educationey if viewed through the center of an enormous, opaque logo. The text of the card begins,

"'Kiss me before I die,' said the little drummer boy, to Mrs. Judge Fisher, of York, Pa., as he lay at the foot of Round Top, dying far away from home and his dear mother. She kissed his pale cheek, and tenderly held him in her arms, till his spirit had fled. His bereaved mother came several times in search of his body, but it could not be found until 1867, when it was sent to his home in Providence, R. I.

"His broken drum was found near him, by Farmer Jacob Weikert, who turned it into a bee-hive, which for sixteen years was used in this strange and significant employment."

The stirring account is accompanied by a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier:

"The Hive at Gettysburg"

In the old Hebrew myth the lion's frame
So terribly alive,
Bleached by the desert's sun and wind, became
The wandering wild bees' hive;
And he who lone and naked-handed tore
Those jaws of death apart.

In after time drew forth their honeyed store
To strengthen his strong heart.

Dead seemed the legend: but it only slept
To wake beneath our sky;
Just on the spot whence ravening Treason crept
Back to its lair to die,
Bleeding and torn from Freedom's mountain bounds,
A stained and shattered drum
Is now the hive where, on their flowery rounds,
The wild bees go and come.

Unchallenged by a ghostly sentinel,
They wander wide and far,
Along green hillsides, sown with shot and shell,
Through vales once choked with war.
The low reveille of their battle-drum
Disturbs no morning prayer;
With deeper peace in summer noons their hum
Fills all the drowsy air.

And Samson's riddle is our own to-day,
Of sweetness from the strong,
Of union, peace, and freedom plucked away
From the rent jaws of wrong.
From Treason's death we draw a purer life,
As, from the beast he slew,
A sweetness sweeter for his bitter strife
The old-time athlete drew!

I'll avoid drifting into a long-winded poetry analysis here, though I can't help but point out the flat political theme (just in case you didn't notice it). But that's beside the point. What is the point?

Well, the text on this postcard was written in 1883 by A.E. Tortat, an Episcopal reverend who used it to raise money for "a memorial of this young hero, or any of our country's dead, in the Historic Tower and Memorial Church, soon to be erected on this battlefield."

Tortat also penned this letter to the editor of The Churchman in 1883, describing the death of the drummer boy and declaring,

"I hold out his broken drum to all generous Church people, and indeed to all true souls, to cast in a few thousand dollars to begin at once this churchly monument....From the heights of Round Top I hold out our boy's drum for all to see. How many working bees shall hum their peaceful tune around it with this opening spring, and briog in their sweetest gifts of love and gratitude to God, and of kind remembrance of our beloved dead? Particulars about this monument of piety and patriotism may be had from your correspondent,
A. E. Tortat,
Rector of the church of " the Prince of Peace,"
Gettysburg, Adams county, Pa.

"PS.—We have various sizes of granite stones, finely cut, ready for engraving, costing in Philadelphia from $10 to $20. These we now offer, free of charge, to early applicants, charging only 30 cents per letter for inscribing, placing, and covering them. Also, polished stones at 50 cents per letter, mid cheaper stones for inside at 35 cents per letter."

Where is this all going, you ask? Well, actually, I'm as unsure now as when I started researching this. I wanted to get the bottom and there was no bottom to be found. Tortat never identified the boy or explained how he died. I was not entirely convinced he even existed at all. Yet I still believed in the beehive drum. That part seems too beautifully weird to have been invented by Whittier.

Enter Mrs. Judge Fisher, the supposed original source of the dying drummer boy story. According to Tortat, her account originally appeared in the Philadelphia Times. I couldn't find that article, but I did find one from an online copy of The Lakeside Press of Cleveland, NY, also dated 1883. She apparently went to Gettysburg immediately after the battle to help care for the wounded, a heroic task in and of itself. Her account seems familiar, yet strange and curious:

"I found him at the farthest extremity of the hospital, with a half dozen other hopeless cases. He was a lovely boy, scarcely more than a child, who had run away from his home in Providence, RI, to join the 'drum corps.' He was a brave boy and a great pet among the soldiers, who nursed him as tenderly as possible, but could poorly supply a mother's loving care. How he longed for one more look of her dear face and once again to hear her sweet words of love! He was so frail and slight it was a marvel how he could have endured the fatigue and privation so long. He was not disfigured by wounds, but constant marches, insufficient food and often sleepless nights had exhausted his strength and and he had not the vitality to resist the sharp attack of fever. He was perfectly conscious, but too weak to say much. I asked the poor child what I could do for him. 'Oh! I want my mother!' I sat down on the ground, and taking him in my arms tried to comfort him. He turned his face to me, saying 'I am so tired,' laid his head against me and appeared to sleep.

"The last rays of the sun touched the lovely features of the dying boy. The long-drawn shadows vanished in the gathering darkness. Silence, unbroken save the plaintive moan of some poor victim, succeeded the hum of the busy day. The pitying dews shed a balm upon his brow. Fainter and fainter grew the breath and more feeble the clasp of the little hand, when suddenly rousing he opened his eyes, glazed in death, and looking long and earnestly in my face, said 'Kiss me, lady, before I die!' Clinging still closer to the stranger who could faintly represent the fond mother's tenderness he so eagerly craved, he dropped his heavy lids and slept away his brief life as peacefully as a child goes to sleep in its mother's arms. I gently laid the lifeless form down on the hard earth and left him to a soldier's burial and a nameless grave. Poor fellow, what an atom he seemed to be in all that mass of wretched, dying humanity! Yet he was all the world to the heart of that mother, who wept and prayed for her darling's safe return to the distant home, that never again would echo his boyish step or ringing laugh."


The boy's identity is still a mystery to me. If he was from Rhode Island, it is likely he was a member of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, the only Rhode Island infantry unit at Gettysburg. Whether a coincidence or not, the centerpiece of their monument at Gettysburg is a drum.


Photo source: Gettysburg Daily

As for Tortat's church, the National Memorial Church of the Prince of Peace was completed in 1900 and still stands in Gettysburg as a house of worship and memorial to both sides of the Civil War. I could not find any reference to the story of the dying drummer boy and the role it played in the church's fundraising efforts. I was also unable to find anything to indicate where the beehive drum is today. If anyone can shed any light on these mysteries, I would greatly appreciate it. If anyone has a recording of bees inside a snare drum, please pass that along to me as well.

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