Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"Bunker Hill" Drum Raises Questions -- 1775?, 1776?, 1825?, or What?

An email arrived recently with a couple of photos of a rope drum and a simple request: "Is it possible to tell from the photo who might have made this drum and roughly when it might have been made?"

The photos (see below) are interesting. One showed a beautiful, apparently old, rope drum with a painted Union Shield design and banners reading "BUNKER HILL" and "1776".

The other photo showed a label (possibly from a commemorative envelope) with a red, white and blue American Flag (36 stars, approximately) and the words, "A double immortality for April 19th LEXINGTON and BALTIMORE".

Here follows the thread of emails exchanged on this drum.

Please feel free to add any information you believe useful.



From: John Shaw
Sent: Tue 2/5/2008 4:57 PM
To: Ellis Mirsky
Subject: A Question on a Rope Tension Drum


"Greetings. Joe MacSweeney [Eames Drum Company] suggested I write you regarding the possible maker and date of manufacture of a rope tension drum. The drum belongs to a colleague who provided me the two photos attached with this e-mail.

"One photos is of the drum, indicating "Bunker Hill 1776". Of course, the battle of Bunker Hill took place in June 1775, but possibly the drum refers to a ceremony that occurred in 1776 or refers to Fort Bunker Hill in NY, which came into existence in 1776.

"The other photo is of a label pasted inside of the drum, across from the hole in the barrel, which unfortunately is right where I think the manufacturer's label would have been (were there one originally). The label appears to have come from an envelope used during the Civil war. From what I can find out, there were thousands of different designs made during that time for "patriotic envelopes". In any event, the handwriting on the label reads "This drum was beat on Bunker Hill in 1776". Of course, we don't know whether the writer was making a conjecture 90 years after the battle, or recording some oral history that had been handed down from one generation to the next.

"The diameter of the drum is 16.75", while the height is 14.25".

"Is it possible to tell from the photo who might have made this drum and roughly when it might have been made?

"All the best.

"John Shaw


From: Ellis Mirsky
Date: Fri, 8 Feb 2008 05:54:37 -0500
To: Shaw, John J
Subject: RE: A Question on a Rope Tension Drum


Thanks for writing. I'll do my best with this. I don't have much at this point.

First, nice drum. This is the first time I've seen such artwork. As you point out, the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought June 17, 1775. But fighting in the Boston area certainly continued into 1776 when the British evacuated Boston (March 17, 1776). Source Source The artwork on the drum says "Bunker Hill" and "1776". And, the pasted paper inside the shell says that the drum was beaten at Bunker Hill in 1776. It's possible, but there are other possibilities.

First, though, assuming the label was not someone's idea of a joke or someone's error in interpreting the outside shell's beautiful artwork, a drum looking somewhat like that drum (approximate size or aspect ratio -- diameter to height -- and top counter hoop) is William Diamond's drum, beaten in 1758 (more on that below).

And, assuming that the outside artwork has some significance and was not just someone's idea of dressing up a drum, for example to evoke patriotic emotion, it might be that the purpose of the artwork was to commemorate the Revolution against England and the fighting in the Boston area, highlighted by the Battle of Bunker Hill which, together with the fighting in April, 1775 at Lexington and Concord, was one of the early battles of the Revolutionary War. The battle was significant for many reasons, including that it dispelled the notion that the American volunteers could not fight or stand up to the British regulars. So, Bunker Hill would have been something to commemorate.

Indeed, "[i]n 1843 a monument, 221 ft. high, in the form of an obelisk, of Quincy granite, was completed on Breed's Hill (now Bunker Hill) to commemorate the battle, when an address was delivered by Daniel Webster, who had also delivered the famous dedicatory oration at the laying of the corner-stone in 1825. Bunker Hill day is a state holiday." Source

So, efforts to memorialize the battle began as early as 1825 (50th anniversary). The drum could date from that time.

As you note there was also a Fort Bunker Hill in lower New York County (Manhattan) built in April 1776 as one of some fourteen emplacements set up to help the Continental Army defend Manhattan. Source Source

"Fort Bunker Hill,(1776) was first called the Independent Battery and Bayard's Hill Redoubt, it was located on Bayard's Hill (or Bayard's Mount) which extended between Grand and Broome from Mott to Centre, this part of the patriots fortification stretched as far as Broadway. The Americans defensive line went across NYC. To the east of Bunker Hill it rose between Grand and Broome Streets to Fort Pitt on Grand between Ridge and Pitt, and then to Jones Hill Fort at Grand and Columbia Steets. West of Broadway it continued northwest to another forbidding stronghold (name unknown) at Thompson and Spring Streets. " Source

However, the label says that the drum was beat "on" or "in" Bunker Hill, not "at" "Fort" Bunker Hill. I'd say the greater likelihood is the more obvious of the two possibilities -- Bunker Hill in Massachusetts, rather that Fort Bunker Hill in what is now New York City.

The large diameter (16-3/4") is certainly good in terms of dating it to the mid-1800s. Larger diameter drums beat louder, lower tones capable of being heard farther and of cutting through battle clatter.

Note the discoloration around the vent hole, indicative of there once having been a grommet, possibly white bone (which I might replace -- Jim Ellis at Cooperman Drum Company in Vermont can do/supply that).

The top counter hoop is similar to that in a drum in the Fort Ticonderoga Museum.
Unfortunately, I don't know much more about that drum at this point but assume it's from the 1700s. The lapped and tacked joint is similar and the drilled holes are also similar on that drum and on your drum.

Also, see a similar counter hoop configuration viz. drilled holes in a drum dating to 1758, and being the drum beaten by William Diamond at the Battle of Lexington.

The photo of William Diamond's drum does not show any snare mechanism hardware (but it could be hidden). Early drums did not have any snare mechanism hardware, such as that on your drum. Gut snares were simply pulled through and tightened along with the heads all at one time -- some job!

Of course, your drum could be early from the 1700s with an after-added snare mechanism, possibly mid-1800s.

So, the bottom line is that I don't know. But, unless there's good reason to doubt the clues, it is certainly possible that the drum was beaten at Bunker Hill in 1776 (or 1775 during the famous battle).



Ellis Mirsky


On 2/8/08 5:28 PM, Ellis Mirsky wrote:


More as to the label – the link between Lexington and Baltimore as to April 19 is that early fighting began in those places in the War for Independence (Lexington) and in the War Between the States (Baltimore):

April 19, 1775: On April 19, 1775, British and American soldiers exchanged fire in the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord. On the night of April 18, the royal governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, commanded by King George III to suppress the rebellious Americans, had ordered 700 British soldiers, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith and Marine Major John Pitcairn, to seize the colonists' military stores in Concord, some 20 miles west of Boston.

April 19, 1861: A clash between pro-South civilians and Union troops in Maryland's largest city resulted in what is commonly accepted to be the first bloodshed of the Civil War. Secessionist sympathy was strong in Baltimore, a border state metropolis.

Hence the words "A double immortality for April 19th LEXINGTON and BALTIMORE" on the label.

So, the label was printed after 4/19/1861. The Bunker Hill drum could be from earlier times, but the label is from 1861.

My earlier email re the number of stars (looks like 36) could pin down the label, at least, to the period 10/31/1864 to 3/1/1867.

Interestingly, on May 13, 1861 Federal Troops (including the 6th Regiment, Massachusetts Militia, that was attacked April 19th, 1861 by a mob in Baltimore as they travelled to Washington DC to protect the city) occupied Baltimore and martial law was declared, squelching most subsequent pro-Confederate activities. Federal forces continued to maintain an occupying presence in Baltimore for the remainder of the war.

So, there is a definite connection between Massachusetts (not just Lexington) and Baltimore. Note that during the April, 1861 riots, the 6th Regiment's band was unable to get out of Baltimore so replacement band instruments could have been needed for the May occupation of Baltimore.

A guess: I wonder whether the Bunker Hill Drum came down from Massachusetts with the 6th Regiment for the May, 1861 occupation force in Baltimore. The pro-Union inside label is consistent with such a hypothesis. Certainly makes things interesting. That would mean that the drum might also have been beaten in Baltimore. And, I could imagine such a drum being used in Baltimore to "stick it to the rebels" there and remind people of the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Revolution in order to reinforce the notion that these boys from Massachusetts won't cut and run, but that they are there for the duration. And they were.


From: Ellis Mirsky
Sent: Friday, February 08, 2008 11:31 AM
To: 'John Shaw'
Subject: Further to A Question on a Rope Tension Drum

I'm not sure we can make much of the label in the Bunker Hill drum, but I'll try. The flag in the label looks like it shows 6 rows of 6 stars or 36 stars altogether (if I am not mistaken). The U.S. flag sported 36 stars from 10/31/1864 to 3/1/1867 although the layout was not a rectangular array – it was rows of 8,6,8,6 and 8 stars. The flag on the label could have been intended to show 36 stars and artistic license taken as to the array arrangement.

Also, *** I looked for a snare mechanism that looks like the one on the Bunker Hill drum. I have a drum by John Lowell ca. 1850 inscribed on a paper label:

John Lowell
Manufacturer and
Dealer in all kinds of
Musical Instruments
No. 4 Maine St.

Compare similar handwriting on the label in the Bunker Hill drum.

But, more interesting is the snare mechanism which looks pretty similar on both drums.

Also the lapped and tacked upper counter hoop with drilled holes (8 on the John Lowell drum, 10 on the Bunker Hill drum) are very similar.

Bottom line: There are similarities between your "Bunker Hill drum" and one by John Lowell, ca. 1850 (pictured below).



"Your narrative of the Mass 6th Regiment engaged in Baltimore in 1861 is quite intriguing, and inspired me to search for other information on that regiment. I've only started (now that I have some breathing time), but did locate an interesting article on that regiment at "The Continental Line" web site. According to that article, "The core of the officer corps had begun service with the Lexington Alarm in April of 1775" with the officer core officially coming into existence in November 1776.

"Another site () goes on to say:

"SIXTH REGIMENT -- COL. PARSONS' -- 1775 [Raised on the first call for troops in April-May, 1775. Recruited from New London, Hartford, and present Middlesex Counties. Two companies, including Capt. Coit's, marched at once to Boston, and Capt. Mott's was ordered to the Northern Dept. The other companies remained on duty at New London until June 17, when they were ordered by the Governor's Council to the Boston camps. There the regiment took post at Roxbury in Gen. Spencer's Brigade, and remained until the expiration of term of service, Dec. 10 75. Adopted as Continental. Regiment re-organized under Col. Parsons for service in 76

"A conjecture: could this drum have been with the original Massachusetts Old Sixth, with "Bunker Hill" possibly signifying an early battle (perhaps its first), and '1776' signifying when the regiment was officially formed up?

"More to research here!!
"All the best.



  1. I can't see the seem on the drum itself but if the hoops are original to the drum then I would say that there is no way that this drum was played at the battle of Bunker Hill in 1776. Prior to 1900, all nails were hand made from iron and the heads of the nails had a look that reflected this. The nails in the picture are copper wire style nail, wire style nails didn't first appear until the early 1900's but the copper style nails (which look very clean and round) are more consistent with nails that I have seen on other Civil War era drums. Hope this helps.

  2. Thanks go to Matt Alling of CT Pro Percussion for his perceptive and informative comment above.


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