Monday, November 24, 2008

Drum with Characteristic J.H. Buckbee Snare Mechanism

Sold by Jeff R. Bridgeman Antiques:


This beautiful Civil War snare drum has a black-painted, elliptical medallion with a very finely detailed, gilt-painted eagle. The eagle is perched in a menacing fashion on the face of a three-dimensional shield. The name “W.H. Atkins” is painted on a salmon-colored streamer that is held in the eagle’s beak. This would have been a stock military drum, on which the name of the soldier could be filled in when presented.

Underneath the eagle is the word “Excelsior”. Latin for “ever upward”, this single word was adopted by the State of New York as its motto in 1778. One might therefore presume that this was the drum of a New York regiment, but it could also be that it was simply produced by a New York drum maker, such as W.S. Tompkins in Yonkers. Tompkins is known to have used the kind of metal rim protectors that are present on this drum, as early as 1860, which are an unusual feature in a drum of this period. Also unusual is the elaborate rod tension post that also tightens the snare. While most drums of this period employed a simple, snare-tightening mechanism that was leather-bound on one end with a metal clamp on the other, some makers, such as W.R. Eisenbrant in Baltimore, used rod-tension apparatus.

Though rod-tension drums were manufactured in Europe as early as the 1830’s, American drums that used rods throughout to tighten the heads were very rare in America until the 1870’s, which is why almost all Civil War drums were of the rope-tension variety, like this one. The drum is accompanied by a pair of ebony sticks that are probably original to its making. Snare drums sticks were often dark hardwood.*

There has been much speculation about the use of symbolism in wartime versus peacetime eagles. This is modern myth. Vexillologist Joe McMillan summarizes the issue succinctly on the Flags of the World Website:

“The eagle on the official U.S. Coat of Arms and seal has always faced dexter [to its own right], toward the olive branch. (Some 19th century military colors had the arrows in the dexter claw or the eagle's head facing sinister, but this was not normal, nor was it ever the case on the great seal, nor did it ever have anything to do with wartime vs. peacetime.)

The Presidential coat of arms (the U.S. COA as depicted on the Presidential seal) formerly had the eagle facing sinister [to its own left], toward the arrows. This design was incorporated into the 1916 Presidential flag. The direction of the head was reversed when the flag was redesigned in 1945, as much to have the eagle facing the honorable dexter direction as to have it looking toward the olive branches.”**

Though the eagle on this drum holds peace branches in both of its talons, the basic format of the eagle (resting atop the horizontal shield, beak open and poised as if to fiercely strike or defend) probably has more meaning. Some have observed that this style is more often seen during 19th century wartime illustrations.

One possibility for the identity of the drum’s owner is William H. Atkins, who enlisted with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry on the 5th of May, 1861, in the surge of patriotism that closely followed the attack on Ft. Sumter. A sailor from Castine, Maine, Atkins mustered into Company “I” as a private and served only a year before deserting at Williamsport, MD. The fact that he served so short a time might account for the drum’s outstanding condition. Another factor could be that Atkins, age 23, was not a drummer boy, and so only carried his drum when his duties called for band participation. In the case of some of the more well-funded regiments (those who could afford bands), instruments were probably carried by horse and wagon.

According to “Record of the Second Massachusetts Infantry, 1861-65”, by Alonzo Hall Quint, (its Chaplain), the 2nd Mass. had a band, which was somewhat unusual. On page 18, he writes: “The non-commissioned staff was made up as follows:…” “…Henry Kesselhuth, who had been a soldier (and wounded) in the Brunswick service in the revolutions of 1848, drum major; and Charles Speigle was band-leader until regimental bands were discharged. That band, raised under the auspices of P.S. Gilmore, was a rare acquisition.”***

Further support of the theory that this particular W.H. Atkins may have been the owner of the drum lies in the fact that the drum was recently found between the towns of Liberty and Union, Maine. These two small towns are basically across the bay from Castine, (an on-land distance of about 50 miles and shorter by boat).

Condition: Minor breakdown in the leather. Minor paint loss. The drum has no significant issues and is as near-to-mint as one can find in a 19th century example. The fact that it has its original ropes and leather ears is remarkable.

* Kelly, Marvin. “Antebellum American, 1784-1865: Drums in the Civil War Era”, 2001

** McMillan, Joe. “Flag Urban Legends (U.S.): Eagle Faces ... Olive Branch (peace)/Arrows (war)”, 2001

*** Quint, Alonzo. “Record of the Second Massachusetts Infantry, 1861-65”, James P. Walker, Boston, 1867, p. 18.

Inv. Number pat-106

Width (inches): 16"
Height (inches): 11.25"
Depth: 116"
Primary Color: black, red, white, blue
Earliest Date: 1861
Latest Date: 1865
Available: Sold
Price SOLD

Snare Mechanism Identical to J.H. Buckbee Drums

Note from the Blogmaster: Imagine my surprise and delight to find that the above drum bears the rare snare mechanism characteristic of J.H. Buckbee drums. If the dating on the above drum is correct (1861-1865) what does that suggest about the dating of the following two J.H. Buckbee drums bearing the same snare mechanism design?

Known for Banjos, J.H. Buckbee Made Drums Too, published in this blog, April 13, 2008.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Folks,
    I just had a call from a gentleman, who is reenacting with the 2nd Mass. Regt. and found this drum in his search.
    From the auctioner's statement, he determined this was used during the war. From my observation, I would venture that this drum was probably not made until the 1880s, or later. I know the blogmaster has some Buckbee drums with a similar snare strainer; but I am not convinced these drums are from the ACW, even though one sports a rustic Federal Eagle design.
    On the "Atkins" drum, the artwork appears to be a lithograph/decal, as opposed to hand painted. When was this technique implemented?
    In my humble opinion, I would say this was a commercially available drum, and Mr. Atkins painted his own name and excelsior emblazonment.


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