The Drummer Boy of Missionary Ridge

    John S. Kountz of Maumee, Ohio, an orphan boy of German parents, was just 17 years old when he lost his right leg to amputation at the Battle of Tunnel Hill in November 1863. Two years prior he had been permitted to enlist at age 15 as a drummer in the third German regiment from Ohio, the 37th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. By the time of Tunnel Hill, the 37th Ohio was serving in General Joseph Lightburn's Second Brigade of Morgan L. Smith's Second Division of the 15th Army Corps. 

    Musicians usually served as stretcher bearers during a battle but when General William T. Sherman’s force struck General Patrick Cleburne’s entrenched line at Tunnel Hill on November 25, 1863, Kountz grabbed a rifle and served into the ranks until a Confederate bullet slammed into his right leg.

    “During the battle I was hit by a rifle ball just above the knee and the wound bled until the ground under me was covered with blood. I became very thirsty, but fortunately had two canteens of water. At my side lay Private Christopher Weber of Co. A who had been instantly killed. As I was not very far from the enemy’s works and our men had fallen back to the point from which the advance was made, my position was not an enviable one as I lay between two fires,” he later wrote. “Captain John Hamm of Co. A, who had always been very kind to me, having been told that I lay wounded in front of our line, walked over to my company and reported that Johnny Kountz lay out in front, and asked, “Who will go out and get him?” William Schmidt promptly answered, “I will,” and another comrade pointed out the direction in which I lay. Schmidt advanced some distance, then sprang forward and hurriedly placed me upon his back, and although there was much firing, we were under cover of the hill to the left of our line.” 

    Kountz made it back into Federal lines where surgeons amputated his right leg at the hip; for Kountz, the war was over.

 

Musician John S. Kountz, Co. G, 37th Ohio Volunteer Infantry


    The 23rd of November was spent in camp from which we had a splendid view of Chattanooga. That night we received three days’ rations and marched to the Tennessee River, which at that time was swollen by rains and the current was rapid. Upwards of 100 flat boats had been floated into North Chickamauga Creek, about four miles above Chattanooga, designed for a pontoon bridge. Major Charles Hipp was placed in command of the detail having in charge of the boats and was ordered to cross the river, secure a landing, continue to dispatch the troops over to the pioneer corps under General Baldy Smith which was to build the bridge.

    The night was dark with a drizzling rain. About midnight all was ready and the signal given to cross, Major Hipp’s boat leading the fleet, John Hess and others of Co. E, 37th Ohio being his companions. The major pushed well into the river and, after a while, headed straight for the south shore and on nearing the point where it was proposed to land, a picket fire was discovered and our troops headed directly for it. The men hurried out of the boats and up the bank, surprising and capturing all the Confederate pickets but one. The surprise was so complete that the “Johnnies” scarcely realized the situation. At this time a Confederate vidette came up at full speed shouting “The Yanks are coming!” He was promptly dismounted and compelled to join his comrades just captured.

    Major Hipp recrossed the river followed by the flat boats. On getting back the darkness made it difficult for him to find our troops and he shouted for the second division of the 15th Corps when he was immediately answered in suppressed voices to keep quiet or he would be arrested.  Having no time for explanation and becoming impatient, the major cried out, “Where is General Sherman?”  The answer came promptly through the darkness from Sherman himself who was not more than 50 feet away. “What do you want?” Hipp answered, “I want a brigade, the boats are waiting.” Sherman at once asked, “Did you make a landing?” Hipp answered “Yes, and we captured the pickets.” General Sherman, who was on horseback surrounded by his staff, was so pleased that he took off his hat and cheered.

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman

    At this time, we embarked and after a short though seemingly long ride, landed on the south bank of the river. Major Hipp continued the work of crossing and recrossing with fresh troops until morning, when two full divisions were on the east bank of the Tennessee. Meantime, our men put in splendid work digging the entrenchments. General Sherman, who had crossed on one of the flatboats, personally superintended the work and I well remember Sherman’s remark, “Pitch in boys, this is the last ditch,” as he walked up and down the line. At the dawn of day, a pontoon bridge was built over the Tennessee River and another over Chickamauga Creek near its mouth. That night’s undertaking had been grandly accomplished and General Sherman was one of the happiest men in Grant’s army.

"The assault lasted but a few minutes, the firing from the enemy’s entrenched position being simply terrible- grape, canister, shot, and shell rained on us. The fire was so murderous that it fairly plowed up the leaves and made the very ground seem alive." Musician John S. Kountz, Co. G, 37th Ohio

    At daybreak we were on the south side of the Tennessee River, strongly entrenched, prepared to meet any force General Bragg might pit against us. It must have been a surprise and a mortification to the Confederate commander when he saw Sherman’s army on the morning of the 24th securely fortified on the south bank of the Tennessee. On the 24th, we moved forward with skirmishers in advance over an open field to the hill near the railroad tunnel where we fortified for the night. From our position we could see Hooker’s men above the clouds on Lookout Mountain and also had a good view of the Army of the Cumberland on our right. Early on the 25th, Sherman made dispositions for the attack when we passed the valley which lay between us and the next hill, where the enemy had massed the corps of Hardee and other troops, the point of the ridge in our immediate front being held by that gallant Confederate General Cleburne.

General John M. Corse

    General John Corse attacked the enemy’s position about 80 yards from his main line but it was so strong that but little headway was made, although the contest for an hour was very stubborn. During this time, I saw the General carried off the field badly wounded. While the fighting was going on to our right, our brigade was under cover of temporary works from which the enemy had been driven that morning. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when the order was given to advance. As our men moved upon the enemy’s works, I became so enthused that I threw away my drum and went forward with the regiment. The assault lasted but a few minutes, the firing from the enemy’s entrenched position being simply terrible- grape, canister, shot, and shell rained on us. The fire was so murderous that it fairly plowed up the leaves and made the very ground seem alive. Twice our forces charged upon the Confederate works, and twice our bleeding lines were compelled to fall back. So strong was General Cleburne’s position in our immediate front that 1,000 men could hold it against ten times their number. In this assault, my regiment lost 30% of its number in killed and wounded.

    During the battle I was hit by a rifle ball just above the knee and the wound bled until the ground under me was covered with blood. I became very thirsty, but fortunately had two canteens of water. At my side lay Private Christopher Weber of Co. A who had been instantly killed. As I was not very far from the enemy’s works and our men had fallen back to the point from which the advance was made, my position was not an enviable one as I lay between two fires. Captain John Hamm of Co. A, who had always been very kind to me, having been told that I lay wounded in front of our line, walked over to my company and reported that Johnny Kountz lay out in front, and asked, “Who will go out and get him?” William Schmidt promptly answered, “I will,” and another comrade pointed out the direction in which I lay. Schmidt advanced some distance, then sprang forward and hurriedly placed me upon his back, and although there was much firing, we were under cover of the hill to the left of our line.

    I was then placed on a stretcher and carried to the rear where the boys gathered around me expressing their sympathy. My leg was bandaged by Surgeon Billhardt if the 37th Ohio and I was carried to a log cabin in the ravine below the point from which we had made the advance. I remained upon the porch with other wounded until dark, when I was placed on a stretcher and carried some distance over another hill and then put into an ambulance and taken to a point on the Tennessee River near the mouth of Chickamauga Creek, where I was placed upon a rough table. After examination of my wound, the surgeon informed me that my leg was so badly shattered that amputation was necessary, or words to that effect. I objected, but my objection was not heeded. I was then chloroformed and on awakening felt for my leg, but it was gone. At this time, I was 17 years of age.

Battle of Tunnel Hill on November 25, 1863
(Map by American Battlefield Trust)


Musician Kountz’s amputation ended the war for him, but he later served as national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. In 1895 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism at Missionary Ridge and Kate Brownlee Sherwood’s poem, “The Drummer Boy of Mission Ridge” was written specifically to commemorate Kountz’s actions. Sherwood was the wife of General Isaac R. Sherwood, another notable northwest Ohio Civil War soldier who served with the 14th Ohio and 111th Ohio.

Kate Brownlee Sherwood

 

“The Drummer Boy of Mission Ridge”

Kate Brownlee Sherwood

 

Did ever you hear of the Drummer Boy of Mission Ridge, who lay

With his face to the foe, 'neath the enemy's guns, in the charge of that terrible day?

They were firing above him and firing below, and the tempest of shot and shell

Was raging like death as he moaned in his pain, by the breastworks where he fell.

 

We had burnished our muskets and filled our canteens, as we waited for orders that morn, —

Who knows when the soldier is dying of thirst where the wounded are wailing forlorn? —

When forth from the squad that was ordered back from the flash of that furious fire

Our Drummer Boy came, and his face was aflame with the light of a noble desire.

 

" Go back with your corps! " our Colonel had said, but he waited the moment when

He might follow the ranks and shoulder a gun with the best of us bearded men;

And so, when the signals from old Fort Wood set an army of veterans wild,

He flung down his drum which spun down the hill like the ball of a wayward child.

 

And so, he fell in with the foremost ranks of brave old Company G,

As we charged by the flank, with our colors ahead, and our columns closed up like a V,

In the long swinging lines of that splendid advance, when the flags of our corps floated out

Like the ribbons that dance in the jubilant lines of the march of a gala day rout.

 

He charged with the ranks, though he carried no gun, for the Colonel had said him nay,

And he breasted the blast of the bristling guns and the shock of the sickening fray;

And when by his side they were falling like hail, he sprang to a comrade slain,

And shouldered his musket and bore it as true as the hand that was dead to pain.

 

'Twas dearly we loved him, our Drummer Boy, with a fire in his bright black eye,

That flashed forth a spirit too great for his form, — he only was just so high,

As tall perhaps as your little lad who scarcely reaches your shoulder,

Though his heart was the heart of a veteran then, a trifle, it may be, the bolder.

 

He pressed to the front, our lad so leal, and the works were almost won;

A moment more, and our flags had swung o'er the muzzle of murderous gun;

But a raking fire swept the van, and he fell 'mid the wounded and the slain,

With his wee wan face turned up to Him who feeleth His children's pain

 

Again, and again our lines fell back, and again with shivering shocks

They flung themselves on the Rebel works as the fleets on the jagged rocks;

To be crushed and broken and scattered amain, as the wrecks of the surging storm,

Where none may rue and none may reck of aught that has human form.

 

So, under the Ridge we were flying for the order to charge again,

And we counted our comrades missing and we counted our comrades slain;

And one said, " Johnnie, our Drummer Boy, is grievously shot, and lies

Just under the enemy's breastworks; if left on the field he dies. "

 

Then all the blood that was in me surged up to my aching brow,

And my heart leaped up like a ball in my throat, I can feel it even now,

And I swore I would bring that boy from the field if God would spare my breath,

 

If all the guns on Mission Ridge should thunder the threat of death.

I crept and crept up the ghastly Ridge, by the wounded and the dead,

With the moans of my comrades right and left, behind me and yet ahead,

Till I came to the form of our Drummer Boy, in his blouse of dusty blue,

 

With his face to the foe, 'neath the enemy's guns, where the blast of the battle blew,

And his gaze as he met my own, God wot, would have melted a heart of stone,

As he tried like a wounded bird to rise, and placed his hand in my own;

So wan and faint, with his ruby red blood drank deep by the pitiless sward,

 

While his breast with its fleeting, fluttering breath throbbed painfully slow and hard.

And he said in a voice half smothered, though its whispering thrills me yet,

" I think in a moment more that I would have stood on that parapet,

For my feet have trodden life's rugged ways, and I have been used to climb

 

Where some of the boys have slipped I know, but I never missed a time.

" But now I nevermore will climb; and, comrade, when you see

The men go up those breastworks there, just stoop and waken me;

For though I cannot make the charge and join the cheers that rise,

 

I may forget my pain to see the old flag kiss the skies. "

Well, it was hard to treat him so, his poor limb shattered sore,

But I raised him to my shoulder and to the Surgeon bore,

And the boys who saw us coming each gave a shout of joy,

 

Though some in curses clothed their prayers, for him, our Drummer Boy.

When sped the news that " Fighting Joe " had saved the Union right

With his legions fresh from Lookout, and that Thomas massed his might

And forced the Rebel center, and our cheering ran like wild,

 

And Sherman's heart was happy as the heart of a little child, —

When Grant from his lofty outlook saw our flags by the hundred fly

Along the slopes of Mission Ridge, where'er he cast his eye,

And our Drummer Boy heard the news and knew the mighty battle done,

 

The valiant contest ended, and the glorious victory won, —

Then he smiled in all his agony beneath the Surgeon's steel,

And joyed that his the blood to flow his country's woes to heal;

And his bright, black eyes so yearning, grew strangely glad and wide;

 

I think that in that hour of joy he gladly would have died.

Ah, ne'er again our ranks were cheered by our little Drummer's drum,

When rub, rub, rub-a-dub dub , we knew that our hour had come;

Beat brisk at morn, beat sharp at eve, rolled long when it called to arms,

 

With rub, rub, rub-a-dub dub , 'mid the clamor of rude alarms!

Ah, ne'er again our black-eyed boy looked up in the veteran's face,

To waken thoughts of his children safe in mother love's embrace!

O ne'er again with tripping feet he ran with the other boys, —

 

His budding hopes were cast away as they were idle toys.

But ever in our hearts he dwells, with a grace that never is old,

For him the heart to duty wed can nevermore grow cold!

His heart the hero's heart we name, the loyal, true, and brave,

 

The heart of the soldier hoar and gray, of the lad in his Southern grave!

And when they tell of their heroes, and the laurels they have won,

Of the scars they are doomed to carry, of the deeds that they have done, —

Of the horror to be biding among the ghastly dead,

 

The gory sod beneath them, the bursting shell o'er-head, —

My heart goes back to Mission Ridge and the Drummer boy who lay

With his face to the foe 'neath the enemy's guns in the charge of that terrible day;

And I say that the land that bears such sons is crowned and dowered with all

 

The dear God giveth nations to stay them lest they fall.

O glory of Mission Ridge! stream on, like the roseate light of morn,

On the sons that now are living, on the sons that are yet unborn!

And cheers for our comrades living, and tears as they pass away, —

And three times three for the Drummer Boy-who fought at the front that day!


Comments

  1. Captain John Hamm (1825-1880) was one of four Hamm Brothers from Toledo, Ohio. Captain John Hamm [37th regiment, Co. C, G, A, Captain, OVI] was the proprietor of the International Theatre-Comique (Clark Waggoner called it a place of low order), and Union Gardens as well a restaurant and concert saloon in Toledo 1865-1880. His brother Perry Truax Hamm (1828-1909) [31st regiment, 2nd Lt. OVI] operated a grain commission merchant business in those years and became wealthy, moved to Kansas City then return to the boyhood home in Ontario CA where he died. Ephraim Blanchard Hamm (1838-1889) [59th regiment, Co. I, Sergent OVI ] also lived and worked in Toledo, mostly as a bookkeeper and railroad clerk. The fourth brother Richard Pilkington Hamm Jr. (1840-1896) lived in Adrian, Lenawee [4th Regiment Co. B, Private Michigan Innfantry]. The Hamm brothers were originally from the Hamm family homestead in Fredericksburgh Township, in Lennox and Addington County, Ontario. Their sister Mary Jane (Hamm) Vrooman remained in Canada and is not involved in the business dealings of her brothers outside of the family homestead.

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