Family stories become a part of one’s being if one listens closely. Growing up, I always heard the story of Abram Springsteen, “the youngest drummer boy of the Civil War.” Mary T. Helbling remembered going to the museum in Indianapolis, and said his portrait was there, with the same claim. She was just 14 and had gone to Indianapolis with her family for the funeral of Abram’s sister, Anna Missouri Springsteen Beerbower. We always wondered what had happened to his drum, but the branches of the family had not kept in touch, and no one of our branch knew its disposition.
Fast forward many years- and a phone call to Edgar Helbling in his final years which amazingly produced a shoebox with newspaper clippings and obituaries that gave more information about Abram and confirmed his parentage, plus some clues for follow-up. (Major brick-wall breakthrough in those days before internet genealogy.) Many more years passed- sadly, too many, as by then Alzheimer’s had a death-grip on Mary’s usually sharp-for-details brain; she probably did not really understand my excited phone call about finding Abram’s descendants through Ancestry.com.
Today is the anniversary of Abram’s birth, and since this is a patriotic weekend, it is appropriate to tell his story. He too fought for our freedoms, and was an incredibly patriotic man throughout his life.
Abram F. Springsteen was born 5 July 1850 in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, to Jefferson Springsteen and Anna Connor, the fourth child of their eight boys and girls. Jefferson Springsteen had lived in Indianapolis, Indiana when it was just a few houses back in 1835, before he moved and married in Brooklyn. The family moved to Indianapolis in 1852 when Abram was just 2 years old.By 1850, Indianapolis had grown to a city of about 8,000. There already was a significant Irish population in the city by then (Anna Connor was Irish), and Germans (Jefferson Springsteen’s heritage) began populating more heavily in mid-century, driving the population to over 18,000 by the time of the Civil War.
Jefferson Springsteen was an active Democrat and elected Town Marshall, so the children grew up around political discussions- he was serving in a local office while Benjamin Harrison, future President of the United States, was also serving, so probably knew him. Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States on March 4, 1861, but seven southern states had seceded after his election the previous November. On April 12, 1861, the first shots were heard at Fort Sumter, and four more southern states quickly became a part of the Confederate States of America. Lincoln requested troops but it took three months for Congress to call for 50,000 men to fight the rebels. Abram enlisted three months later, on 15 Oct 1861, in Co. A 25th Indiana Regiment as a drummer boy; he was only 11 years, 2 months old at the time. His parents consented to the enlistment as it was believed he would only be a member of the Home Guard, and his drumming would be beneficial to the cause.
When it became clear that his regiment would be sent off to fight in the south, his parents demanded that he be discharged, which was done 23 Dec 1861.
Just eight months later, when Abram was all of 12 years old, after beating the drum about the streets of Indianapolis while a regiment was being recruited, Abram re-enlisted 9 August 1862 into Co. I of the 63rd Indiana Regiment. He did have parental consent, perhaps because his father had run away to the circus when he was a young lad, and he thus understood the yearning of a young boy for the excitement of new places and war. His parents probably realized that they could not deter Abram from military service any longer.
Co. I of the 63rd Indiana Regiment moved south, with Abram alongside the column, drumming commands and encouragement to the troops day after difficult day. When drummer boys were not needed for signaling the troops, they were stretcher bearers, wandering among the fallen and trying to get the soldiers the medical care they required. Abram was captured with a wagon train at the battle of Spring Hill, Tennessee, 29 Nov 1864, but he escaped after dark as he was small enough to hide under a wagon and elude his captors. Family stories tell of how popular he was with his fellow soldiers, as his small size and swift feet helped him to sneak into farm areas such as chicken coops unnoticed, steal eggs and hide them in his drum, then return safely to his comrades with a feast. Company engagements included “Buzzard’s Roost”, Resaca, Burnt Hickory, Kennesaw Mountain, Altoona, Chattahoochie, Atlanta, Lost Mountain, Jonesboro, Cassville, Columbia, Franklin, Town Creek, Fort Fisher, and Willmington.
Abram’s diary and other documents claim that he was quite a wheeler-dealer while in camp with the other soldiers. He apparently had little trouble holding his own despite his age and size, for he was able to use his meager salary of $13 per month (if he indeed received a standard soldier’s pay) and parlay that into goods highly desirable to the troops, thereby making a good profit for himself.
Abram was lucky to survive the war. Of the 63rd Indiana, 3 officers and 53 enlisted men were killed, but another 2 officers and 130 enlisted men died from disease, for a total of 188 from the company. A total of 620,000 men died in the Civil War from both sides. It has been the deadliest war our country has ever experienced.
Abram was discharged 21 June 1865. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, and in May the final Confederate troops surrendered. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution that had been passed by Congress on January 31st of that year was ratified on December 6, 1865, and slavery was abolished in all the United States. Our kin, little Abram Springsteen, helped to make that happen, offering to sacrifice his life in order that others could be free.
And the drum? The wonderful cousins I found through Ancestry.com have the drum- it has been handed down to the oldest male in each generation. It is not Abram’s original drum, as that was confiscated during one of his captures. This drum was given to him by his company, grateful for the little drummer boy who guided them through battle, helped them to medical care, and often provided them with food, necessities, and maybe even a laugh at his antics.
[Abram’s life will be continued in my next posting.]
Notes, Sources, and References:
1) Family photographs, ephemera, bible.
2) Civil War Trust: http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/faq/
3) Want to read more about how the troops ate during the Civil War? Here is a quick look: Desecrated Vegetables: The Hardships of Civil War Eating. (http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/desecrated-vegetables-the-hardships-of-civil-war-eating.) See also Hard Tack and Coffee: Soldier’s Life in the Civil War, by John D. Billings, an accurate account of Union soldier life written in 1888 by a veteran of the war. The National Park Service has a good website too: http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/civil_war_series/3/sec2.htm
4) Abram F. Springstein pension papers from National Archives (XC2631939)
5) 25th Indiana: http://www.civilwararchive.com/Unreghst/unininf2.htm#25th
6) 63rd Indiana: http://www.civilwararchive.com/Unreghst/unininf5.htm#63rd
7) The 63rd Indiana guarded Washington D.C. until August, 1862, when Abram enlisted. There is no Co. I in the above reference (#6) for this company, but the battles listed in the southern campaign are the same as those recounted by Abram in his account of his time in the war as well as in his pension records.
8) Some of his pension papers state he was in the 35th Indiana reg., but these are all later papers, c. 1915.
9) Other drummer boys were as young as Abram- see http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/kidspost/drummer-boys-played-important-roles-in-the-civil-war-and-some-became-soldiers/2012/01/31/gIQA3cKzRR_story.html
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