The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Montour County

July 22, 2013

Iron Heritage Festival: Gunfire, cannon blasts controlled by beat of drums

DANVILLE — For years, the sounds of war were beaten out by drums and the soldiers who played them.

Iron Heritage Festival visitors received an education on this bygone form of battlefield communication on July 20, courtesy of Jack Lawton, of Sunbury’s Lawton Drum Company.

Lawton, who repairs vintage drums and gives lessons, gave his presentation at 2:30 p.m. at the Moose Family Center on Mill Street.

“Drumming is a series of strokes, double strokes and grace notes,” Lawton said. Because a drum cannot make different tones like other musical instruments, drummers had to develop different techniques to create broader sounds.

During the Civil War, drummers would usually practice for two hours a day, because they were responsible for communicating commands such as open fire, cease fire and retreat across the battlefield. “They became pretty proficient pretty quickly,” Lawton said.

The command used for open fire, demonstrated Lawton, starts with several fast drum beats, while cease fire is a series of drum rolls. “They’re totally different sounds so they wouldn’t confuse the two on the battlefield,” he said.

Drummers would also be responsible for keeping a cadence for the soldiers to march to and for waking up the troops with revelry at 6 a.m. every morning.

The instrument was usually played by Army drummer boys, who were usually about 15 or 16 years old, Lawton said. The youngest recorded was an 8-year-old who joined the Army to be closer to his father.

“The Civil War was the last major conflict where the drum was used as a signaling device,” Lawton said. “After that, they switched to bugles.”

Email questions or comments to

Text Only

Danville Photos