J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Legend of Levi Smith’s Bunker Hill Drum

This photo shows the “Bunker Hill Drum,” an artifact owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society and on display at the Bunker Hill Museum in Charlestown.

The M.H.S. webpage about the drum says:
The drum is painted deep red with traces of an earlier finish. The front face has the initials “L.S.” in shadowed script within a laurel wreath as well as later decoration (circa 1802-1812) of fouled-anchor arms of Rhode Island in gilt, with arms of the United States and motto INDEPENDENCE / BE YOUR BOAST, EVER MINDFUL / WHAT IT COST. Signed below right side of shield: "S. Brown Pain,t ProvidencE". The ropes and repairs on the drum date from the U.S. Civil War era. A silver plaque affixed to side of drum dates from circa 1890 and reads:
This British Drum was captured at Bunker Hill, and assigned by lot to Levi Smith, a Drummer in the Continental Army, Descended to his son, Israel Smith, a soldier of the War of 1812. Descended to his son, Israel Smith, leader of the Band of the 33d Mass. Infantry,—the Headquarters Band which marched with Sherman from Atlanta to the sea in 1864,—and presented by him to R.A. Pierce, Post No. 190 Dept. of Mass. G.A.R. in 1898.
That story wasn’t good enough for the Colonial Revival, though. On 1 Feb 1903, the Boston Globe ran a long article headlined “Captured at Bunker Hill” with a picture of the drum and a man who owned it. The article called the drum “One of the most valuable historical relics in the United States,” sought after by “the leading historical societies of the country.” The article told the story behind the drum this way:
It descended to Israel Smith Jr. from his grandsire, Levi Smith, who was a drummer boy in one of the Rhode Island companies, which followed the Quaker soldier, Gen. Nathaniel Greene, to Massachusetts to lend aid to the cause so dear to the heart of every loyal American. . . .

The story, as told by Mr. Smith, who, when a lad, got it from his grandfather, is a brief one. The lad who carried the drum when the Britishers made their first attack on Breed’s hill, was shot down at the first volley, and the barrel of his drum almost riddled with bullets. After the second assault, and while King George’s troops were being rallied for their third and successful attack, one of the members of the Rhode Island company in question went over the intrenchments and carried back with him this relic.

Taken to the company after the British had taken the hill, the men in the company drew lots for its possession, and afterward, by unanimous consent, gave it to the Rhode Island drummer boy, Levi Smith. . . .

that gentleman on his first furlough took it with him to his home in Providence, and after repairing a piece of the barrel, which had been knocked out by a bullet and bracing the barrel on the inside, made this relic of Bunker hill serviceable, and used it during the balance of his term as a revolutionary soldier.
Levi Smith’s son Israel then used the drum, repainted as it appears today, during the War of 1812. After being shifted between attics of the Smith family, it became the property of the G.A.R. chapter n New Bedford and then of the M.H.S.

Other newspapers and magazines ran shorter versions of the Globe article, all extolling the history of the “Bunker Hill Drum.” However, most of the details in the story of that drum don’t add up.

TOMORROW: A drum from Bunker Hill?

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