Drumming Out

Conflict: Civil War, Revolutionary War

Benjamin Ditcher being drummed out of the army during the Civil War

Benjamin Ditcher being drummed out of the army during the Civil War

In the summer of 1863, Benjamin Ditcher of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteers was marched out of camp to drums and a fife with a sign around his neck declaring him a thief who “stole money from a wounded friend.” This process of dishonorably discharging a soldier was known as “drumming out” and had its origins in the British army in the 17th century. Soldiers could be drummed out for a variety of reasons, from thievery to desertion.

Usually, the guilty man’s head would be shaved, the insignia and buttons taken from his coat, and a sign detailing his crime hung around his neck. Sometimes he was dressed in felon’s clothes or white feathers were placed above his ears, and other times a rope was put around his neck and he would be led by the smallest drummer boy. The convict would then be marched between the lines of his fellow soldiers to the tune of “Rogue’s March,” and he would be taken to the entrance of the camp, where he was sent on his way with orders to never return. “Rogue’s March” was often played by drums and fifes, though if they couldn’t be found, a trumpet was sometimes substituted and the process was called being “blown out” of the army. During the Civil War, “Yankee Doodle” was sometimes played instead of “Rogue’s March.”

The point of drumming out a soldier was to make his departure from the military humiliating enough that others would be discouraged from committing the same crime. So in addition to being drummed out, the local newspaper would sometimes write about the man’s crime to make it public. However, drumming out eventually fell out of favor as a punishment, and by World War II it had been dropped altogether.

Newspaper article mentioning a man who was drummed out

Newspaper article mentioning a man who was drummed out

Find other images from the Civil War in Fold3’s Civil War Photos or Matthew Brady collections.