The War of 1812, Drum Cadences.

08 Jan

Question received October 9, 2005

“I’m working on a Broadway production of a Eugene O’Neill play that takes place in Boston in 1828, featuring Irish immigrants, called “A Touch of the Poet.”  The main character (Gabriel Byrne) took part in the battles in Spain and Portugal with the Duke of Wellington. Where would I find drum cadences that might have been played by the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century?”


Wellington was in Portugal and Spain from 1809 to about February of 1814 when he defeated Marshall Soult at Orthez. Your play takes place in Boston in 1828, so I assume Irish immigrants are reminiscing about their roles in the Peninsula Campaign during the Napoleonic War.  Any drum beatings at this point in the play reflect, as you suggest, a British army drum beating from 1809-1814 and not a beating from the mid 1820’s.

If I am correct in this assumption, I suggest you find a copy of “The Young Drummer’s Assistant”, published in London, England probably in the 1780s. (The New York Public Library or the Library of Congress may have copies for perusal or in micro-film. If not, I can send you a photocopy of mine.) The notation is in the traditional Two Line, the left hand above and the right below with a mid line for hard and Poing strokes.

This drum manual – one of the earliest known in the West – contains 13 strokes and rudiments: Faint Stroke – Hard Stroke – Poing Stroke 1– Faint Flam – Hard Flam – Double Stroke – Draggs (sic)– 7 Stroke Roll – 9 Stroke Roll – 10 Stroke Roll – 11 Stroke Roll – Roll Continued (Long roll). (Please keep in mind that any drum beats you attempt to compose in the style of this period, should not contain: Triple Ratamacue, Drag Paradiddle #2, the 13 Stroke Roll and the Flamacue. These ‘rudiments’ do not appear in drum manuals from the era under discussion.)

Then follows the Drummers Call, Mother and Three Camp Reveilles, General, Troop, Grenadiers March, Foot March Pioneers March Rogues March, Adjutants Call, Serjeants Call, Recruiting Call, Retreat, Tattoo and finally some Scotch Duty Beatings. None of these “calls” are accompanied by tunes, only the drum beatings are given.

The beatings for Mother and Three Camp Reveilles (The Three Camps)  is, without its melody, as we know it today, as are the Troop, Grenadiers March, Pioneers March and Rogues March, the latter for drumming miscreants out of service. If you are only concerned with drum beatings or cadences, I’d simply compose as many as necessary using the appropriate rudiments and strokes listed above whilst keeping in mind the issues of tempo and context or use during the early 19th c. For instance, the general tempo for marching or drilling in camp during the Napoleonic period was around 76 beats per minute.  (Given the execrable condition of 19 c. roads, drums were rarely played for troops on the march.)  In battle, tempos could rise to 120 beats or more for a charge-usually within 150 to 100 yards or less of the enemy line, but this was not sustained, rather only played to get the troops moving. Of course all these beatings were played on rope tensioned side drums approximately 18″X16″ having gut snares and skin heads. (Civil War Drums were almost always smaller, 16″X14″.)

The Colonial Army of Gen. Washington borrowed its music and drum beatings primarily from the British, but also from the French and Prussian military tradition – except for some New England music by composers such as Wm. Billings (Chester)- and this lineage can be seen as late as Bruce & Emmett’s “Drummer’s & Fifer’s Guide” of 1862; Strube from 1869 and even today.

I strongly suggest you obtain a copy of Raoul François Camus’ (1930- )”The Military Band in the United States Prior to 1834″ – New York University, Ph. D., 1969 – and thoroughly study Chapter IX, page 226. I’m sure this book will be in the New York Public Library, but if not, you can get a copy from UMI Dissertation Services in Ann Arbor, Michigan- 1-800-521-0600 or

Although the above chapter pertains to colonial American army music, its tunes and drum beatings, you may safely reference those tunes and beatings as being indicative of British Army practice at that time and during the specific period of your interest. Camus quotes almost all ‘Calls’ and Melodies in “The Young Drummer’s Assistant”. Military historian George Carroll transcribed the drum beatings from contemporary sources. Having said that, I do encourage you to write your own beatings, within the guidelines mentioned above.

If I can be of further help, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Kind regards,


1.Hazeltine, David: “Instructor in Martial Music”, Exeter, New Hampshire, 1810. “Poing Stroke, is beat by giving a light flam and strike each stick nigh to the hoop of the drum, lightly touching the hoop at the same time”.  This is a lovely stroke with a wonderful sound on a rope drum. It can “poing”, but it is difficult to execute particularly when marching

Copyright©2009, Robin Engelman

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Posted by on January 8, 2009 in Articles, History


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