The Drummer Boy

by Grace Greenwood

A scene very similar to those we so often witnessed during the sad days of our war, occurred one sweet June morning, about sixty years ago, in a quaint little village in Switzerland, on the borders of France. A company of recruits were about departing to join a regiment in a neighboring town, from whence they were to march to Italy, where Napoleon, then First Consul, was conducting one of his great campaigns. Around these recruits, all of them young, gathered their friends and relatives, with tears and embraces and touching words of farewell.

About a young drummer-boy, named Leopold Koerner, gathered a little group on whose grief few could look without tears. First, around the lad's neck clung his pretty blue-eyed sister, Madeline; then his younger brother Heinrich, ever till this day a merry, light-hearted little fellow. Then came their sturdy old grandmother, trying to put a brave face on the matter, and winking vigorously to keep back the tears. Leopold's father had been killed in the great French Revolution,—his widow had died soon after, "of a decline," it was said; but doubtless sorrow helped her on toward the great, sweet rest. The children were left to the sole care of their grandmother. She was poor and old, but she had a stout, faithful heart,—she was devout and determined, and battled with want and poverty like a true soldier of the Lord. She kept the children together, and brought them up "in the way they should go."

It was for the sake of relieving this noble old friend of some of her heavy care, more than from any love of a soldier's life, that Leopold, at the age of fourteen, enlisted as a drummer.

At parting with her darling, the good woman said little, but to charge him to remember his father's honesty and bravery, his mother's goodness, and the love of the true hearts left behind him. "Make all thy noise with thy drum, lad; neither boast nor swear, and remember, the better man the better soldier."

"Keep up good heart, brother," said Heinrich, with a quivering lip, "thou wilt come back to us some day, safe and sound, a grand officer,—the General of all the drummers."

"Adieu, dear Leopold," sobbed Madeline; "O, what can I do without thee? I pray the holy saints and angels to turn the bullets away from thee. Take with thee our mother's prayer-book. The Forget-me-nots pressed in it are from her grave. I shall cry my prayers now; but they will all be for thee. Adieu! adieu!"

Just then came the command, "Forward, march!" Leopold hastily thrust his sister's gift into his bosom, kissed her for the last time, and with a sad wave of the hand to his old friends, moved on in his place, sturdily beating his drum, a tear-drop falling at every stroke.

Leopold first saw real hard fighting in Italy, at the great battle of Marengo. In the early part of the engagement, as his regiment was marching past a little hill, on which were a group of mounted officers, Leopold's boyish eye was caught by the figure of a tall, handsome young general, mounted on a magnificent white horse. He was very singularly and splendidly dressed, in a rich Eastern-looking uniform, of scarlet, azure, and gold. At his side hung a diamond-hilted sword, suspended by a girdle of gold brocade. On his head he wore a three-cornered chapeau, from which rose a long, white ostrich plume, and a superb heron feather. The band that held these was clasped with brilliants of great value.

"Ah, there is the great General Bonaparte!" cried Leopold, to a comrade. "I knew him at a glance."

"Which, my lad?"

"Why, that splendid officer, talking to the pale little man, in a gray surtout and leather breeches."

"Ah, no, my little comrade," replied the other drummer, laughing, "that is Murat, General of Cavalry,—the little man in the gray surtout is General Bonaparte. However, you need not blush for your hero; he is a wonderful fellow at the head of a charge. Wherever his white plume goes, victory follows. You should see Bonaparte watch it, gleaming above the fight, as the French cavalry goes thundering up against Austrian bayonets or batteries. They say the mad general sometimes shouts to the Austrian dragoons, 'Ho! who of you wants Murat's jewels? Let him come and take them!' And they come one after another, to go down under his sword, which falls upon them swift and sure as the lightning. Ah! he is a terrible fellow."

Leopold found a battle to be something yet more awful than he had imagined. The roar of artillery, the rattle of musketry, the clang of swords and bayonets, the stormy gallop of cavalry, the groans and shrieks of wounded and dying men, appalled his very soul. But though his cheeks grew deathly white, and his eyes large and wild, he had not one cowardly impulse to fly from his duty. Again and again, he gave the quick drum-beat for the advance.

In the height of the battle, Murat dashed forward in one of his overpowering cavalry charges. Leopold, in the midst of the horrors of the fight, gazed with wonder and admiration at the plumed and jewelled officer, on his magnificent white horse, with its trappings of gold and azure. It was like a beautiful vision in that awful place, and a wild huzza broke from the boy's lips. Just then a cannon-ball rushed before him, like a small whirlwind, and carried away his drum, in a thousand fragments. He saw the same ball pass harmlessly between the legs of the white horse of Murat, who was then engaged in a hand-to-hand combat with a tall Austrian dragoon. Relieved from duty, the boy stood watching the fiery general, forgetful of danger, scarcely hearing the horrible singing of the bullets through the air. He saw the tall dragoon go down, and another dash forward to fill his place. While General Murat was dealing with him, Leopold saw an Austrian officer spur forward, and wheel sharply a powerful black horse, with the intent to attack the rash French hero from behind. While his followers were engaging those of Murat, he plunged forward, with his gleaming sword lifted high in air. Leopold never know how he did it, but he broke frantically through the ranks of infantry, in among the furious, trampling cavalry, at the last moment, seized the Austrian's black horse by the bit, and throwing his whole weight upon it, brought him to his knees. As he did so, he screamed at the top of his voice, "This way, General Murat!" The consequence was, that the sword that would have struck down his general, fell on his own presumptuous arm, nearly severing it from his shoulder. But on the instant, the white-plumed hero wheeled, with his avenging sword uplifted, and the next thing the drummer-boy saw, as he lay bleeding on the ground, was a great black horse dashing riderless away.

General Murat saw at once the great service Leopold had done him, and all that the daring act had cost the poor lad. He paused there, and stood guard over the boy, till he had seen him carefully removed to the rear. Then with his sword in one hand, a pistol in the other, and the bridle in his teeth, he dashed forward again in a last wild, tremendous charge, which carried the day for the French.

The next morning, Leopold found himself an inmate of the crowded hospital, surrounded with the wounded and the maimed, the fevered and the dying. But he was especially well cared for, at the command of General Murat, to whose interest perhaps it was owing that his arm was saved, as at first the surgeons were for taking it off, and so making an end of a troublesome job. But with skilful treatment, aided by the lad's youth, good habits, and patience, the great wound healed at last.

One day, while Leopold yet lay on his cot, forbidden to stir, and feeling very lonely and homesick, the dreary hospital was illuminated by the entrance of General Murat, accompanied by his beautiful young wife, who was a sister of General Bonaparte. After bowing graciously to the other patients, they came to the little drummer-boy. The General inquired kindly after his wound, and Madame Murat thanked him in the sweetest manner for saving the life of her husband.

"Glory gives you a rough hand-shake at first, eh, my lad? But, never mind; it is a brusque way she has," said the General, smiling.

"I am thankful that she did not shake my hand off altogether, my General," replied Leopold. "I fear as it is, 't will be long ere I can hope to help drum the way to another victory."

"Ah, well, my child, when you get strong enough to handle the drum-sticks, we may find better work for you. We shall see. Adieu!"

"Adieu, my General! Adieu, Madame!"

Well, when Leopold applied for his old position in his regiment, he was informed by his Colonel that he was to be sent to the Polytechnic, a military school in Paris, to be educated for a cavalry officer, under the patronage of General Murat. This was a great up-lift in life for a poor peasant-boy; but he received the news with modest gratitude and joy, unmingled with the faintest trace of pride or conceit.

He obtained leave to visit his home on his way to Paris, and never forgot that humble home or its inmates, as he got on in his profession. He proved to be a good student, and grew up into a fine, soldier-like, honorable man.

General Murat and his wife continued to befriend him, even after they became king and queen of Naples.

In the battles of the Empire, the young lieutenant of cavalry so distinguished himself that he rose to a high rank. So one day, before his brown hair was turned gray, and before his good grandmother's white head had been hidden in the grave, Leopold Koerner entered his native village a General,—though not as his brother Heinrich had prophesied, "the General of all the drummers."

This was not his first visit home after leaving the Polytechnic. Once he had returned to purchase, with his well-saved pay, a small property for his brother, who had chosen the peaceful calling of a miller; and once again, to give away in marriage his sweet sister Madeline, who became the wife of the village Notary.

At this time Leopold offered to return to the bride her mother's prayer-book, which he had always worn, he said, over his heart, on weary marches, and into battle.

"No, my brother," said Madeline, "I will not take it. Wear it still, to remind thee of our mother and of Heaven. Prayer is a soldier's best breastplate."