Private Henry Monroe, musician


Unknown photographer, Private Henry Monroe, musician, c. 1863, albumen print, 3 3/8 × 2 in. (8.5 × 5 cm). Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society

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Historians estimate that as many as 420,000 Civil War soldiers were younger than eighteen, the official age for both Union and Confederate recruits, a requirement that was increasingly disregarded as the war wore on. Some of these boys were orphans, others were the sons of soldiers accompanying their father’s unit. With the zeal of the young, many enlisted in what may have seemed at the outset like a grand and glorious adventure. And many perished or disappeared with little trace. But a few survived to distinguish themselves.

The youngest recruits often served as drummers. As in the Shaw Memorial, drummers were often depicted tapping out the cadence to which soldiers marched. They performed many tasks essential to life in camp: carrying water, taking care of horses, gathering wood, cooking, carrying wounded off the battlefield, and helping to bury the dead. But during battle, the drummer assumed a key role: communicating the commanding officer’s orders to the troops, his percussive instrument being one of few that could be heard over the din of battle. Specific signals directed field maneuvers, indicating whether troops should advance, halt, retreat, or cease firing. To perform his job, the drummer needed to be at his commander’s side, where he was an equally strategic target for the enemy. A marksman who eliminated the drummer effectively cut off all communication among the opponent’s troops. Each company within a regiment therefore had more than one recruit who could serve as drummer. Private Henry Augustus Monroe (1845–1912/1913) was a drummer with the 54th’s Company C. He served in the regiment from the time he enlisted in February 1863 (at age thirteen) until he mustered out in August 1865.

Private Monroe had his picture taken in front of a photographer’s backdrop that showed Union military tents. There is poignancy to this image of the dignified, solemn-faced lad whose oversized uniform seems to underscore his youth and vulnerability. Moore was from New Bedford, Massachusetts, a whaling community that produced many of the recruits for Company C of the 54th. He was educated in New Bedford and Boston public schools, where he had been an outstanding student and graduated at the head of a large class, all white except for him.

After the war Monroe settled in Maryland. By age nineteen he was teaching for the Freedmen’s Bureau, which offered services and support to black veterans. While in his mid-twenties, he was appointed inspector of customs at the port of Baltimore by President Ulysses S. Grant. During these years Monroe also published the Standard Bearer, a newspaper dedicated to the interests of African Americans. He became active in the Methodist Episcopal church and had ministries in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Between 1887 and 1892 he lived in New York City and served as pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church.

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