Battlefield Drummer

Noah fidgeted with the rope draped around his shoulder. No one had told him how heavy the drum would feel after hours of marching in the afternoon sun. To make matters worse, Andrew’s uniform chafed.

This morning, he’d felt lucky to take his place when they’d learned his friend was ill, even though Ma wept like a baby, begging the Colonel to find someone else. “There is no one else, Elizabeth, and well you know it. Noah’s the only one who knows the rhythms.” He handed him Andrew’s uniform. “Hurry up, boy. We head out within the hour.”

The uniform was too large, of course; Andrew had five years on Noah’s seven. Still, Noah had peacocked round the yard, waiting for Butler signal their departure.

Now that the sun had warmed, though, making the wool jacket stink like wet mutton, he wasn’t quite so keen. And, his shins ached from the drum’s rim beating against his leg as they passed mile after mile of charred and smoking cabins north of Forty Fort.

At last Colonel Butler reined in his mount, and Noah beat the cadance to stop. Ahead, the walls of Wintermoot smoldered, smoke oozing between the logs of the protecting walls. “Come out, ye villainous Tories!” Butler shouted. “Come out and show your heads if ye dare.”

When no answer came, the colonel turned to his troops. “Prime and load,” he ordered. Noah repeated the command on his drum and the clatter of four hundred muskets being loaded echoed in the smoke thickening around them. “Make Ready. Take Aim. Fire.”

The troops fired three volleys in all, moving closer to the fort with each shot. Heat from the blaze beaded sweat on Noah’s forehead; at least he prayed it was just the heat and not the fear knotted in his belly causing the beads of moisture. He gripped the drumsticks tight, drawing his eyebrows together, trying hard not to think of Ma, or Andrew, or any of the folks he might never see again, when the colonel shouted, “Prime and load, boy; prime and load.”

But Noah had no time to beat the command, for in that moment, the woods erupted, blood-thirsty savages screeching their war cries, materializing from the very leaves that covered the forest floor, while in front of him gunfire exploded from the smoking timber. Fighting broke out all around him, men yelling, musket balls whistling overhead. At first he stayed close to Butler, but soon the smoke of musket fire—or was it burning timber?—made it impossible to see past his arm.

“Fall back,” he heard, Butler’s voice muffled by the grunts and flurry of fighting. Noah scrambled to join the company, but men began to break and run, Indians relentlessly at their heel; instead, he shrunk into the surrounding spinny, trying not to see, not to hear, the butchery around him.

The stink of gunpowder and sweat, blood and soot, permeated the smoke, burning his eyes. Erratic musket fire cut through the fog and just beyond the bush that hid him, a great slurping sound, like a boot being pulled from the muck, alerted him and he turned in time to see a bayonet being pulled from Jeb Johnson’s gut; he retched when the stench of open bowels reached him.

What happened after, he couldn’t say for sure, a blur of sights and sounds he’d rather forget: the crack of bones splintered by musket balls, screams of men dying, screams of men killing, Billy Lothrop’s vacant stare as his hair was pulled taut, his scalp hacked away.

A boot broke through his cover of branches, and he curled around himself like a doodlebug, waiting for the end.

Noah Taylor was seven years old when war broke out in the tiny hamlet he called home. His father, Ezra, was part of the Connecticut Continental Army captured at Fort Washington (see this post) and was jailed when the Battle of Wyoming broke out in what is now Wyoming County, Pennsylvania. And while, officially, the British attacked for military reasons—the area was a large grain producer for Washington’s army and known to be settled by colonists sympathetic to the Patriots’ cause—the real reason had nothing to do with the War for Independence.

It seems, back in the 1600s when kings were passing out land in the new world, that King Charles II gave this particular tract of land to both Connecticut and William Penn, setting off a string of skirmishes (see Pennamite Wars) between the settlers there; Pennsylvania siding with the loyalists, Connecticut with the colonials. Add to that the displaced American Indians whose land it was before Charles gave it away, and you have a recipe for war… or in this case, massacre. Because this battle that Noah lived through, the Battle of Wyoming, is best known as the Wyoming Massacre.

It’s impossible to say where Noah really was the day this battle broke out. In my imagined history, he was a substitute drummer—I thought it great fun to give Noah some of the rhythmic talent of his great-great-great-great-grandson Kevin—marching with Zebulon Butler, colonel in charge at Forty Fort. However, whether he was on the battlefield with Butler or hunkered down in a cabin with his mother, his life was forever changed. Within three weeks of the Continental defeat and subsequent massacre, the remaining settlers in the region fled their homes, many losing their lives alone in the wilderness, to avoid the marauding Indians, who continued their onslaught despite the British ordering otherwise. Noah and his mother, and any other family that may have been there at the time were certainly displaced.

The good news is that, whether at home with Mom or drumming alongside Colonel Butler and company, Noah survived the Massacre of Wyoming and lived to the ripe old age of eighty. Sometime before 1800, he married Sally (last name unknown) and had eight children, eventually moving to Wisconsin… When he was 75!

But that’s a story for another day…

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