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Washington's Drummer Boy

A tale of a young man during the American Revolution. While not a direct relative, one of his daughters married into the family.

Washington At Valley Forge

Johann Friedrich Hesser was born 6 February in Wittenburg, Germany and died 3 July 1763 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. He came to America aboard the ship Loyal Judith, arriving at Philadelphia in 1732. He married Anna Maria Catharina Hofman in 1734. They are buried in St Michael's Lutheran Church cemetery in Germantown. Their descendant Frederick Hesser served as a drummer for George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

Frederick was born on 6 July 1763 in Providence Township, Philadelphia. During his life he would enlist in the military four times. His first enlistment began in September 1776 when he was just 13 years old.

On a cold, stormy and dark Christmas Eve of that year, Frederick and his brother John, who was 15 years old, found themselves on a boat moving slowly across the Delaware River. The brothers were among other members of the Continental Army who surprised and defeated the Hessian troops the next day in the Battle of Trenton.

One of the captured Hessians befriended young Frederick and taught him how to play a military beat on the drum. Later, Frederick was transferred to Washington's main army where his newly acquired drumming skills were put to use and he officially became a drummer boy.

John and Frederick were separated following that battle. It is said that John later became a fifer at the Battle of New Orleans. He would spend 40 years serving his country.

Frederick later participated in the Battle of Brandywine on 11 September 1777. During that engagement one of his drumsticks was shot out of his hand.

Just a month later he was assigned to Fort Mifflin, below Philadelphia. On the eve of 22 October 1777, he participated in the "terrible repulse" given to the British and Hessian troops who tried to capture the fort. The battle took less than an hour and the Hessians suffered terribly, with 400 men killed or wounded, including the loss of their leader, Count Donop. Two days later two British ships attacked the fort. They were also defeated.

By the time he reached the age of 14, Frederick was already a veteran of three battles. Like many others, they took a toll on the young boy's health. After serving as a drummer for a time at Valley Forge, he was sent home to Trappe, PA to recuperate.

The night before he was to return home, Frederick wandered the camp. During this walk he encountered a man who was contemplating both the fate of his army and the future of his country. Frederick had met the army's commander-in-chief, George Washington.

As the legend goes, the General stopped and kindly asked him, "What are you doing here, my son?" The ragged drummer boy removed his hat and stood with sad, almost tearful eyes. He paused a moment before he told his story to the general, who quietly listened to the lad.

"Commander, I am on my way on furlough to Trappe and I fear I've beat my last drum tap 'til I get well say the surgeons. Brother John and I enlisted only last year, and we crossed the icy Delaware that icy night with you. We came down from Trappe to struggle for the right, no matter what hard times, or our plight, marching to Liberty when many others despaired, I played my drums to make the enemy run and to scare Sir Howe, and from Brandywine we went down to Fort Mifflin to pay them back. I'm sorry now that I have to leave Valley Forge before we've sent the foreign foe back to tyrant George."

Frederick shivered as he spoke and his temples throbbed painfully. But, as he felt a gentle stroke of hand, his heart grew light. Limping, leaving stains of blood in the snow, the General and the drummer boy returned to the headquarters.

Frederick continued his enlistment in the military for some time and with the end of the Revolution, he moved to what later became Schuylkill County. Frederick became the county sheriff, a job he held from 1814-1817. He later became the court crier.

Although he was no longer beating the drum for Washington, it was often said that the sound of his drum continued; Frederick would open court by beating his drum under the courtroom window in Orwigsburg, the county seat at that time until it was moved to Pottsville in 1851. He held that position until his death on 23 June 1846 at the age of 83.

There were several drummer boys for George Washington. After all, you would not think that there could be only one drummer for the entire Continental Army. Since the army was considered Washington's, every drummer who served in the army could consider himself to be "Washington's drummer."


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