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  • Jake Wynn

Letter from a Pennsylvania drummer boy – April 1862

In a driving South Carolina rainstorm, Jeremiah Helms penned a thoughtful letter to a girlfriend at home in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. The 15-year-old had enlisted in Company C, 50th Pennsylvania in the summer of 1861 as a musician. On April 21, 1862, he was stationed with the regiment in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. He gave his address as Beaufort, a town that had been occupied by the US Army since November 1861.

Jeremiah Helms is likely the young drummer on the right side of this detail of the larger O'Sullivan image. (LOC)

Helms wrote to Permilla Saylor, a 15-year-old girl who lived in Schuylkill Haven. The two went to the same Sunday School and prayer meetings at St. Peter’s Evangelical Church.

In his letter, he reports that there isn’t much news, but gives some details about his life and duties with the 50th Pennsylvania. He comments on the weather, reports that the regiment is participating in church services with the freedpeople of South Carolina, and highlights his roles and responsibilities as a drummer boy. It’s a sweet letter that reveals a bit about how two teenagers communicated across hundreds of miles in a nation torn apart by war.

The letter was saved by the Saylor family and returned to a cousin of Jeremiah Helms in 1926. Subsequently, the letter was published in the Pottsville Republican:

As I have just about one half hours time I will answer your letter, which I received on the 15th. I was glad to receive it, for I like to hear of my Prayer meeting friends, who used to assemble with me in that little room.

At present I haven’t got much news to tell you, but in the next I can tell you enough I guess. Today it is raining fast and very ugly. I got all wet this morning at Guard Mounting. It was raining very fast and is raining still. When it commences to rain here it rains a couple of days, but still that don’t hurt a soldier.

I guess the Sunday School is very full at present. If it is not it ought to be for it generally is very full during the Winter. We have Sunday School here to teach the little Darkies, not just the little ones, but also the big ones. I just was in it once, that is all the chance I could get to go in, for Inspection generally kept me up. When the inspection is, why I must go out with my drum.

If it stops raining today we will go out on a target practice.

I cannot think of any news at present, so I guess I must come to a close. My love to all.

Write soon,

From your friend Jeremiah Helms

Excuse my bad writing, for a soldier must take the best place to write he can… My love to my Parents.

Jeremiah Helms continued drumming for inspections and drill as the 50th Pennsylvania commenced training in South Carolina until the summer of 1862, when the regiment was called back to Virginia. Helms was with the regiment when it first engaged with Confederates in pitched battle at Second Bull Run on August 29, 1862.

Three weeks later, Helms was mortally wounded at the Battle of Antietam. During the battle, he threw down his drum, picked up a musket and went charged forward with his comrades, though he was underage. A Confederate bullet struck him in the head, and he succumbed to his wounds on September 27, 1862. He was 16 years old. Two of Helms's brothers, who also participated in the Battle of Antietam, visited him in the field hospital.[1][2]

The boy’s body was sent home to Pennsylvania for burial. The Grand Army of the Republic Post 26 in Schuylkill Haven was named for Jeremiah Helms – the drummer boy who gave his life at Antietam and who longed to return to his prayer meetings and friends in Schuylkill County.

1 comment

1 Comment

Jan 30, 2020

Hello! I'm a descendent of the Helms family and would love to obtain a scan of the original letter. If you know who it was given to in 1926, could you please email me? Thanks so much!

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