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The Real Drummer Boy
LaSalle County Legend, James Fellows Knickerbocker
Hello, everyone, and welcome to another edition of Canal Stories, a series brought to you by the Canal Corridor Association to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Illinois & Michigan Canal and the communities that were shaped by its legacy. The Civil War has been deemed the deadliest war fought on American soil. With a disturbing number of casualties on both sides of the battle, it can be hard to imagine that a teenage boy from LaSalle County could throw himself willingly into the fray and survive to tell the tale. Today, we’re saluting the legend of James Fellows Knickerbocker, a local lad who wasn’t afraid of marching to the beat of his own drum. This story is brought to us by our friends at the LaSalle County Historical Society in Utica, Illinois.
James Fellows Knickerbocker began his Civil War journey the same way many adventurous 16 year-olds have done throughout history: by lying about his age. Passing himself off as a nineteen year-old in order to enlist, this native LaSalle County son was welcomed into the 53rd IL US Infantry as a musician on January 7th, 1862, and his eager spirit accurately depicts a young man who took on the role of waking and motivating the troops of his company. Though it was common for underage boys to lie about their age in order to join the fight, James was a bit older than the typical drummer, certainly old enough to carry a gun, prompting many questions to arise from his circumstances. Why was he was given this position? Was he a drummer before entering the service? Was his drum a personal possession, or family heirloom that predates the war itself? These mysteries still surround his tale to this day.
What we do know is that, at some point, James Fellows was transferred to the Invalid Corps for blindness, most likely brought on by an infection that rose to his eyes. His three brothers also served as Union soldiers during the Civil War, and of the four boys, two of them, in the same company (G), went blind by supposed infection. The cause of his brother’s blindness, a spinal disease contracted while in the service, was shared by the family, and published in the 1866 History of LaSalle County. However, no reference was made to the cause of James’ affliction. Considering the fact that 137 of the 227 men in the 53rd who lost their lives died by disease, these brothers are lucky to have continued living, despite their disability.
On March 14th, 1865, less than a month before Lee’s surrender, James mustered out. Shortly after returning home to Knickerbocker Farm in LaSalle County, he married a youthful Sarah Ann Mason on October 11th, 1866. Another James Knickerbocker was not so fortunate.
James Henry Knickerbocker, a first cousin to James Fellows, also served in the 53rd IL US Infantry. Although James Henry joined for a three-year term in February of 1862, by August, he had already died in Marseilles. At 35-years old, he joined a war that took his life in just five months, leaving behind his wife Clara, son Franklin, daughter Kate Ella, and six-month old son William. At a time when women did not yet have citizenship rights, including custody of their own children, mothers like Clara had to apply for guardianship. It took five years after her husband’s death for someone, whether it was her or someone on her behalf, to apply for guardianship and a tombstone. The tombstone is missing from the abandoned cemetery where official records say James Henry was to be buried. Today, this site is nothing more than a field of corn with tombstones thrown to the side of the road.
Without a date for James Fellows Knickerbocker’s transfer to the Invalid Corps, it is difficult to confirm the whole of his drum’s journey and its role in the Civil War, but because it comes with a very special accompanying artifact, we have good reason to believe that it sounded at the Battle of Shiloh on April 7th, 1862, and at the Siege of Vicksburg from May 20th to July 4th. During the siege, few supplies could get in, and news was increasingly vital. In the absence of newsprint, an editor of the Vicksburg Daily Citizen prepared to print on stocks of wallpaper. When General Grant’s forces penetrated the city, they discovered that the press was set up and ready for print, so they decided to make themselves copies as souvenirs. James Fellows folded up a copy and brought it home with him.
The descendants of James Fellows tell of how he took the old drum out every Fourth of July to march and beat “tattoo,” which could be heard from nearly a mile away. James later moved with his family to Iowa, where he died at the age of 58 on New Year’s Day in 1901. He left behind his wife and seven children, the youngest being a 9-year old son.
Much like his legend, James’ faithful drum is still alive and well, passed down through generations of his kin and recently donated to the LaSalle County Historical Society. In the words of the drum’s donor, “May it rest in memory of those from LaSalle County—and all the other Union soldiers—who served in the bloodiest of battles in American History.”
To learn more about this and other local legends, and to pay homage to James’ drum, be sure to visit our friends at the LaSalle County Historical Society.
That concludes today’s Canal Story. Thank you so much for joining us as we continue our journey through the history of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, pass it along to your family and friends, feel free to leave us a like or a comment, and we’ll see you again very soon.
Note: The LaSalle County Historical Society is so grateful to Tim Clark-McKitrick of Portland, Oregon for reaching out and sharing the research done by his father-in-law and daughter, Blythe. He provided photos and laid out the connective tissue of this story. The drum passed from James Fellows to his son Melvin, whose daughter then passed it to her son, who passed it on to Tim’s father-in-law, Keith Clark. Keith Clark is a well-regarded research author, Professor of History at Central Oregon Community College, and contributor to the Deschutes County Museum in Central Oregon.
The LaSalle County Historical Society would also like to thank LaSalle County Genealogy Guild Volunteers for donating hours of research assistance, resulting in access to the portraits above and a collection of primary source materials that helped vet the story.
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