- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2009

Like many young children, Tad and Willie Lincoln could be a handful for their parents. Although numerous eyewitness accounts portray Mr. Lincoln as especially indulgent about their antics, even during his presidency, there must have been times when even he felt the need for peace and quiet. The Lincolns eventually began finding playmates among the children of Washington, who would help Tad and Willie burn off some of their surplus energy.

Some of the children wrote down their stories later in life. One of the most memorable of the children was Gustave Albert Schurmann, usually nicknamed Gus.

Gus already had been having adventures of his own long before he met the Lincolns. Born in 1850 into a poor family in New York City, he left school at age 9 and went to work in a local sawmill. Whenever there was no work there, he worked the streets as a shoeshine boy at 3 cents a shine.

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Somehow he also found time to practice as a drummer boy. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the 12-year-old proved so talented at his craft that he was recruited into New York’s 40th Regiment.

The regiment left for Washington on July 4, 1861, and became part of the Army of the Potomac. Schurmann was chosen as drummer boy to Gen. Philip “Fighting Phil” Kearny. Twelve might seem rather young for a boy to go to war, but some of the other drummer boys were even younger. One, C. Perry Byam, began service at the age of 9.

Although Gus became something of a pet or mascot among the men, it wasn’t all fun and games. Drummer boys had to serve in the midst of battle, drumming out complicated signals for the soldiers and trying to make them heard above the din. In the days before radio, drums and bugles were among the few ways for officers to get orders to the soldiers - where to fight, when to advance and when to retreat.

After Kearny’s death at the Battle of Chantilly, “Kearny’s Little Bugler” was assigned to Gen. Daniel E. Sickles. Sickles was already famous, or notorious, for having shot Philip Key, his wife’s lover, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House in 1859. His victim was the son of Francis Scott Key, composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Sickles got off in one of the first uses of the insanity defense.

Sickles was stationed at Belle Plain, a massive Union supply center just nine miles from Fredericksburg, Va., when the Lincolns visited the Army on May 23, 1862. Gus and Tad hit it off at once. Tad admired and envied Gus’ ability as a horseman, but when Tad tried to ride one of the horses, it ran out of control. Gus galloped up behind and saved Tad from a nasty fall.

The Lincolns asked Sickles to let Gus come and stay with them for awhile. Thus, the young drummer found himself a guest at the White House. Willie Lincoln had died of a typhoid-like illness on Feb. 20, 1862, so Gus may have been intended as a new companion for Tad.

The two children did spend a lot of time together. One adventure Tad and Gus shared was on April 8, 1863, when the Lincolns again went to visit the Army of the Potomac. Gen. Joseph Hooker, who by then was in charge, put on a major review for them, with seemingly endless files of soldiers marching past.

The local Evening Star wrote about the review in its April 10 issue, though it got Tad’s full name wrong. “Tad” was a family nickname for Thaddeus, not Tommy. Also, Schurmann was misspelled, and Kearny too.

The newspaper item did show that Tad had learned how to ride, probably with Gus’ help: “Tommy Lincoln, with his companion, Gustave Albert Schuman (not yet fourteen years old, and who was with General Kearney through his battles except the last one) were both mounted on fine horses and attracted considerable attention.”

The two boys often went to the Washington theaters. On one occasion, they were watching a drama called “The Marble Heart.” By the end of the second act, Tad was quite carried away with the lead actor and said: “I’d like to meet that man. He makes you thrill.” The stage manager took the boys backstage to meet the actor, John Wilkes Booth. The manager introduced the children, adding, “This is President Lincoln’s son.”

As Gus told the story years later, Booth smiled and shook the hands of both boys. He asked what they thought of the play and gave each boy a rose from a bouquet given earlier by an admirer in the audience. This meeting must have taken place on April 13 or 18, 1863, at Grover’s Theatre or April 29, 1863, at the Washington Theatre, for the boys had separated by the time Booth appeared again in “The Marble Heart” in Washington.

It would prove to be one of their last adventures together. Sometime in late June 1863, Sickles ordered his drummer to return to active duty, and Gus found himself on the way to the Battle of Gettysburg. He survived it and indeed came through the war unhurt. For whatever reason, he and Tad did not meet again.

In later years, Gus attended the reunions of the 40th New York. At the 1891 meeting, he got out the old drum and beat a salute to the men who had survived the war and to those who had not.

• John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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