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Fall 1981

THE DRUMMER BOY OF CASTINE — A GHOST STORY

Drummer Boy Postcard

Castine’s most famous ghost is just over two hundred years old in its (his?) present spectral state. It originated in a small but fiercely contested battle of the Revolution, in the summer of 1779, when British troops held the peninsula of Castine and American forces were attempting to dislodge them. William Hutchins, who lived with his parents a few miles up the Bagaduce River, was only fourteen that summer, an active, energetic boy, he was interested in and curious about the activities at the peninsula; he visited ships in the harbor and fortifications on shore, “Being so young [he] was allowed to go on and off the peninsula but the soldiers used to call [him] a damned little rebel.” Years later he described the events of that summer to Joseph Stevens, Jr. — “One night the Americans undertook to surprise the English but they fell in with the British guard at Banks’s battery and had a sharp fight. Quite a number were killed on both sides. I afterwards saw up by the [Bagaduce] narrows some bloody uniforms tied up in a blanket that had been stripped from English soldiers who were killed that night. A drummer was killed that night of the skirmish at the battery near Banks’s house, and for a good many years after people used to say they could hear his ghost drumming there at midnight. Vivid, memories which remained all William’s long life; the battery had been built near the home of Aaron Banks whose wife Mary was a cousin of the Hutchins and young William lived near the narrows.

The town had grown, by the mid-nineteenth century, spreading to the west along the shore where Banks’s home and the battery had been. At the same time Fort George, though reduced to grassy mounds, was still impressive and, in that nearly treeless peninsula, visible for miles in every direction; no wonder then that the ghost moved from a vanished battery to the imposing remains of Fort George.

One corner of the fort was especially suited for a ghostly inhabitant. Fort George was built by the British in 1779, destroyed by them when they left early in 1784, rebuilt by British troops in 1814, surrendered in 1815 to Americans who staffed it until 1819 when it was again destroyed, the barracks and palisades removed and the magazine set on fire which, being covered with dirt continued burning “for many days till all fell in a solid mass as now seen.” However there remained, near the southwest corner an entrance leading to a small room or tunnel, its brick sides and ceiling holding the weight of the dirt and sod above, this naturally came to be known as the dungeon, and what could be more suitable for a ghostly residence?

Noah Brooks portrait

With the ghost established in the dungeon of the fort, more dramatic stories arose as to its origin and habits. In July, 1876, a young lady (a delightful writer but a poor historian) visiting her grandparents in Castine wrote a friend - “There is an old fort with the ruins of its magazine and its dungeon into which one can still go a little way - which was made at the time of the revolution and was used again in 1812. There is a story, which I think is true, about the dungeon. I have forgotten what war it was in but will tell you what I remember. The English had defeated the Americans and were deserting the fort. They marched away one night at 9 o’clock with their trumpet blowing and bugle playing and entirely forgot a little American drummer boy who had been imprisoned in the dungeon. The boy beat his drum with all his might but they did not hear - The sound of his drum was heard all night - The inhabitants thought it came from the English troops. A year after, I think on the fifteenth of March, it was exactly the same kind of night as just a year before when the British went - stormy and a high wind and the sound of a drum came from the dungeon - at nine o’clock and was heard all through the night (that part is a little legendary, I suppose, but the next isn’t). The next day the dungeon was opened and near the door was found the skeleton of the poor little drummer boy, still clasping the old drum - It makes the old dungeon a melancholy place. The old women about the town shake their heads and talk mysteriously about a ghost which comes from the dungeon and promenades the fort the fifteenth of every month ...”

Six years later Noah Brooks’s account of the ghost appeared in The Century Magazine, another tale of more charm than of historical accuracy. A “more authentic ghost, however, is that of a little drummer-boy who was left imprisoned in the dungeon of Fort George, when the British evacuated Castine, after the signing of the treaty of Ghent (1814). Forgotten in the hurry of embarkation, the lad was left to starve to death. The dungeon was not opened until years afterward, and when the visitors explored its darkness they found the skeleton of the prisoner drooped over his dust-covered drum. Fortunately for the truth of history, the date of this tragical occurrence is fixed, and as the British evacuated the place in April, we can understand why, on the fifteenth night of each month of April, ever since, a ghostly drum-beat issues from the ruined dungeon, as if the shade of the imprisoned drummer-boy strove to attract the attention of the troops marching away from the fort to the shore.”

Forty or fifty years later the ghost had changed again; not in habitat but in other ways. Katharine Butler Hathaway chronicled its activities in The Little Locksmith published in 1943. She wrote of the young American drummer boy, only fourteen years old who drummed for three days and nights until he died and how “Every year in the last week of August when the moon is full, as it was at the time he perished, you can hear him drumming again for three nights underground.”

We do not know the age of the drummer killed that August night in 1779, but we know that the ghostly drummer became, first a little American drummer, then a fourteen-year-old American drummer. The youth and especially the age of fourteen may have been an unconscious transfer from one or both of two boys involved in the events of that summer. One of these was William Hutchins himself, fourteen years old and soon to enlist in the Continental Army. The other was Israel Trask, also fourteen, a fifer, who had enlisted in Massachusetts and was serving on the Black Prince when it sailed for Penobscot. Israel first entered the army when he was ten, at twelve and thirteen he sailed on privateers and, after the Black Prince was blown up in the Penobscot River he walked home to Gloucester through the wilderness. Israel Trask was famous in Castine, he had landed with the assault party on the west shore of the peninsula and found shelter from British gunfire behind a large white granite boulder; nearly forty years later, when he revisited Castine, his young friends took him to the boulder and wrote on it in large letters “Trask - 1779.” Until the 20th century Trask’s Rock was frequently visited and much photographed. These fourteen-year-old boys, William and Israel, may account for the age of the legendary drummer.

The drummer has been heard from but little in recent years. Twenty or more years ago the old “dungeon” was excavated and rebuilt with more enthusiasm than knowledge, Fort George became a state park with historic signs and parking facilities - the drummer may be looking for a new home. However, it is not forgotten, in 1976 when attention was focused on the revolution the drummer walked again - and as it walked and drummed, it acquired a following - a few inhabitants woke and dressed and came out to march along Perkins and up Main with the drummer boy.

Sources

Manuscripts in the Wilson Museum:
      - Stevens Collection, conversations with William Hutchins.
      - A letter dated July 24, 1876, signed “Bell”

Noah Brooks, “An Old Town with a History,” September, 1882, Century Magazine

Katharine Butler Hathaway, The Little Locksmith, 1943, Coward-McCann

John C. Dann, editor, The Revolution Remembered, 1980, University of Chicago Press.


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