In 1863, Oscar Barton enlisted in the Union Army as a drummer. For two years, he carried his drum across the South as a member of the 26th United States Colored Troops. Today, the Tioga County Historical Society has given his drum a second lease on life.
In 1863, the Civil War was in its second hellish year, and thirty year old Oscar Barton was living in Vestal, New York. He was a descendant of free-blacks from Rhode Island, and his grandfather had been a soldier during the American Revolution. Barton followed in his grandfather’s footsteps that year when he enlisted in the Union Army along with his brother and five nephews.
On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect, and by May, the Federal Government was actively recruiting African-American soldiers under the moniker United States Colored Troops (USCT). After his enlistment, Barton became a drummer in Company B of the 26th USCT.
“As a drummer, Oscar Barton would signify the orders given to him by commanders or beat out the rhythm or pace of an advance,“ explains Kevin Lentz, Director of the Tioga County Historical Society (TCHS). “A drummer was a very important part of military operations that doesn’t really have a good equivalent [today].“
Although unarmed, drummers endured many of the same horrors and hardships faced by other Civil War soldiers. During battles, drummers would often find themselves in the thickest part of the fighting, or be recruited as stretcher-bearers helping to carry the wounded from the battlefield.
The 26th Regiment was one of three USCT regiments raised in New York State. In all, over 178,000 African-Americans fought for the North during the Civil War; of those, nearly 13,000 joined in New York and Pennsylvania. By the end of the war, roughly one out of every ten soldiers in the Union Army was African-American.
“That’s a lot of people signing up to fight at a time when the draft was in place and meeting stiff resistance, and the amount of causalities coming in was unimaginable,” explains Lentz. “So these troops had a huge impact on the war.”
Between 1864 and 1865, the 26th USCT participated in a number of military engagements, including James Island, Honey Hill, and Tillifinny Station. Over the course of the war, Barton’s unit suffered a total of 140 casualties.
After the war, Barton returned to upstate New York and eventually settled in the Owego area. However, the war had taken a toll on Barton. His pension application indicates that he suffered from a number of chronic health conditions linked to his military service. These conditions often prevented him from working later in his life.
On July 4, 1892, sixty-year-old Oscar Barton played his drum for a crowd gathered to dedicate the new Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Owego’s courthouse square. The dedication was Barton’s last public appearance.
“It was very notable that he basically came out of retirement, so to speak, to play one last time,” says Lentz. “And apparently he played it (the drum) like he hadn’t lost a step.”
In 1934, Oscar Barton died at the age of 101, and was buried in Owego’s Evergreen Cemetery.
In the 1990s, Barton’s drum was donated to the TCHS and put on display for a number of years. In 2011, the drum was badly damaged by the devastating flood that hit the region.
“Unfortunately we received more than four feet of water in our collections area and things were knocked around a bit,” explains Kevin Lentz. “We have some support through FEMA recovering some of our items, however that’s only a portion of what needs to be preserved.”
Early this year, the TCHS put Barton’s heavily damaged drum on display again as part of a Civil War exhibit in order to highlight the amount of restoration that many items in their collection still desperately need.
“There are anything from photographs, to a drum or clothing, or anything in between that we are still coming across that need some kind of recovery,” says Lentz. “It’s going to take quite awhile.”
The TCHS also recognized the historical significance of Barton’s drum and wanted to share that story with the community. According to Lentz, the drum celebrates the diversity and history of Tioga County.
“Oscar Barton, himself, represents a part of the community that history has kind of overlooked,” states Lentz. “We actually had several former slaves, or freedmen, living in the county and they were prominent citizens, but that’s a part of history that really isn’t well known in the area. “
Lentz also believes that Barton’s drum is a visible reminder of the role that thousands of African-Americans played in helping the North win the Civil War.
“That’s a part of the history that we like to show as well, and we think it’s a very important part of history that is sometimes overlooked,” says Lentz.
While the drum was on display this summer, the TCHS was able to raise over $300 in donations to restore and preserve the drum for future generations. The restoration was recently completed, and the drum will be exhibited in a traveling display until it can be put back on exhibition in the museum sometime next year.
*Special thanks to Rikki Springsteed