History as Mystery: Jabez Jolley, Revolutionary War Drummer

This story about Jabez Jolley is based on research by Matt Thorenz, a librarian and archivist , who worked previously at New Windsor Cantonment and has done extensive research on African Americans who spent time there during the American Revolution. Matt’s earlier post was about Jude Hall, another African American Revolutionary War solider. More of his research is on THV’s resource page.

TeachingHistory.org, and many others, describe history as “an argument about the past.” They urge students and teachers to engage in “historical thinking” asking questions about, for instance, how we know what we know and why different reports aren’t always consistent. To find out more, view their seven minute video, What is Historical Thinking?

Another way to show students how much remains to be discovered is to share the incomplete stories of people we know existed, but know little about. Below is such a story. Students might use this information about Jabez Jolley to try to find out more about him. Or, they might do more general research about African Americans of the time and imagine what his life might have been like after the Revolution.


Temple of Virtue, New Windsor Cantonment. Photo: Gleaves Whitney, Grand Valley State University.

Jolley Joins Up

The mystery begins in December 1779 when Jabez Jolley enlisted as a drummer in Rufus Lincoln’s Company, 7th Massachusetts Regiment. Was he 18 or 19? A farmer or a sailor? It’s not clear.

One thing we do know is that fifers and drummers played a crucial role in running an 18th Century army. Loud music could communicate messages over long distances. “Field musick,” also known as “calls,” directed soldiers to tasks, shared orders, assisted the wounded, and was essential to maintaining order and discipline in Washington’s army.

Drummers from this era are often characterized as children, but while they were sometimes as young as 12 many were adults. The main requirement was the stamina to march long distances with a drum. Jolley, described as standing five foot five inches, had that ability.

Besides keeping time, communicating, and boosting morale, drummers also acted as disciplinarians. Soldiers convicted of offenses, such as stealing, fighting, or gambling, could be sentenced to lashing with the drum-major’s cat-o-nine tails, a whip with nine braids each ending in a metal barb.

Drummers themselves were not excluded from such punishment, and in June 1782 a court martial found Jabez Jolley guilty of “abusing another soldier; sentenced to receive 30 lashes”. Fortunately for Jolley he was pardoned and allowed to continue as a drummer in his regiment.

Early in June 1783 Jolley and his regiment marched from New Windsor to West Point where they were formally discharged. Jolley’s story after the war has yet to be discovered.

A Day in His Life

Few details about Jolley’s life–before, during, or after his time at New Windsor–exist. Based on what is known about life at the Cantonment during the American Revolution, and the role of drummers, his days might have been something like this:

  • Play Reveille, announcing the start of a soldier’s day, around 5 or 6 a.m.
  • Beat Assembly while officers took attendance and soldiers prepared for work.
  • Play Troop during the formal inspection of men and equipment.
  • Guard an officer’s hut announcing meetings, making supply calls that sent men to gather firewood or water, and sounding warnings in case of an attack or fire.
  • Announce lunch and supper by playing Roast Beef.
  • Play Taptoo (also known as Tattoo) after dusk, calling men back from town and ensuring each soldier was accounted for.
  • On Sundays, play Church Call bringing soldiers to the Temple of Virtue to hear Samuel Evans, the Congregational minister. (The Temple, as it appears today, is shown above.)

Learn more about this period

The Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College has a wealth of material on the American Revolution including: links to descriptions of more than 30 sites, bibliographies, and 16 lesson plans for grades 4-11; many were developed by area teachers.

Patriots of Color “A Peculiar Beauty and Merit”: African Americans and Native Americans at Battle Road and Bunker Hill by George Quintal, Jr., 268 pp.

Searching THV’s lesson plan library using “Revolutionary War,” “New Windsor Cantonment,” or similar terms turns up a range of activities and lessons. Knox Headquarters, a site related to the New Windsor Cantonment, can also be searched. And, you can get a Slideshare presentation, A Question of Interest, from THV’s 2013 institute.