Marching to the Beat of His Own Drum: The Civil War Drum of John Alexander Parker

It was in September of 1862 when 15-year-old John Alexander Parker enlisted in the 18th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Union Army. Although the minimum age requirement for enlisting was 18, it wasn’t unusual for younger boys to join. Often referenced as “The Boys’ War,” the Civil War provided a variety of positions for male youths. For John Alexander Parker, his role in the war was rooted in song: he was charged with carrying the Regiment’s drum.

John Alexander Parker's Drum

The 18th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment drum was donated to the University Museum at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 1957 by John Alexander Parker’s son, Harley Parker. Harley lived in Villa Ridge, Illinois at the time – the same city where his father carried the drum during the Civil War. The drum is further connected to SIUC's history, as the Colonel of the 18th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Daniel H. Brush, founded the city of Carbondale – the current home to the University Museum. Not only does Harley's donation have familial roots, but historical and geographical significance as well. 

Conservation sponges are used to surface clean the drum.

Our conservators recently had the opportunity to assist with the conservation of John Alexander Parker’s Civil War drum. During an assessment at the University Museum, our conservators noted a variety of condition issues. The body of the drum, composed of a polychrome wooden veneer applied to a secondary wooden support, exhibited areas of delamination, abrasions, and losses in the wood. In addition to paint loss, the drum bore evidence of previous repairs and appeared to have had separate campaigns of cleaning with special attention to preserving the painted eagle image. The drum also displayed structural issues, including splitting, bowing, and buckling of the wood and veneer. And to top it all off, the original drum head was missing.  

Once the drum arrived at The Center, our conservators began executing their conservation plan. The treatment began with surface cleaning, followed by flattening of the buckled veneer and stabilizing cracks within the wooden rims using a conservation grade adhesive. Small losses, abrasions, and scratches were inpainted with reversible conservation watercolors to emulate the surrounding surface. The larger losses, exhibited in the ribbon, wing tips, and olive branch, were inpainted with reversible conservation acrylics. 

Reversible conservation adhesives are inserted underneath areas of lifting veneer.

Clamps assist in flattening the bowing and buckling in the wood.

Reversible watercolor and acrylic conservation paints fill areas of loss within the drum.

For exhibition purposes, our conservators created a new drum head out of Gator board. The board was then wrapped with Japanese paper and toned with conservation acrylics. Lastly, a layer of wax paper was applied to the surface of the newly constructed drum head to enhance sheen and give the appearance of animal hide. 

A new drum head is being created in preparation for exhibition.

Visit SIUC’s University Museum now through May 10 to see John Alexander Parker’s 18th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment drum on display in the exhibit "Conserving the Museum's Collection: Become a Contributor to Saving Damaged Works that Need Conservation." It will be featured alongside other conserved works from the collection, including three additional pieces treated at The Conservation Center: a Civil War era recruitment flag, a Kwakiutl potlatch hat, and an Aaron Bohrod oil on Masonite.The exhibit demonstrates the museum's ongoing commitment to preserving its collection though the donations of its loyal patrons. We hope to see you there!

Be sure to check out our previous article featuring the conservation of a Civil War painting also in SIUC's collection!

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