Gustav Albert Schurmann was born in 1849 in Westphalia, Prussia. The following year his father, a talented musician, took his family and fled revolutionary Europe, emigrating to the United States and settling in New York City. As Gustav grew up, his father taught him how to play a variety of musical instruments.
After the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter in 1861, war fever engulfed the country. That spring, 11-year-old Gustav was working the streets of New York City as a shoeshine boy, and like thousands who swarmed the recruiting stations eager to enlist, the young boy was swept up in the excitement and sought to join any regiment that would take him as a drummer boy. His father had volunteered as a musician in the 40th New York Volunteer Infantry, later known as “The Mozart Regiment” because of the high percentage of musicians in its ranks, so young Gustav sought to join that regiment as well.
Rejected at first because of his age and small size, Gustav’s father asked the 40th New York’s colonel to at least hear the boy’s drumming. The lad being a musical prodigy who took after his father, the demonstration convinced the regiment’s commander to change his mind and add Gustav to the unit’s muster.
Gustav’s regiment served in the Peninsula Campaign, during which the boy was loaned out to General Kearney for a day as an orderly during a grand review. Impressed by the lad, the general ordered him to gather his gear from his regiment, and assigned him to his headquarters staff as orderly and principal bugler.
General Kearney was killed in August of 1862, and his replacement, General Birney, retained Gustav as orderly and bugler. After the Battle of Antietam, the boy was assigned to General Stoneman’s III Corps staff, and promoted to Corps bugler.
After the Battle of Fredericksburg, Gustav was appointed to the staff of General Sickles, who promoted the then 14-year-old to sergeant as a reward for gallantry displayed in combat.
During a grand review of the Army of the Potomac in April of 1863, Gustav caught president Lincoln’s eye, as well as the eye of the president’s youngest son, Tad. The two became fast friends, and Gustav was invited to the White House. Granted an extended furlough, young Gustav spent a happy period with Tad Lincoln and the rest of the president’s family.
During the Battle of Chancellorsville, Gustav again displayed conspicuous courage, for which he was awarded a medal. Soon thereafter, at the Battle of Gettysburg, the lad again exhibit his bravery and coolness under fire when General Sickles’ leg was shattered by a cannonball. Applying a tourniquet to staunch the bleeding, young Gustav helped save the general’s life, and went back with him to the hospital, and thence to Washington. There, president Lincoln figured the boy had already used up to too many of his lives, and ended his Civil War service, ordering him back home to attend school in preparation for West Point in a few years.
During Gustav’s Civil War career, he served as a bugler for five different generals, saw plenty of action, was recognized for his courage and awarded medals, befriended the president’s youngest son and was guested at the White House. All in all, a generous dollop of the adventure and excitement the lad had sought when he enlisted.
Following his discharge, Gustav returned to New York City. Lincoln’s assassination ended his West Point prospects, so he went on with his life. He settled in NYC, worked for the city in various departments, married, and raised a family. He died in 1905, at the age of 56.