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Marine Band Drum Major John Roach
Biography of Marine Band Drum Major John Roach

John Roach enlisted on Dec. 13, 1827, at age fourteen as an apprentice musician at Marine Barracks Washington. In 1830 he was promoted to fifer and served on the USS Brandywine. In August 1833 he transferred to the USS Franklin where he served as a fifer until his transfer in January 1834 to Marine Barracks Brooklyn, New York. He reenlisted on Oct. 3, 1834, as a fifer and was transferred to the Washington Navy Yard.

The March 1937 Marine Corps muster roll shows his rank as musician when aboard the USS Peacock. In 1842 he transferred to the line Marine Corps and served as an orderly sergeant. Problems with his health caused him to leave the Marine Corps from 1850 to 1855.

In 1855 he reenlisted and was named the fifteenth Drum Major of the Marine Band. In addition to serving as Drum Major, he was responsible for the education and musical and military training of the “music boys,” the apprentice musicians with which he began his military career twenty-eight years earlier. He was the first person to serve solely as Drum Major of the band after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Act of Congress creating the separate positions of Drum Major and Leader.

Roach served as Drum Major until Sept. 24, 1875. He continued his Marine Corps service as a sergeant at Marine Barracks Washington until his retirement on Sept. 24, 1881. Some historians believe that Drum Major Roach was the Marine who carried John Brown out of the engine house in Harpers Ferry, W.V., in 1859 following Brown’s attempt to capture the US arsenal located there.

The following account appeared in the February 1931 issue of The Marine Corps Gazette:

“Drum Major Roach would be in charge of the boys. He was an enormous man, tall, straight and very broad of shoulder, and he had a long iron-grey moustache as thick as your wrist. Roach, by the way, was in the Marine Detachment that saw service with Robert E. Lee at Harper’s Ferry and was the man who brought John Brown out of the Fire Engine House.”