On March 17, 1824, the Middlesex Gazette advised “By order of the Court of Probate for the District of Middletown, will be sold at public vendue, (if not previously disposed of by private sale,) all the estate of David Churchill, late of Chatham deceased. Said vendue will be held at the late dwelling house of said deceased, on Monday the 20th inst. at 10 o’clock, A.M. at the beat of drum.”
The drummer who summoned bidders to this auction and others like it in Middletown was probably Hammet Achmet. A former slave who sought day-to-day labor to supplement his modest military pension, Achmet was well known to the upper strata of Middletown, Connecticut society and even to such national celebrities as P.T. Barnum, Senator John C. Calhoun, and George Washington.
Hammet Achmet was born in Africa, probably in 1759. As a young boy he was “captured and shipped to Virginia,” the further specifics of which are unknown. While still a child he became a servant of George Washington, first tending his horse and later waiting on the General himself. Achmet never forgot these years and “continually talk[ed] about Massa Washington;” as an old man he would tell “. . . many long stories . . . of the fine dinners and grand company” he witnessed during his service and would display to anyone interested the sword and lock of hair given to him by the General himself. Achmet had no kind words for Mrs. Washington, though, and “. . . used to call [her] hard names and find fault with her treatment of him which caused him to run away.
Perhaps Achmet ran to Middletown, because in 1777 he enlisted there as a drummer in Captain Benjamin Throop’s Company, Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs’ Regiment of the First (later the Fourth) Connecticut Regiment. He was a member of the party that stormed Stoney Point and was wounded during the battle of Germantown. Achmet was also present at the Yorktown surrender in 1783. Earlier, he had been at Valley Forge, as another soldier named Samuel Fayerweather told pension officials in 1819. Achmet, he testified, was “among the crowd assembled around the waggons” which brought specie from France to pay the army. He also remembered seeing “the little black drummer” in 1779, “ . . .the spring of the year after the army quitted Valley Forge,” when Achmet’s attempts to hoard his allotment of rum had amused Fayerweather and his comrades—but not so Achmet. In anger, Hammet attacked him with the butt of his head, only to “receive upon it,” Fayerweather recalled, “several strokes of my heel” in return.
After the war, Achmet resided in Middletown with his wife Jane and his daughters. He eked out a living tending his garden and doing odd jobs about town, such as drumming for the vendue and selling old shoes to the local gun factory (these would be made into polishing leather).
Drumming was important to Achmet, and he drummed not only for the auctions but also at various military events held in town. More importantly, he began making and selling drums, “large and small,” which he advised were “made and sold by General Washington’s Waiter.” To Middletown citizenry, he was a favorite son, “held in great respect by the community,” as one resident recalled, “Often did I meet him in his rounds, or proudly performing his office at the head of a military company. . .he might be seen any day marching the streets with a string of little drums over his shoulder, he himself dressed in quaint regimentals.”
To out-of-towners, though, he was a “strange mortal” who walked around town “with a blue jacket trimmed in decayed military trappings.” His ever-present drum, which had served him so well during the war and helped him earn a living long after it was over, was to them “almost a nuisance.”
Though poor, Achmet had friends in high places. One was Jonathan Barnes, a local attorney, who oversaw the distribution of Achmet’s military pension. Obtaining the pension had been a two-year process that Achmet himself, hindered by his thick African accent and “rapidity of speech,” could not accomplish, but he was successful following intervention by District Court Judge Pierpont Edwards of Bridgeport. Edwards, son of the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards, solicited the aid of none other than John C. Calhoun on Achmet’s behalf, reminding him that Achmet had served in the regiment commanded by the father of current Postmaster General and pointing out that Achmet still had his drum and leather cap from the war, “with the distinctive mark of the United States” still on them. Other friends included the cadets at the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy run by Captain Alden Partridge, an institution that continues
today as Norwich [VT] University. At one point in 1827, the cadets collected a subscription of ten cents each to give to Hammet, this following the deaths, in close succession, of his wife and daughter.
Hammet soon remarried, this time to a white woman who is reported to have “washed her face and hands in a decoction of mahogany chips” in order to avoid the stigma of a “mixed marriage.” The marriage was not a happy one:
“Mr. and Mrs. Achmet quarreled sometimes, and once she cut off Hammet’s ringlets as he lay asleep. They were his especial pride . . . , so poor Achmet hid himself til the curls grew again.”
It was Achmet’s service to George Washington that nearly earned him national fame. According to Emily Stedman, granddaughter of Achmet’s benefactor,
One time when grandfather was attending court in New Haven, a man came to the [Barnes] residence and inquired for grandfather. . . the man. . . was Phineas T. Barnum, and that he was trying to get Hammett Achmet to travel with his “Greatest Show on Earth.”
At that time Barnum was in the midst of the Joyce Heth affair. Heth, an elderly colored woman, had been exhibited in Barnum’s traveling show as the reputed 161-year-old former “servant-woman” who in youth had nursed the infant George Washington. Heth was a charming addition to Barnum’s show–knarled with arthritis, she delighted audiences by singing hymns–but her death in 1836 sparked a frenzied newspaper scandal accusing Barnum of exploitation and fraud. Perhaps Barnum sought to downplay the Heth affair by replacing his star exhibition with the more credible Hammet Achmet, but to no avail. Stedman continues:
Hammet had refused to go unless ‘Massa B—-‘ should say he must. Not finding it possible to persuade old Achmet, and lawyer B—- not being at home, Barnum hired a horse and carriage (there was no railroad to New Haven then, and the stage went there only every other day), and drove to New Haven to interview ‘Massa B—-.” Grandfather said he would advise with Hammet, the result being that ‘General Washington’s waiter’ concluded he did not want to be exhibited as one of Barnum’s curiosities; and remained at home.
Stedman believed that Achmet lived to be 114, but more likely he was around 83 when he died in 1842. Within a month his wife “became white again” and was married, this time to “an old sailor and bird fancier” named Andrew P. Folio. None of Achmet’s drums have been identified, if any have survived, and we don’t know how pervasive his influence was on drumming in Middletown–did he teach drumming, formally or informally? Was he associated with the “drum school of some celebrity” once located in Middletown Upper Houses? What were his connections with the A.L.S. & M. Academy? All we have is the recollection of the old-timers, who agreed in 1893 that “there was real music in old Achmet’s drum.”
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