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The bravery of the youngest soldiers in the Union and Confederate forces—the drummer boys—won the hearts of their countrymen. These children didn’t simply provide musical entertainment for the troops. Responsible for beating out vital battle orders and communication signals, they were placed in harm’s way from the beginning of the fight to its conclusion. And when the battle was over, drummer boys were also relied upon to police the field, helping to carry wounded men to the hospital tents, and to bury the slain.

Given the crucial role they played—and the position they held in the line—many died in battle and lie in nameless graves, while others went on to earn the nation’s highest military recognition. For his outstanding service in the bloody Seven Days’ Battles, William E. “Willie” Johnston of St. Johnsbury, drummer for the 3rd Vermont Infantry’s Company D, was awarded the Medal of Honor. He apparently was the only drummer in the outfit who—amid the chaos and mayhem—managed to hold on to his drum. At 13, he was, and is, the youngest recipient of the citation.

Orion Perseus Howe of the 55th Illinois Infantry was just a year older when he earned his own Medal of Honor for service at Vicksburg. According to the citation, “A drummer boy, 14 years of age, and severely wounded and exposed to a heavy fire from the enemy, he persistently remained upon the field of battle until he had reported to Gen. W.T. Sherman the necessity of supplying cartridges for the use of troops under command of Colonel Malmborg.”

Sherman later recalled in a letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton:

“What arrested my attention then was, and what renews my memory of the fact now is, that one so young, carrying a musket-ball wound through his leg, should have found his way to me on that fatal spot, and delivered his message, not forgetting the very important part even of the calibre of his musket, 54, which you know is an unusual one.”

Younger still was John McLaughlin of Lafayette, Ind.; when he attached himself to the 10th Indiana at the outbreak of the war, he was “a little over ten years of age.” Not content with simply beating his drum, McLaughlin took up a musket and fought alongside his older compatriots. He eventually transferred to a Kentucky cavalry outfit and was wounded twice at the Battle of Perryville in the fall of 1862. Despite permanent damage to his leg, he refused a medical discharge, appealing directly to the president. Lincoln met with the boy, and reassigned him as a bugler.

Unquestionably the most renowned of the Civil War’s child soldiers was Johnny Clem, the “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.” So much has been written and celebrated about him that it is practically impossible to separate truth from fable, but one fact remains unchallenged: He is the only soldier to attach himself to the U.S. Army as a drummer boy and retire a brigadier general.

He was born John Joseph Klem in Newark, Ohio, in August 1851, and was tiny for his age. In 1863, a nurse described him as “a fair and beautiful child…but very small for his age. He was only about thirty inches high and weighed about sixty pounds.” One journalist, who referred to John as the “atom of a drummer-boy,” claimed he was small enough to live in his drum. Denied enlistment, he was adopted as a drummer and mascot by the 24th Ohio Volunteers, the 22nd Massachusetts or the 22nd Michigan Infantry—all have claimed him. By age 12, he had seen enough combat to warrant his official enlistment in the Regular Army, at which point he changed his name to John Lincoln Clem in honor of the president.

According to one popular account that found its way into a number of Union newspapers, during the Battle of Chickamauga, a mounted colonel under Confederate General James Longstreet galloped up to the waif. Depending on which source one reads, the officer shouted either “Stop, you little Yankee devil,” or “Surrender, you little damned son of a bitch!” Without hesitation, Johnny brought his musket to bear, and shot the Rebel out of his saddle, “his lips fresh stained with the syllable of reproach he had hurled at the child.”

At one juncture, Johnny was captured by General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry and interviewed by Wheeler himself. As the papers reported it, the general brusquely inquired, “What are you doing here, you damned little Yankee scoundrel?”

To which the little drummer boy replied, “General Wheeler, sir, I am no more a damned scoundrel than you are!”

The boy was eventually exchanged, the Rebels having taken what meager possessions he had. Johnny regretted the loss of only one item: “I would not have cared for the rest, if they hadn’t stole my hat, which had three bullet holes in it, received at Chickamauga.”

Whether all, or most, of the stories about Johnny Clem are true, Johnny had more than earned the nickname “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.” He was also known as “Johnny Shiloh,” for reasons that might have more to do with flowery reportage than historical fact. Despite the stories of a Confederate cannonball smashing his drum as he marched into the fray, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Johnny was never at the Battle of Shiloh—despite Walt Disney’s 1963 homage, Johnny Shiloh. Regardless, he was known and loved by the Army of the Cumberland, and— thanks to the story-hungry reporters who knew a good propaganda vehicle when they saw it—by the home front as well.

A few years after the war ended, President Grant nominated Johnny for enrollment in West Point, but, thanks to a lack of education, the young man failed his entrance exams. Nonetheless, Grant appointed him a second lieutenant in the Army, and the rest, as they say, is history. John Lincoln Clem rose in the ranks, and retired a brigadier general in 1915, the last Civil War veteran on the Army rolls.

Scrimshander and historian Ron Soodalter is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader.

Originally published in the May 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.