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The Little Drummer Boy: Sergeant John Clem was 12 years old when he became a Civil War hero

Goran Blazeski

The American Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history. Although no one knows precisely how many people were killed or wounded during this great tragedy, most researchers agree that the number of casualties went way beyond anybody’s expectations.

It has been estimated that over 620,000 Americans lost their lives during the four-year war.

Carte providing a full-length portrait of Johnny Clem dressed in uniform, seated on a campstool, verso with Hall, Lawrence (MA) imprint and printed biographical sketch.

Carte providing a full-length portrait of Johnny Clem dressed in uniform, seated on a campstool, verso with Hall, Lawrence (MA) imprint and printed biographical sketch.

The Civil War affected the lives of everyone in the United States, including the children. Thousands of teenagers joined the army and fought in the war, even though many of them were under 18 years old and some were just over 10 years old. Among these brave soldiers was a 10-year-old boy from Newark, Ohio, whose name was John Clem.

Drummer boy Clem during the American Civil War

Drummer boy Clem during the American Civil War

Little Johnny was only 9 years old when he came up with a plan to leave both school and his home in order to join the Union Army. As you might guess, no one took him seriously at first and he was jokingly told by the commanding officer of the Third Ohio Regiment of Volunteers that the army “does not enlist infants,” but Johnny couldn’t accept no for an answer.

He was eventually adopted as a mascot and a drummer by the Twenty-Second Michigan Regiment and soon became the most likable character among the soldiers who all chipped in to pay his monthly salary of $13 until he was allowed to officially enlist in 1863.

John Clem with gun

John Clem with gun

It is said that little Johnny was involved in the Battle of Pittsburg Landing and could have lost his life when a shrapnel shell exploded very close to him. An article published by the New York Times in 1915 states that “one of the first battles in which the regiment figured was that of Shiloh where … Clem got into the very hottest of the fight. …  A fragment of the shell crashed through his drum and the shock of the explosion hurled him unconscious to the ground, where he was subsequently found and rescued by his bigger comrades. After the battle, the soldiers nicknamed Clem ‘Johnny Shiloh.’ “

Carte of Sergeant John Clem armed with a rifle and bayonet

Carte of Sergeant John Clem armed with a rifle and bayonet

However, it was the Battle of Chickamauga that made the little drummer boy a national celebrity. This time Clem carried a musket instead of a drum. At one point, he was spotted alone by a Confederate colonel who asked him to surrender, but apparently, little Johnny had other plans. He turned around, raised his rifle, and shot and wounded the Colonel. After this, he was promoted to sergeant, thus becoming the youngest non-commissioned officer ever in the U.S. Army.

This was not the end of Clem’s army career, and he went on to fight in several other battles and was wounded twice in the battle of Atlanta. He was discharged in 1864, at the age of 13.

Child soldier John Clem, c. 1863

Child soldier John Clem, c. 1863

Clem’s biggest wish was to enter the Military Academy and soon after his graduation he tried his luck, but, unfortunately, he failed to pass the entrance exam.

Read another story from us: Photographs of wounded Civil War soldiers taken by New York surgeon were used to determine the level of the post-war pension payments

In December 1871, he was appointed second lieutenant by President Ulysses S. Grant and served in the army for the next 45 years. The “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” retired in 1915 with the rank of major general. He died on May 13, 1937, in San Antonio and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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