Boy Soldier, Drummer Boy and Young Hero
At 10 years old, Johnny Clem ran away from home to join the Union Army during the Civil War. Two years later, the Army accepted him as a drummer boy and regimental mascot. While parts of his early military career (notably “Johnny Shiloh”) are more myth than true, it should not deflect the true story of his life. Johnny Clem’s extraordinary story is summarized here and hopefully you may find it as fascinating as I did.
There are different reports on Clem’s involvement in the Battle of Shiloh and his early nickname “Johnny Shiloh.” In a 1915 New York Times article discussing his retirement, it states this legend as fact.
In that battle, Clem got into the very hottest of the fight. He came very near losing his life when a shrapnel shell exploded within a few feet of him. 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.
Clem’s involvement has since been seen as a legend rather than reality. In a 150th Anniversary Tribute edition of the Time magazine, they state the “Johnny Shiloh” events differently.
Ohio boy Johnny Clem became the toast of the North after the Battle of Shiloh, in which the drummer boy supposedly was knocked unconscious when an artillery shell tore though his drum. The story is almost certainly false, having been conflated with the song The Drummer Boy of Shiloh, written be William S. Hays.
If the legend of Johnny Clem being at the Battle of Shiloh were true, he would have been 10 years old (he was 12 years old during the Battle of Chickamauga.) Most reports agree that Clem was 12 years old when he joined the army and several officers refused to enlist him two years earlier. Therefore, it would be more likely that his involvement at the Battle of Shiloh was fictional.
“Drummer Boy of Chickamauga”
Clem fought during the Battle of Chickamauga that took place in September 1863. Confederate soldiers overwhelmed the brigade Clem was attached to and while retreating, Clem was separated. He ended up running straight into a Confederate Colonel who wanted Clem to surrender. Instead, Clem shot and wounded the Colonel before escaping and meeting up with his unit. He became known as the “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.” Years later, Clam stated, “When I heard that I had not killed that Confederate officer it was the best news I ever got.”
Civil War Activities and Honors
During the Civil War, Clem participated in the following battles: Perryville (October 6, 1862), Murfreesboro (December 5-7, 1864), Kennesaw Mountain (June 27, 1864), Peach Tree Creek (July 20, 1864) and Atlanta (July 22, 1864).
On December 18, 1871, President Grant promoted Clem to Second Lieutenant after Clem failed to pass the West Point entrance examination due to his lack of preliminary education. Clem continued to move up in the ranks and received the following titles:
- 1874 – First Lieutenant
- 1882 – Captain
- 1895 – Lieutenant Colonel
- 1903 – Colonel
- 1915 – Brigadier General
After the Battle of Chickamauga, Clem was promoted to sergeant, making him the youngest non-commission officer ever in the U.S. Army.
When he retired as a Brigadier General in 1915, Clem became the last Civil War veteran to retire from active duty.
His musket was sawed down due to his short stature; this allowed it to be proportional with his frame.
He was wounded twice during the Battle of Atlanta; one bullet grazed his right ear while shell fragments struck his hip.
His cap had three bullet holes through it after the Battle of Chickamauga.
Clem was taken prisoner towards the end of the war but he was later released in a prisoner exchange. The Confederate newspapers launched an assault at the Union who “send their babies out to fight us.”
His father-in-law served in the Confederate Army.
“Last Veteran of ’61 to Leave the Army.” New York Times, August 8, 1915.
Time. “The Civil War: 1861-1862: An Illustrated History.” (2011): 40.
Civil War Battle Summaries, nps.gov.