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Johnny Clem the Drummer Boy of Chickamauga

While both North and South had young drummers and even boys who fought with adult soldiers probably none is better known than Johnny Clem. At age nine Johnny refused to take no for an answer when he tried to enlist in the Union Army. When one unit turned him down he went to another and tried again. He finally just followed along with the Twenty second Michigan. He soon was accepted by the unit and some of the men even collected money to give Johnny the thirteen dollars a month pay. By the time of the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee in 1862 he was on the regular muster. After the battle newspapers dubbed him "Johnny Shiloh".

Long afterward one of the members of his regiment said, "Johnny showed us something. He showed us that this was a war in which everybody was involved; there were no onlookers." (69)

In order to meet quotas of recruitment, Federal officers stopped asking questions and started taking anyone who stood on two legs, had two eyes, had more than half his teeth and looked like he was anywhere near eighteen. In the South anyone between sixteen and sixty was in uniform.

Uniforms were so expensive and sometimes scarce that the youngsters were clothed in whatever gear there was. This oftentimes turned out to be uniforms from the Mexican War as depicted in sketches made by artists. It is estimated that about 20,000 of the total national involvement of 60,000 small boys, marched and fought with the Rebel Army.

Not all of these youngsters were drummers. Some were buglers but for some reason not much has been said about these young boys. And while army regulations stipulated that a man had to be eighteen to carry a gun nothing was said about carrying a sword. This resulted in a large number of sword carrying cavalrymen at the age of fifteen, sixteen and even thirteen and fourteen.

Most of the boys remained on land but some of them ended up on the sea. This was in defiance of regulation but these boys were priceless on warships. They were assigned to carry the powder buckets, which were actually canvas bags, to the magazines from below the decks. Their small size enabled them to go up and down the twisting stairways quicker than any of the full-grown men. Because boys by the age of fifteen were usually too large to accomplish this fete most boys who carried the powder buckets were fourteen or younger. Confederate statistics, sketchy as they are, show that at least fifty percent of their fighting forces were fifteen or younger.

Most of these youngsters remained anonymous but not Johnny Clem. The story of Johnny got out and he became admired by the North and hated everywhere in the South.

At Chickamauga, Johnny was a sight to behold. The Federals decided to go in and break up the Confederate siege. Riding a caisson, a two-wheeled cart carrying ammunition, Johnny waved a musket the soldiers had cut down to size for him.

"Our men had hard going that day. We seesawed back and forth. During one of our retreats, a Rebel chased the piece of artillery on which Johnny rode. By then, everybody on both sides knew who Johnny was. So when the Rebel got close, he shouted out, 'Surrender, you damned little Yankee!'

"Johnny Clem didn't say a word. He just raised the sawed off musket and took the fellow down." (71,72)

After that Johnny, at age twelve, was more famous than ever and was known as "drummer boy of Chickamauga".

Soon after the Battle of Chickamauga, Johnny put his drum away and became a courier for the rest of the war. When peace finally came, Johnny tried to enroll in West Point but was turned down because his formal education stopped at the third grade.

Johnny submitted an appeal and Ulysses Grant who was starting the second year of his presidency heard of Johnny's plight. Grant who had been Johnny's commander at Shiloh stepped in and bypassed the U.S. Military Academy and as a result, Johnny was commissioned a second lieutenant is the U.S. Army in 1871. Johnny went on to spend fifty-five years in uniform and retired in 1916 as a major general.

Garrison, Webb, "A Treasury of Civil War Tales", New York, Ballantine Books, 1988.

© 2006 Winifred Ledoux