1863 : Johnny Clem Becomes the Famous Drummer Boy of Chickamauga

September 20, 2018 all-day

Johnny Clem, the Drummer Boy of Chicamauga

Separating fact from myth is always hard when it comes to celebrity soldiers like Clem. He was born Aug. 13, 1851, in Newark, Ohio, and was just 9 years old when he “ran off to join Mr. Lincoln’s army” (as the song in the movie goes). He was reportedly rejected by the commander of the 3rd Ohio, who said he “wasn’t enlisting infants,” before finally managing to hook up with the 22nd Michigan Infantry in the late summer of 1862. The 4-foot-tall youngster made himself indispensible around camp and the following spring was officially mustered into the regiment as a musician. Intelligent despite his limited education, Clem was given the important duty of regimental marker, carrying the guidon that a unit formed its line on.

A few months later, the 22nd Michigan was heavily engaged at the Battle of Chickamauga. On Sept. 20, 1863, in the midst of a retreat, Clem found himself face to face with a Rebel colonel on horseback. As the story goes, the officer yelled, “Stop, you little Yankee devil!” Clem refused to surrender. As he later described it, he picked up a discarded rifle, pointed it at the officer — and to both combatants’ great surprise, shot him out of the saddle. As one typically overheated newspaper account of the incident put it, “The proud Colonel tumbled dead from his horse, his lips fresh stained with the syllable of vile reproach he had flung upon a mother’s grave in the hearing of her child.”

It evolved that the colonel wasn’t killed, and that Clem had not shot him with a custom-fitted miniature musket, as widely reported. But the boy did evade capture by rolling himself in a blanket before finally making it back to his decimated regiment. Word of the exploits of 12-year-old Clem spread quickly among the demoralized troops.

The youngster’s admirers in the press and the army didn’t quibble over all the details of his heroism. Before he knew it, “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” was a celebrity, written up in national publications, posing for photographs, and accepting the gift of a pony. According to some sources, the song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” was based on Clem, who was promoted to sergeant.

After his skimpy education torpedoed his attempt to enter West Point following the Civil War, he prevailed upon President Ulysses S. Grant to appoint him a second lieutenant in the Regular army. Clem served from 1871 to 1916, when he retired as a mildly competent but beloved major general. He was the last Civil War veteran to leave active duty. He died at his Texas home on May 13, 1937, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Source : Richard Bak, “Michigan’s Little Drummer Boys of the Civil War”, Hour Detroit, December 2011.

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