The Incredible Story of the 12-Year Old Civil War Hero
The Incredible Story of the 12-Year Old Civil War Hero

The Incredible Story of the 12-Year Old Civil War Hero

Patrick Lynch - August 13, 2017

The Battle of Chickamauga, fought from 18-20 September 1863, resulted in a Confederate victory, over 34,000 casualties and almost 4,000 deaths. In the midst of battle, a Confederate colonel spotted a young boy in Union uniform brandishing a rifle. He apparently ordered the boy to surrender and reportedly said: “I think the best thing a mite of a chap like you can do is drop that gun.” Instead, the drummer boy of the 22nd Michigan Infantry, John Clem, shot the colonel and scurried back towards friendly lines. It was the day that a legend was born.

A Pre-Teen Warrior

John Joseph Clem (spelled ‘Klem’ on his enlistment documentation) was born in Newark, Ohio on August 13, 1851. After his mother died in 1861 when she hit by a train, 9-year John ran away to enlist in the Union Army as a drummer boy. He approached Captain Leonidas McDougal of the 3rd Ohio Union Regiment in the belief that his help was required. McDougal reportedly said: “I’m not enlisting infants, son.” In the Civil War, it wasn’t uncommon for boys as young as 14 to fight on the battlefield. In some cases, a boy might enlist with his father or grandfather and the army would accept him.

The Incredible Story of the 12-Year Old Civil War Hero
John Clem. Wikimedia

Little Johnny refused to quit and tried to join the 22nd Michigan Infantry. While it also refused him, he followed the unit until 1862 and served as a mascot and drummer. The army officers were so impressed by his determination that they finally allowed him to enlist officially in 1863. They even chipped in to pay his $13 monthly salary until he was a member of the group. While in the Army, he changed his name to John Lincoln Clem because he admired President Lincoln and because he thought ‘Clem’ sounded more American than ‘Klem.’

The Myth of Shiloh

There is a popular tale attributed to the life of Clem which is almost certainly a myth. It suggests that he was a drummer boy for the 22nd Michigan at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862. According to the legend, Clem was struck by shrapnel which went through his drum; it knocked him unconscious. His comrades found him lying on the field, and they rescued him before it was too late. They later gave him the nickname ‘Johnny Shiloh.’

In reality, the weight of evidence suggests that Clem was never at the Battle of Shiloh. First of all, the 22nd Michigan was not in active service until August 1862 which is, of course, several months after the battle. The entire Johnny Shiloh story probably comes from a song written by William S. Hays after the Battle of Chickamauga. Clem had become a national hero at that stage.

It is a little odd that the New York Times published an article in 1915 that tried to add weight to the myth. According to the publication, Clem “got into the very hottest of the fight.” Indeed, there is a suggestion that the tale about Clem running away from home aged nine and trying to join the Ohio Infantry is also a myth. However, he always stuck to his claim that he fought at Shiloh. Members of the 3rd Ohio may have fought in the battle, and in theory, Clem could have joined them. Whatever happened in Clem’s early years, sources tend to agree that his legendary actions at Chickamauga occurred.

The Incredible Story of the 12-Year Old Civil War Hero
Colonel John Clem. Civil War Talk

The Musket is Mightier than the Drum

At the Battle of Chickamauga, Clem was given a musket that was sawn down so he could carry it. At some point in the battle, he came across a Confederate colonel and didn’t hesitate to shoot him. Clem was promoted to the rank of Sergeant after the battle; at 12-years of age, he became the youngest noncommissioned officer in U.S. Army history. Although the story says that he killed the Confederate colonel, there is a suggestion that he only wounded Calvin Walker of the 3rd Tennessee.

Clem soon learned the harsh realities of the Civil War in October 1863 when he was captured by Confederates in Georgia. They confiscated his U.S. Army uniform; his cap allegedly had three bullet holes in it. According to Clem, he was held by the Confederates for two months, and in that time, they used him as propaganda. They ran campaigns suggesting that the Union was in dire straits because it needed babies to fight for it. He was extremely upset when they stole his uniform and stories about his situation spread like wildfire in the north. A number of women in Chicago began working to ensure little Johnny had a new uniform when he was released.

This setback didn’t prevent Clem for continuing to participate in the Civil War. He was involved in the Battles of Perryville, Kennesaw, Murfreesboro, and Atlanta. Clem was wounded twice during this period as part of the Army of the Cumberland and was discharged in September 1864.

Clem in Post War America

While life was undoubtedly tough for veterans of the Civil War once the conflict had ended, Clem had youth on his side; after all, he was only a teenager when the war was over. He went back to High School and graduated in 1870. Given his previous experience, it is hardly a surprise to learn that he wanted to pursue a career in the military. First of all, he achieved the rank of commander/captain of the Washington Rifles in 1871.

Clem’s next goal was to enter the U.S. Military Academy, but it was not the formality he anticipated. As he pointed out, entry to West Point was based on academic achievement rather than combat experience. He was at an extreme disadvantage because he had left school before the age of ten. As a consequence, his schooling was in ‘tatters’ so he failed the entrance exam. Incredibly, there was a possibility that a Civil War hero’s military career could have been over at the age of 20.

Fortunately, his fame proved a major asset because it allowed him to see Ulysses S. Grant, who was President at the time. Clem had claimed that Grant ordered him to play the Long Roll at the Battle of Shiloh. Whether or not this was true, Clem was well known across the United States at that point, so Grant was certainly aware of whom he was. According to Clem, Grant said: “We can do better than that” when he learned of his problems with the entrance exam and appointed him second lieutenant in the 24th U.S. Infantry in December 1871. It was the beginning of a lengthy career in the army.

The Incredible Story of the 12-Year Old Civil War Hero
Clem’s Headstone. Flickr

Later Years

Although he had difficulties with the entrance exam, it didn’t curtail his career because, in 1874, he was promoted to first lieutenant. The following year, he graduated from artillery school at Fort Monroe. 1875 was a busy year for Clem because he also married Anita Rosetta French, the daughter of a Major General in the U.S. Army. The promotions kept on coming for Clem; he rose to the rank of Captain in 1882 and transferred to the Quartermaster Department; he remained there for the rest of his career.

Clem never lost his ambition, drive or love of the army. In 1895, he was promoted to the rank of Major. Along the way, he served with distinction in the American Indian Wars against the Native Americans and received an Indian Campaign Medal. Clem suffered a blow in 1899 when his wife died. However, he didn’t stay lonely for long and married Bessie Sullivan, daughter of a Confederate veteran, in 1903.

Meanwhile, Clem remained busy and played a role in the Spanish-American War of 1898 for which he received a Spanish War Service Medal. He continued to rise through the ranks and became a Lieutenant Colonel in 1901. Just over two and a half years later, Clem became a Colonel; a position he held until he reached official retirement age.

Clem had the honor of serving as Chief Quartermaster at Fort Sam Houston in Texas from 1906 to 1911. He was retired in 1915 and was immediately awarded the rank of Brigadier General; this promotion was customary for Civil War veterans that reached the rank of Colonel. By the time he retired, Clem was the last American Civil War veteran still serving in the U.S. Army. Clem was finally promoted to Major General in 1916 while in retirement.

The man who could have died before he reached his teen years on the battlefield at Chickamauga enjoyed a lengthy retirement because he lived in Washington D.C and then in San Antonio where he died in 1937. Today, there is a 6-foot bronze statue of a young John Clem standing close to the Buckingham Meeting House in his hometown of Newark.

Although he was proud to serve his country, Clem was under no illusions with regards to the nature of war. Later in life, he wrote: “War is bald, naked savagery. As compared with the adult man, the boy is near to the savage.” He was also adamant that boys made the best soldiers because they are eager to please and had yet to develop the “spirit of caution” found in adults. Certainly, Clem lived an incredible life which started at the age of nine when he decided to stow away and never look back.

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