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 from 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 âtatters’ 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.