William “Willie” H. Johnston was born in New York in 1850, and his family moved to Vermont shortly before the Civil War. When hostilities began, Willie’s father enlisted in the 3rd Vermont Infantry Regiment in July of 1861, accompanied by his son, who sought to join as well. Young Willie was rejected due to his age, but he accompanied the regiment anyhow, and served without pay. In December of 1861, officials finally relented and allowed him to formally enlist, placing him on the muster rolls as a drummer boy.
The 3rd Vermont took part in the Peninsula Campaign, and Willie’s first taste of combat came at Lee’s Mill, Virginia, on April 16, 1862 – a battle in which his father was wounded. A few months later, between June 25th and July 1st, 1862, Willie’s regiment saw heavy fighting during the Seven Days Battles, as the Union forces retreated from the outskirts of Richmond under a series of heavy attacks from the Confederates.
Willie Johnston’s conduct during the course of that retreat won him national fame. Falling back under relentless enemy pressure, and suffering from the unaccustomed heat of a Virginia summer, many weary federal troops grew demoralized and discarded all of their equipment during the retreat from Richmond in order to march unencumbered. Willie Johnston dutifully hung on to his drum throughout the tiring ordeal, and brought it with him to safety at retreat’s end in Harrison’s Landing. There, as the 3rd Vermont and other regiments of the division were assembled for a July 4th parade, it was discovered that young Willie was the only drummer in the entire division who had held on to his drum during the retreat. As such, he had the honor of drumming for the whole division that day.
A few days later, president Lincoln attended a parade for the entire Army of the Potomac, where he heard the tale of the conscientious young drummer. It is reported that the president wrote Secretary of War Stanton, recommending Willie for a medal. As a result, the youth was decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor on September 16, 1863.
At age 13, Willie Johnston became the second recipient ever to have received the Medal of Honor, and the youngest person ever awarded the nation’s most prestigious decoration – for exploits he had performed when was only 11 years old. At the end of his term of service, Willie reenlisted in February of 1864, and remained in uniform until his unit was mustered out in December, 1865. After the war, he worked as a machinist, married, and raised a family of five children. Willie Johnston lived to the ripe old age of 91, dying on September 16, 1941 – on the 78th anniversary of his September 16, 1863, Medal of Honor award.