Kids in Battle: 10 American Child Soldiers of the Civil War
Kids in Battle: 10 American Child Soldiers of the Civil War

Kids in Battle: 10 American Child Soldiers of the Civil War

Khalid Elhassan - July 24, 2017

Kids in Battle: 10 American Child Soldiers of the Civil War
Willie Johnston. Camp Willard

Willie Johnston

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.

Kids in Battle: 10 American Child Soldiers of the Civil War
Drawing depicting Willie Johnston during retreat from Richmond. Harper’s Weekly Archives

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.

Kids in Battle: 10 American Child Soldiers of the Civil War
Elisha Stockwell. Civil War Talk

Elisha Stockwell

In 1862, at the age of 15, Elisha Stockwell, Jr., attempted to enlist when a Union Army recruiter stopped at his hometown of Alma, Wisconsin, set up shop in the town’s schoolhouse, and made his pitch to the gathered crowd. However, Elisha’s father caught wind of what his son was trying to do, marched to the gathering, confronted the recruiter, and informed him that his son was underage and that he did not consent to the boy’s enlistment. Since, technically, recruits younger than 18 needed their guardians’ permission (a requirement frequently ignored), the recruiter was forced to cross the crestfallen Elisha’s name off the list.

He did not remain crestfallen for long, however, and soon ran away to enlist, assisted by a friend who put him in touch with another recruiter. The duo walked Elisha through the steps/ lies necessary in order for a minor to enlist without his guardian’s consent. With the requisite winks and nods, and a cooperating captain falsely vouching for his age, the boy was duly enrolled in the 14th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.

Elisha’s first taste of combat came on the second day of the Battle of Shiloh, when he saw his first dead body, and took part in a bloody bayonet charge on Confederate lines that resulted in the death or injury of nearly half the men of his regiment. As Elisha described that come-to-Jesus moment, when he realized the difference between his fantasies and the reality of what war actually entailed: “I want to say, as we lay there and the shells were flying over us, my thoughts went back to my home. I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away to get into such a mess as I was in. I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me“.

Elisha was wounded at Shiloh, taking canister in the arm, and a bullet in the shoulder. Recovering, he participated alongside the 14th Wisconsin in the battles of Iuka, Corinth, Champions Hill, and in the siege of Vicksburg, before marching to Georgia with Sherman and participating in the battles of Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, and Jonesboro.

After the war, Elisha returned to Wisconsin, eventually settled down as a farmer, married, and raised a family. Following the death of his wife in 1927, a grieving Elisha was cajoled by family and friends to write a memoir of his Civil War experiences, mostly to help take his mind off his grief. Despite his advancing years and failing eyesight, he managed to complete a manuscript, which was eventually published as the interesting and highly readable Elisha Stockwell, Jr., Sees the Civil War. Elisha Stockwell, Jr., lived to the age of 89, and died in North Dakota in 1935.

Kids in Battle: 10 American Child Soldiers of the Civil War
Edward Black. Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Edward Black

Born in 1853, Edward (William) Black was the youngest known child soldier to have served during the Civil War. Joining the 21st Indiana Infantry in 1861, aged 8, Edward served as a drummer in that regiment. Sent home after a few months, Edward returned, this time with his father, and was reenlisted in the regiment as a drummer boy.

Edward travelled the continent as the 21st Indiana’s drummer. He served in the regiment as it garrisoned Baltimore, accompanied it on an expedition to the Eastern Shore, thence to Newport News, Virginia, before getting shipped to serve in the Department of the Gulf, where the young lad’s unit fought in Louisiana as part of the campaign that resulted in the Union’s seizure of New Orleans from the South.

In 1862, young Edward was captured by Confederates during the Battle of Baton Rouge and imprisoned in Ship Island, but regained his liberty when federal troops overtook his captors and freed the Union prisoners.

Discharged in September of 1862, Edward reenlisted in February of 1863 with his old unit, which in the interval between his discharge and reenlistment had been converted from infantry to artillery, and reconstituted as the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery regiment. He would serve with the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery as that regiment was kept busy until war’s end, seeing active duty in Berwick Bay, conducting operations in Western Louisiana, participating in the advance on and subsequent siege of Port Hudson, joining the Sabine Pass Expedition, before finally settling in for garrison duty, first at New Orleans, and then at Baton Rouge.

During that extensive service, the young boy was wounded more than once. In one instance, when he was 12 years old, he was grievously injured when an exploding shell shattered his left hand and arm. Edward’s injuries earned him the unfortunate distinction of being the youngest Civil War soldier injured on active duty.

At war’s end, Edward and his unit remained in the vicinity of Baton Rouge as garrison troops, until January of 1866, when the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery was finally mustered out, and its personnel were discharged.

Edward Black never fully recovered from injuries he received during the war, nor from the mental of trauma of what he had been exposed to at such a tender age. He died in 1872, aged 17, and was buried in Indianapolis. His drum was passed on down his family over the generations, before it was finally gifted to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. There, it remains on display to this day as one of the museum’s most prized and popular exhibits.

Kids in Battle: 10 American Child Soldiers of the Civil War
Sergeant John Lincoln Clem. NCO Journal

John Lincoln Clem

Born John Klem in Ohio in 1851, young Johnny, who would change the spelling of his last name to Clem and adopt Lincoln as a middle name in homage to the president, was perhaps the best known of the Civil War’s child soldiers. He ran away when he was 9 years old, following the death of his mother, to enlist in the Union Army in 1861. Rejected by various units due to his age and small size, little Johnny latched on to the 22nd Michigan Infantry regiment when it mustered in 1862, and followed them around. The regiment’s members eventually relented, allowed him to tag along as a mascot and drummer boy, and even voluntarily raised money from to pay him the $13 per month monthly wage of a Union private. In 1863, he was finally allowed to officially enlist.

It was during the Battle of Chickamauga, September 19 to 20, 1863, that John Clem earned his place in Civil War lore and legend. During the two day battle, the 12 year old displayed conspicuous courage, after riding to the front atop an artillery caisson. There, fighting on the firing lines with his signature weapon, a sawed off rifle that had been trimmed to fit his diminutive size, Clem impressed his comrades with his bravery and steadiness under fire, and in hand to hand combat as Rebels and Yankees charged and counter charged each other and came to close quarter grips during the ferocious fighting that marked that battle. In the course of the fighting, Clem’s Army cap was shot through three times by bullets.

Clem’s courage was not enough to ward off Union defeat, however, and the federals came to grief. At the close of the battle the following day, during the afternoon of September 20, 1863, as Union forces hurriedly retreated, Clem found himself one of the thousands of defeated soldiers separated from their units during the chaotic flight. Wearily lugging his sawed off rifle, Clem heard a horse approaching from behind, and looking back, was confronted by a Confederate colonel on horseback, riding ahead of and urging along his pursuing Rebel soldiers. Seeing a little boy in Union blue toting a rifle, the enemy colonel shouted at Clem to “Drop that gun!” and surrender forthwith.

Young Johnny turned around, coolly raised his rifle, took aim, and shot the Confederate colonel off his horse, then hauled off at a mad sprint through brambles and brush until he reached the safety of Union lines. After the battle, Clem, aged 12 years old, was officially promoted to the rank of sergeant, thus becoming the youngest noncommissioned officer in the history of the United States Army. A distinction he holds to this day.

Clem’s conduct was widely reported in newspapers at the time, turning him into a nationally-known figure, and he was eventually decorated for his courage by Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury and future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. A popular Civil War song, “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh“, written by William S. Hays and published in Harper’s Weekly soon after the Battle of Chickamauga, was reported to have been inspired by the exploits of Clem.

A month later, Clem was captured and made prisoner by the Confederates. Released in a prisoner exchange, he returned to ranks and fought in the Army of the Cumberland. Twice wounded during the war, he was finally discharged in September of 1864.

Following the war, Clem graduated high school in 1870, then rejoined the US Army in 1871, when he was commissioned a second lieutenant by President Grant. He married twice, raised a family, and served until 1915, before retiring as a general and as the last Civil War veteran still serving in the United States Army. John Lincoln Clem died in 1937, aged 85, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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