The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War

Khalid Elhassan - December 6, 2023

Civil War armies included many foreign-born volunteers. Less so in the Confederate than in the Union Army, where up to a third of soldiers were not American-born. Most immigrant soldiers were from Europe, but volunteers from all over the world fought in the conflict. Their numbers included dozens – possibly hundreds – of Chinese immigrants. Below are twenty five things about them and other unlikely American Civil War soldiers.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
The Union’s Irish Brigade. Gallaway Advertiser

Foreigners in the US Civil War

People from all over the world and of all kinds of backgrounds fought in the American Civil War. When the conflict erupted, about 13% of America’s population was foreign-born. However, their representation in the country’s armed services greatly exceeded their population percentage. The immigrants were not spread evenly across the country, but were concentrated mostly in the northern states. Thus, the percentage of foreign-born soldiers was significantly higher in the Union Army, which attracted more foreign volunteers than the Confederate one. Indeed, nearly half the soldiers who served in the Union Army were either foreign-born, or were the sons of immigrants. About two million men served the Union in uniform. Of those, a quarter to a third – 543,000 to 625,000 – were not born in America. Another 18% had at least one foreign-born parent.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Irish Confederate soldiers. Mort Kunstler

Many ethnic Germans fought for the Union. About 216,000 German-born soldiers fought for the North, plus another 250,000 first generation German-Americans. Both sides of the conflict featured Irish regiments. Roughly 20,000 Irishmen fought for the Confederacy, a number eclipsed by the estimated 160,000 Irish who fought for the Union. Unsurprisingly, with slavery as the war’s central cause, the North found it easier to attract volunteers than did the slave-holding Confederacy. Also unsurprisingly, the Confederates were salty about the Union’s greater success in attracting foreign volunteers. Confederate diplomats overseas railed to Europeans that the North was recruiting their sons to serve as cannon fodder. At the same time, pamphlets circulated by Confederate diplomats referred to those same sons of Europe fighting for the Union as “mercenaries” and “the refuse of the old world“.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
German revolutionaries in Berlin, 1848. Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

Chinese Soldiers in the Civil War

The North found it easier to recruit idealists than the slave-holding South. Especially German idealists. After the failed 1848 Revolution, thousands of young Germans fled to America. When the Civil War erupted, many rushed to fight the forces of slavery and aristocracy that reminded them of those they had fled. As one German enlistee wrote home, the war was about: “freedom or slavery, and you can well imagine, dear mother, I support the cause of freedom with all my might“. A German mother described why her seventeen-year-old son fought for the Union: “I am from Germany where my brothers all fought against the Government and tried to make us free, but were unsuccessful … We foreigners know the preciousness of that great, noble gift a great deal better than you, because you never were in slavery, but we are born in it“.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Corporal Joseph Pierce, a Chinese immigrant who fought for the Union in the Civil War. Library of Congress

Most foreign volunteers were European. However, there were enlistees from elsewhere. For example, at least 50 Chinese fought in the conflict, mostly for the Union. There were probably many more, not found in the archives because of the era’s racial classification. The 1860 census had only three racial categories: white, black, or mulatto. Many Chinese were defined as white in enlistment rolls, but nonetheless endured mistreatment because of racial prejudice. They soldiered on. Their numbers included John Tomney, who joined a New York regiment and was killed in action at the Battle of Gettysburg. William Ah Hang, one of the first Asian-American to join the US Navy, enlisted in 1863. There was also Joseph Pierce, who became the highest-ranked Chinese-American in the Union Army when he was promoted to corporal.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Union drummer boy Johnny Jacobs. Library of Congress

Children of the Civil War

The US Civil War was the last conflict in which significant numbers of American children were utilized as soldiers. About a fifth of all military personnel in the conflict were under eighteen, and that more than 100,000 soldiers in the Union Army alone were fifteen-years-old or less. There were even cases in which children as young as eight were put in uniform. For the most part, US Army child soldiers were utilized as drummers, buglers, cooks’ assistants, nurses, orderlies, general gophers, or employed in other non-combatant positions. However, as battles raged, Civil War child soldiers were frequently just as exposed to bullets and artillery as were the grown men on the firing line.

Things were hairy for kids at sea as well. In the US Navy, children frequently served as “powder monkeys” in warships. Tasked in combat with rushing gunpowder from magazines to canons, they were just as exposed to danger as were all other sailors aboard ship, regardless of age. Indeed, since they scurried about with sacks of gunpowder liable to go off if it came into contact with any spark or shard of flaming timber or scorching shell fragment, the little powder monkeys might have been at greater risk than the rest of the crew.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Union drummer boys. Vimeo

Getting Around Age Restrictions

Children are children, full of curiosity and frequently heedless of and insensate to danger and mortal risk to life and limb. There was thus no shortage of instances in which Civil War child soldiers snuck off to the firing lines in order to see for themselves the excitement of battle from up close. Some even picked up rifles and rushed into the maelstrom, to fight and die alongside the adults. Officially, there were age restrictions – in the Union, enlistees had to be over sixteen. In real life, however, those restrictions were easily gotten around, or outright ignored.

For example, many an under-aged Northern boy, eager to enlist, had little trouble in finding a recruiter willing to sign him up so long as he was willing to put one hand on the Bible, raise the other, and swear that he was “over 16”. Some children ingeniously reconciled their consciences with the lie by writing the number “16” on a piece of paper. They then stuck it to the bottom of a shoe, which enabled them to honestly swear that they were “over 16”.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
An 1861 recruitment poster. National Museum of American History

Senior Citizen Soldiers In The US Civil War

Children fought in the Civil War, and so did old men. When the conflict erupted in 1861, Northern recruiters were flooded with volunteers eager to do their bit to preserve the Union and crush the rebellion. However, the months dragged on, and the casualties mounted – more than anybody had thought possible at war’s outbreak. As sober reality set in that the war would be longer, tougher, and deadlier than initially expected, volunteer numbers began to decline. In Iowa, as recruitment figures dwindled, a fifty-year-old farmer named George W. Kincaid had an idea. To rekindle some enthusiasm for service, and simultaneously prod able-bodied young men to do their bit, he proposed the formation of a regiment of men past normal military age.

The idea was approved by Iowa’s governor, and US Secretary of War Edwin Stanton applauded the notion. Accordingly, Kincaid was named colonel of a new unit, the 37th Iowa Infantry Regiment, comprised of men aged above 45. More than 1000 men signed up. Most were in their forties, fifties, and sixties, but quite a few were in their seventies, and at least one, Curtis King, was eighty-years-old when he enlisted. The regiment’s average age was 57 years. The men had to be in good health and able to perform military duties. It was understood that such duties would be light, in the rear rather than on the front lines, but they still needed to be able to fight if necessary.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
A member of the 37th Iowa Infantry Regiment. Pinterest

The Graybeards Regiment

The Graybeards Regiment, the nickname bestowed upon the 37th Iowa Infantry, was mustered on December 15th, 1862. It served until the Civil War ended, and was mustered out on May 24th, 1865. The Graybeards’ duties included prison camp guards, the protection of supply trains, and the manning of guard posts in the Western Theater. Such rear echelon duties freed up younger men for front line combat service. The 37th Iowa seldom saw combat, but on one occasion on June 5th, 1865, a detachment of fifty men defended a supply train from a rebel guerrilla attack near Holly Springs, Mississippi. In the fight that followed, three Graybeards were killed, and another four were wounded.

Far more Graybeards lost their lives to illness than to combat. Throughout most of history and until well into the modern era, many times more soldiers died in camp from illness than perished in the battlefield. In the Civil War era, germ theory was not yet widely known, and medical authorities were often ignorant of how diseases were transmitted or how to treat them. Combine that with often unsanitary conditions in which masses of men were crammed together in camps, plus the hardships and rigors of war, and it is no surprise that more men died of illness than from combat. Throughout the Civil War, 1041 men served in the 37th Iowa. Of those, only 3 perished in combat, but more than 145 died of disease. Another 350 were discharged for various disabilities.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Portrait of Gustav Albert Schurmann in the Albany Armory. Imgur

The Bugler Boy of the Civil War’s “Mozart Regiment”

Gustav Albert Schurmann’s life unfolded in 1849 in Westphalia, Prussia. Then took an unexpected turn during the American Civil War. Fleeing revolutionary Europe, his father, a skilled musician, settled the family in the bustling streets of New York City. As war fever gripped the nation following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, an eager eleven-year-old Gustav, working as a shoeshine boy, sought to enlist in the military. Initially denied due to his tender age and small stature, Gustav’s persistence and inherited musical talent secured him a coveted spot in the 40th New York Volunteer Infantry. This group would go down in history as “The Mozart Regiment” for its abundance of musicians.

Throughout the Peninsula Campaign, Gustav’s musical skills shone. His prowess caught the attention of General Kearney, who entrusted him with the role of orderly and principal bugler. Kearney’s untimely death in 1862 did not mark the end of Gustav’s service. General Birney retained him, solidifying his position as a seasoned bugler on the front lines. Gustav’s bravery at the Battle of Gettysburg, where he played a pivotal role in saving General Sickles’ life, garnered him not only medals but also commendation from President Lincoln. The unexpected twist in Gustav’s wartime narrative came through his friendship with Tad, Lincoln’s youngest son. This acquaintance blossomed into an invitation to the White House. However, the tragic end to Lincoln’s life and the subsequent termination of Gustav’s West Point prospects ushered him back to civilian life in New York City. Post-war, Gustav navigated various roles, contributing to the city’s growth and development. Gustav Albert Schurmann passed away in 1905 at the age of 56.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Benjamin Grierson. NPR

The Unlikely Great Civil War Cavalry Commander Who Hated Horses

Benjamin Grierson was one of the Civil War’s most effective cavalry commanders. Few could have predicted that he would have such success commanding horsemen, seeing as how he hated horses. On April 17th, 1863, Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson led a cavalry brigade of 1700 horsemen out of La Grange, Tennessee. He took them southward to plunge deep into Mississippi, in a raid that would traverse the length of that state, and reemerge at the other side and the safety of Union lines in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. En route, the raiders discomfited the enemy and disrupted his communications. They tore up railroad tracks, destroyed bridges, wrecked Confederate installations and facilities, and otherwise wrought havoc and sowed confusion throughout Mississippi.

The raid sought to inflict significant damage, both physical and to the enemy’s morale. It was also intended to be the opening salvo of the Vicksburg Campaign, and act as a diversion from General Ulysses S. Grant’s planned attack against Vicksburg, Mississippi. Until then, Confederate cavalry had been markedly superior to that of the Union, literally riding circles around them. Thus, an additional motive was to demonstrate what federal horsemen could do with a daring exploit of their own to match the headline-grabbing ones of Confederate cavalrymen like J.E.B. Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

A Civil War Raid That Shook the South

A former music teacher who hated horses, Colonel Grierson led his cavalrymen as they travelled light. They packed only five days’ worth of rations for what planners envisioned would be a ten-day mission, forty rounds of ammunition, and oats for their mounts. Preceded by scouts in enemy uniform, they rode for 600 miles through Confederate territory that had never before seen enemy soldiers or felt the touch of war. Mississippi felt it now, and panicked as Union horsemen burned storehouses, tore up railroads and twisted them atop burning crossties, freed slaves, wrecked bridges, destroyed trains, and put commissaries to the torch. Throughout, Grierson peeled off detachments and sent them on feints to baffle and confuse the enemy about his actual whereabouts, intentions, and direction of march. The raid was a smashing success, literally as well as figuratively.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Grierson’s Raid. United State Military Academy

Grierson’s cavalrymen greatly damaged Southern property and morale. Although vigorously pursued by Confederates, the Union cavalry eluded their pursuers while causing mayhem in the enemy’s heartland. In a fifteen-day-rampage behind enemy lines, Grierson’s men lost only three killed, seven wounded, and nine missing, before they crossed into the safety of Union lines near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In addition to its immediate impact, the raid demonstrated Union soldiers’ ability to live off the land within Confederate territory. That started the gears turning in the mind of General William Tecumseh Sherman about the vulnerability of the Confederacy’s interior, which he compared to soft innards surrounded by a brittle shell. A year and a half later, Sherman led to the destructive March Through Georgia, then the even more devastating March Through the Carolinas that sealed the Confederacy’s doom.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
General William Tecumseh Sherman, circa 1864-65. Matthew Brady Army Archives

The Meteoric Rise of a General Once Dismissed as Crazy

Early in the Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had a breakdown and asked to be relieved of command. Newspapers at the time described him as insane, and few could have predicted his meteoric rise after his return to service months later. On September 2nd, 1864, after a hard fought summer campaign followed by a hard fought siege, Sherman’s Union troops entered Atlanta, Georgia. The conquest of that key Confederate city, known as “the Gateway to the South”, saved President Abraham Lincoln from what seemed like inevitable defeat in that fall’s election. It ensured the continuation of a federal administration committed to fight out the Civil War until final victory. Everybody expected that Sherman would garrison the city, then head north to Virginia to help Ulysses S. Grant, who was stalemated against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Sherman had other plans.

Early in the war, the Union followed a conciliatory policy, and fought a relatively limited war. The assumption was that most in the Confederacy had not supported secession, and that their states’ governments were illegal and unrepresentative of the popular will. So Union forces leaned over backwards to gently treat Southern civilians and their property – including those hostile towards the Union. By 1862, attitudes had changed. Pragmatists began to advocate for “hard war” and “directed severity” against secessionists, and Sherman emerged as a key proponent of that hardline. In 1864, he revolutionized modern warfare and transformed “hard war” notions into total war that targeted not only enemy armies, but also civilians who supported those armies.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Generals Sherman and Grant, with President Lincoln. Flickr

Making Georgia Howl

By the autumn of 1864, the Civil War had dragged on for more than three bloody years, with a horrendous and steadily mounting toll in blood and treasure. Both the Union Army’s commander, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, and his friend General William T. Sherman, realized that the conflict could only end if the Confederacy lost its ability to wage war. So Sherman planned an operation comparable to modern scorched earth campaigns. He and his army would strike out from Atlanta and march along a broad front across the heart of Georgia.

They would live off the land, and destroy all infrastructure that was useful to the Confederate war effort. 62,000 Bluecoats marched out of Atlanta, which they left a burnt ruin. They divided into two columns, abandoned their supply lines, and plunged into the Peach State. As Sherman put it, he wanted to “make Georgia howl“, and howl it did. Union forces advanced along a sixty mile front, wrecked military targets along the way, destroyed industry and infrastructure, lived off the land, and – against Sherman’s orders – looted civilian property. The march conclusively demonstrated that the Confederacy was a hollow shell, unable to protect its heartland or citizens.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Sherman’s men destroying a railroad in Atlanta. Wikimedia

The Civil War General Who Invented Modern War

William T. Sherman was not a cruel man, but he certainly believed in cruel war. As he put it: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over“. He did not coin the phrase “total war” – it was first used in the 1930s. However, he birthed the concept of modern total war. Sherman wrote in a letter dated December 24th, 1864, that the Union found itself in a situation where it was: “not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies“. His destructive march through Georgia was followed by an even more destructive march through South and North Carolina.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Sherman’s men burn a railway station. University of Southern Florida

Sherman’s marches left a legacy that lasted long after the Civil War. Not only in the memories of aggrieved Southerners, but in modern military science. The morality of the destruction wrought by Sherman has long been debated, but few doubt its effectiveness. In subsequent major conflicts such as World Wars I and II, combatants took it for granted that that they faced not only enemy armies, but also the civilian infrastructure and population that supported them. US Air Force General Curtis LeMay updated the concept in 1949, when he defined total war in the nuclear age as an overwhelming atomic strike that could go so far as “killing a nation.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
A powder monkey during the War of 1812. J. Russell Jinishian Gallery

Children in American Warships

Age of Sail naval combat boiled down to warships firing broadsides at each other from rows of guns lining their decks. Speed of cannon discharge and reload and maintaining a rate of fire were vital, and nobody wanted their guns to run out of ammunition mid-fight. Stockpiling cannonballs next to the guns was simple, but stockpiling gunpowder nearby was problematic: it was too dangerous to leave large amounts of powder on the gun deck. One errant spark in a space full of sparks and flames during combat could spell disaster. So a system was devised to send a steady stream of small amounts of gunpowder from the ship’s magazine or Powder Room, located beneath the waterline, to the guns. Sailors rushing back and forth between the Powder Room and guns, bearing relatively small amounts of gunpowder each trip, reduced the risks of catastrophic explosions.

It did not take long before naval authorities realized that the ideal gunpowder courier was a child. Combat ships are exceptionally confined places with crammed spaces. Even more so in the wooden ships of centuries past. Those tasked with rushing gunpowder from the Powder Room to the waiting guns had to climb up and down narrow stairs. They also had to run through tight and low corridors full of all kinds of projections for sailors to bump their heads into and knock themselves out. Being big in such small confines was a liability. It was difficult for an average-sized adult to sprint back and forth through such limited spaces. A child, by contrast, could do so far more easily. So children, known as powder monkeys, were utilized to rush gunpowder from ship magazines to the cannons.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
A US Navy frigate crew, with a powder monkey atop a cannon. Library of Congress

The US Navy’s Powder Monkeys and Ship Boys

Gun crews in the British Royal Navy, and later the US Navy, included boys known as powder monkeys. Taking advantage of their small size, the child sailors rushed gunpowder from the magazine to the gun deck in leather buckets, usually two at a time. When not in combat, the boys worked long hours, and endured harsh working and living conditions. Many crews viewed the powder monkeys as mascots and treated them with kindness. However, while kindness towards the kids was common, it was not universal. Some adult crewmembers mistreated, bullied, took advantage of the child sailors, and otherwise abused them, mentally, physically, and sometimes sexually. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the US Navy typically enlisted powder monkeys between ages ten to fourteen, for a three year term.

They were the lowest ranking crewmembers aboard ship, and were paid about $6 a month – roughly $170 in 2023 dollars. Powder monkeys as young as thirteen continued to be used until the Spanish-American War, at the close of the nineteenth century. The US Navy employed a ranking system for its child crewmembers, literally and officially labeled “Boy Sailors”. At the bottom of the heap were powder monkeys, the youngest and smallest crewmembers. Next, Boy 3rd Class, who typically served as stewards or in clerical capacity, often in port. As they grew up and gained experience, a child sailor could rise to Boy 2nd Class, then Boy 1st Class. At age eighteen, the kids automatically became rated as ordinary seamen, received the same pay, and were subjected to the same discipline as adult sailors.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Aspinwall Fuller. Library of Congress

The Civil War’s Most Famous Ship Boy

A remarkable Civil War photo of a child combatant that of Boy 1st Class Aspinwall Fuller. Taken in 1865, it shows the lad, fourteen-years-old, standing beside a 100-pound Parrot gun aboard the USS New Hampshire, a 74-gun ship of the line. His very presence aboard ship was against regulations, but as happens often in war, regulations were ignored. In 1861, President Lincoln prohibited the enlistment of underage recruits without their parents’ consent. However, heavy casualties and the war’s insatiable demand for fresh bodies led many recruiters to look the other way if a child tried to enlist. Which explains how Fuller joined the US Navy at age thirteen, without parental consent. In 1864, he ran away from his home in Baltimore, Maryland, to join the fight.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Civil War child sailors and an adult officer. Worth Point

It was quite common: boys bored with the drudgery of work or chores saw the Civil War as an opportunity for adventure and excitement. Many lied about their age – which was easy to do in an era when proving age was difficult. Others, more conscientious and not wanting to lie outright, wrote the number 16 – the minimum age for enlistment at the time – on a piece of paper, and stuck it beneath their shoe. That way, they reasoned, they could truthfully swear on a Bible that they were “over 16“. Whether he lied, resorted to stratagem, or came across a recruiter who simply did not care, Fuller managed to enlist in the Union Navy. He served from 1864 to 1867. As an adult, he became a marine engineer, and in 1887, became president of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association – a position he held until his death the following year.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
A nineteenth century Egyptian army. The Smithsonian Institute

The Johnny Rebs Who Ended Up in Africa

The notion of Confederates in Africa sounds like the start of a joke, along the lines of the one that defined chutzpah as the establishment of a Ku Klux Klan chapter in Ghana. However, unlike the KKK bit, Confederates actually did head to and fought in Africa. To be sure, by the time that happened the Confederate States of America had been defeated and consigned to the trash heap of history, and the Confederates in question were veterans of the defunct state. Still, their tale is fascinating.

It began in 1868, when Union Army veteran Thaddeus Mott met Egypt’s ruler, the Khedive Ismail, and regaled him with tales about American military advances during the US Civil War. The khedive was convinced to hire veterans of that conflict to help modernize the Egyptian army. The first of them, Confederate veterans William Wing Loring and Henry Hopkins Sibley, arrived in 1870. Loring became the Egyptian army’s Inspector-General, and in 1875 was appointed chief of staff of an army sent to fight Ethiopia.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
William Wing Loring after the Civil War, as an Egyptian Army general. Wikimedia

Southern Mercenaries in the Egyptian Army

Confederates such as William Wing Loring (1818 – 1886) had fought in the US Civil War, in part, to preserve a system based on the enslavement of Africans and their descendants. A decade later, Loring was back at war, this time in Africa. He sought to realize Khedive Ismail’s dreams of creating an Egyptian empire in Africa, that stretched from the Mediterranean to Lake Victoria, and from the Sahara to Somalia. In 1874, Ismail got started on making his dreams come true by ordering an invasion of Ethiopia, Egypt’s chief rival in northeast Africa.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Nineteenth century Ethiopian warriors. Pinterest

In the resultant Egyptian-Ethiopian War (1874 – 1876), Egyptian columns twice tried to conquer Ethiopia. Once from Egyptian-controlled Sudan, and again from the Egyptian-controlled Red Sea coast of what is now Eritrea. Each time, the Egyptian forces, equipped with modern weapons and led by Western officers such as Loring, were crushed by poorly equipped but numerically superior Ethiopians. Loring played a significant role in the second failed attempt, which ended in a devastating defeat at the Battle of Gura in 1876.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
The Battle of Gura. Wikimedia

A Confederate General in Ethiopia

William Wing Loring had been promised command of the second Egyptian invasion of Ethiopia. However, the assignment went to an Egyptian named Ratib Pasha, and Loring was appointed his chief of staff. In March, 1876, an Egyptian army of 13,000 equipped with modern firearms and artillery, and an Ethiopian force of 50,000 armed mostly with swords and spears, drew near at the Plain of Gura, in today’s Eritrea. The Egyptian commander sought to fight a defensive battle from a fortified position. It was a sensible choice, but Loring taunted Ratib Pasham and accused him of cowardice for not marching out to meet the Ethiopian host in an open valley.

Stung, the Egyptian commander led his army out of its fortifications to offer battle in the surrounding plain. It got routed at the Battle of Gura, a disastrous defeat that ended the Egyptian khedive’s ambitions to conquer Ethiopia. Loring, who rose to the rank of major general in the Egyptian army, was heavily criticized. In 1878, he and other American officers were dismissed. He returned to America, where he penned his experiences in Africa, A Confederate Soldier in Egypt, published in 1884.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
John Clem. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Nine-Year-Old Who Ran Away to Enlist in the Union Army

In 1851, John Klem was born in Ohio. Young Johnny, who changed the spelling of his last name to Clem and adopted Lincoln as a middle name in homage to the president, is the Civil War’s best known child soldier. John Lincoln Clem, as he came to be known to history, ran away when he was nine-years-old after his mother’s death, to enlist in the Union Army. He was rejected by regiment after regiment, because of his age and small size. However, little Johnny was persistent. He latched on to the 22nd Michigan Infantry regiment when it mustered in 1862, and followed them around.

Eventually, the regiment’s members relented, and allowed him to tag along as a mascot and drummer boy. The soldiers even voluntarily raised money to pay him the $13 per month monthly wage of a Union private. In 1863, Johnny was finally allowed to officially enlist. At the Battle of Chickamauga, September 19-20, 1863, John Clem earned his place in Civil War lore and legend. During the two-day-battle, the twelve-year-old displayed conspicuous courage, after riding to the front atop an artillery caisson. The child soldier fought 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.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
John Clem dropping a Confederate colonel at the Battle of Chickamauga. Interim Archives

The Kid Who Killed a Confederate Colonel

John Clem proved his mettle in bouts of hand-to-hand combat. He demonstrated that it is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. As Rebels and Yankees came to close quarter grips amidst the ferocious fighting that marked that battle, tiny Clem proved himself the equal of giants. During the course of the fighting, his army cap was pierced three times by bullets. Clem’s courage at Chickamauga was not enough to ward off defeat, however, and the Union Army came to grief.

On the afternoon of September 20th, at the close of the battle, Clem was one of the thousands of defeated federal soldiers separated from their units. They were in a chaotic retreat more like a flight than an orderly withdrawal. As he wearily lugged his sawed off rifle, Clem heard a horse approach from behind. When he looked back, there was a Confederate colonel on horseback, riding ahead of and urging along his pursuing Rebel soldiers. When he saw a little boy in Union blue toting a rifle, the colonel ordered Clem to “Drop that gun!” and surrender. Young Johnny turned around, coolly raised his rifle, took aim, and shot the Confederate colonel off his horse. He then hauled off at a mad sprint through brambles and brush, until he reached the safety of Union lines.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Sergeant John Clem. Wikimedia

The US Army’s Youngest Sergeant

After the Battle of Chickamauga, twelve-year-old John Clem was officially promoted to the rank of sergeant. That made him 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 contemporary newspapers, and he became a nationally-known figure. Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury and future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, decorated Clem for his courage. 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 reportedly inspired by Clem’s exploits.

The Most Unlikely Soldiers In The US Civil War
Major General John Lincoln Clem. Pinterest

A month after the Battle of Chickamauga, John Clem was captured by the Rebels and became a prisoner of war. He was eventually released in a prisoner exchange. He returned to the ranks, and resumed the fight with the Army of the Cumberland. Clem was twice-wounded, before his discharge in September, 1864. After the war, Clem graduated high school in 1870. He rejoined the US Army in 1871, when he was commissioned a second lieutenant by President Grant. Clem married twice, raised a family, and served until 1915. He retired as a brigadier general, and as the last Civil War veteran still serving in the US Army. A year later, a special act of Congress promoted him to major general. John Lincoln Clem died in 1937, aged 85, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Battlefield Trust – Chinese-Americans in the Civil War

American Battlefield Trust – John Clem

Brown, Dee – Grierson’s Raid (1954)

Catton, Bruce – Bruce Catton’s Civil War: Three Volumes in One (1984)

Clarke, Frances M., and Plant, Rebecca Jo – Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era (2022)

Davis, Burke – Sherman’s March (2016)

Extra History – US Civil War Surprising Soldiers

Find a Grave – Gustav Albert Schurmann (1849 – 1905)

Foote, Shelby – The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 3, Red River to Appomattox (1974)

Gettysburg College Journal of the Civil War Era, Volume 9, Article 5, May 2019 – ‘Mulatto, Indian, or What’: The Racialization of Chinese Soldiers and the American Civil War

History Collection – 18 Little Known Facts About Abraham Lincoln

History Net – George W. Kincaid and the 37th Iowa Infantry in the US Civil War

Iowa in the Civil War – Roster and Records of Iowa Soldiers, War of the Rebellion, Historical Sketches of Volunteer Organizations, Vol. V: Historical Sketch, Thirty Seventh Iowa Volunteer Infantry

Keesee, Dennis M. – Too Young to Die: Boy Soldiers of the Civil War (2001)

Loring, William Wing – A Confederate Soldier in Egypt (1884)

Military History Now – Confederates on the Nile: Meet the Civil War Vets Who Volunteered to Fight For the Egyptian Army

Military Network – The ‘Graybeards’ Were an Infantry Unit Just for Men Too Old for Military Service

National Museum of the United States Navy – Powder Monkeys and the American Civil War

Ohio History Central – Johnny Klem

Sears, Stephen W. – To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (1992)

Time Magazine, June 29th, 2015 – The Civil War Was Won by Immigrant Soldiers

United States Navy Memorial – Aspinwall Fuller

Warfare History Network – Grierson’s Raid: Wrecking the Railroad With the Butternut Guerrillas

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