Fighting 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. An average-sized adult would have a difficult time sprinting back and forth through such limited spaces. A child, by contrast, could do so far more easily. So children, known as powder monkeys, were tasked with rushing gunpowder from ship magazines to the cannons.
The British Royal Navy, and later the United States Navy, employed boys known as powder monkeys as members of gun crews. Taking advantage of their small size, the child sailor would rush ferry gunpowder from the magazine to the gun deck in leather buckets, usually two at a time.
During combat, they were just as exposed to danger as were all other sailors aboard ship, regardless of age. Indeed, considering that they were scurrying about carrying gunpowder liable to go off if it came into contact with any spark or shard of flaming timber or scorching shell fragment, the powder monkeys might have been at greater risk than the rest of the crew.
Winston Churchill once famously derided the Royal Navy’s traditions as boiling down to: “Rum, buggery, and the lash“. The US Navy patterned itself after the British, and although life aboard American ships was seldom as harsh as in the RN, it was harsh enough. More so for a child sailor.
When not in combat, which was most of the time, 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 crew members mistreated, bullied, took advantage of the child sailors in their midst, and otherwise abused them, mentally, physically, and sometimes sexually.
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the US Navy typically enlisted powder monkeys between ages of ten to fourteen, for a three-year term. They were the lowest ranking crew members aboard ship, and were paid about $6 a month – roughly $150 in 2020 dollars. After the War of 1812, the Navy banned the use of boys younger than twelve aboard ship. In 1828, Navy regulations authorized ships to hire boys between ages of fourteen to eighteen, at a ratio of one powder monkey for every two guns the ship carried.
In practice, some recruiters had no problem enlisting a child younger than fourteen, or even younger than twelve. In 1833, Navy regulations prohibited the enlistment of boys younger than thirteen without parental consent. It was a tacit acceptance of the reality that many boys younger than thirteen were serving aboard American warships. Powder monkeys aged thirteen and over 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 came Boy 3rd Class, who typically served as stewards or in clerical capacity, often in port.
As they grew up and gained experience, the child sailors could rise to Boy 2nd Class, then Boy 1st Class. At age eighteen, they automatically became rated as ordinary seamen, receiving the same pay and becoming subjected to the same discipline as regular adult sailors.
One of the most remarkable photographs depicting child combatants in the US Civil War is that of Boy 1st Class Aspinwall Fuller, above. 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 issued a directive prohibiting 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, thirteen-year-old Aspinwall Fuller ran away from his home in Baltimore, Maryland, to join the fight. It was quite common: boys bored out of their skulls 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 by lying, resorting to stratagem, or coming 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.
In 1953, Dan Bullock was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he lived until his mother died when Dan was twelve. So he and his younger sister moved to Brooklyn, to live with their father and stepmother. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Dan’s top three picks were a cop, a pilot, or a United States Marine. He eventually decided to give the Marines a try. However, he did not want to wait until he grew up.
In September, 1968, fourteen-year-old Dan headed to a USMC recruitment center with a doctored birth certificate. His birth year was altered from 1953 to 1949, making him eighteen – old enough to enlist. Although just fourteen, Dan was big and strong for his age – 5 foot 9, and 160 pounds. He made it through boot camp in Parris Island and became a bonafide Marine. Unfortunately, his tale soon took a turn from cute to tragic.
31. The Youngest American Killed in the Vietnam War
USMC Private first class Dan Bullock was sent to Vietnam in May, 1969, to serve as a rifleman in the 1st Marine Division. The child Marine ended up in Quang Nam Province, and was stationed in An Hoa Combat Base, about 25 miles southwest of Danang. By then, he was all of fifteen.
Assigned base security duties, Dan was in a bunker with three other Marines on the night of June 6th, 1969, when North Vietnamese sappers stealthily crept under the wire surrounding the base. They got close enough to Dan’s bunker to toss a satchel charge through the firing slit. The explosion killed all four occupants. Dan Bullock was the youngest American killed in the Vietnam War, or since World War I, for that matter.
Gustav Albert Schurmann was born in 1849 in Westphalia, Prussia. The following year, his father, a talented musician, took his family and fled revolutionary Europe to America, settling in New York City. As Gustav grew up, his father taught him how to play a variety of musical instruments.
After the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter in 1861, war fever engulfed the country. That spring, eleven-year-old Gustav was working the streets of New York City as a shoeshine boy. Like thousands who swarmed the recruiting stations eager to enlist, the young boy was swept up in the excitement. So he sought to join any regiment that would accept a musically-talented child as a drummer boy. His father had volunteered as a musician in the 40th New York Volunteer Infantry, later known as “The Mozart Regiment” because of the high percentage of musicians in its ranks, so Gustav sought to join.
The Mozart Regiment initially rejected Gustav Schurmann, because of his tender years and small size. So his father asked the regiment’s colonel to at least hear the boy’s drumming. Gustav was a musical prodigy who took after his father, and the demonstration convinced the regiment’s commander to change his mind and accept the child. The regiment served in the Peninsula Campaign, during which Gustav was loaned out to General Kearney for a day as an orderly during a grand review. Impressed by Gustav, the general ordered him to gather his gear from his regiment, and assigned him to his headquarters staff as orderly and principal bugler.
General Kearney was killed in August, 1862, and his replacement, General Birney, retained Gustav as orderly and bugler. After the Battle of Antietam, the boy was assigned to General Stoneman’s III Corps staff and was promoted to Corps bugler. After the Battle of Fredericksburg, Gustav was assigned to General Daniel Sickles’ staff, and he promoted the then-fourteen-year-old to sergeant to reward his gallantry during combat.
In April, 1863, during a grand review of the Army of the Potomac, Gustav Schurmann caught President Lincoln’s eye, as well as the eye of the president’s youngest son, Tad Lincoln. The two became fast friends, and the child bugler was invited to the White House. Granted an extended furlough, Gustav spent a happy period with Tad Lincoln and the rest of the president’s family.
During the Battle of Chancellorsville, Gustav again displayed conspicuous courage, for which he was awarded a medal. Soon thereafter, at the Battle of Gettysburg, he once again exhibited bravery and coolness under fire, when General Sickles’ leg was shattered by a cannonball. Applying a tourniquet to staunch the bleeding, Gustav helped save the general’s life, and accompanied him to the hospital, then back to Washington.
Back in Washington, President Lincoln decided that Gustav Schurmann boy had already used up too many of his lives. So he ended the child’s Civil War service, and ordered him back home to attend school in preparation for West Point in a few years. It had been a good run. During Gustav’s Civil War career, he served as a bugler for five different generals, saw plenty of action, was recognized for his courage, earned medals, befriended the president’s youngest son, and was guested at the White House.
All in all, young Gustav had experienced as much adventure and excitement as he had hoped to see when he enlisted. Following his discharge, Gustav returned to New York. Lincoln’s assassination ended his West Point prospects, so he went on with his life. He settled in NYC, worked for the city in various departments, married, and raised a family. He died in 1905, at the age of 56.
Jacklyn Harrell “Jack” Lucas (1928 – 2008) was desperate to join the action during WWII. So when still a child, he lied about his age and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. He went on to become the youngest Marine ever to receive a Medal of Honor – the country’s highest award for valor. Lucas earned it for heroic conduct at age seventeen, when he saved the lives of fellow Marines during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Lucas was born in Plymouth, North Carolina. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was a thirteen-year-old cadet captain in a military academy, and captain of the school’s football team. Eager to serve, Lucas forged his mother’s signature when he was fourteen, writing it on a form that granted permission for her “17-year-old” son to enlist. It got him into the Marine Corps Reserves.
Jack Lucas completed Marine Corps training, but then his true age was discovered. He was restricted to driving a truck in Hawaii, while the Marines decided what to do with him. Facing the prospect of getting sent back home, Lucas fled the safety of Hawaii, and stowed aboard a troop transport headed for combat. Once the ship was underway, he turned himself in to avoid a charge of desertion, and volunteered for combat – without disclosing his true age. The ship was part of the task force headed for Iwo Jima, and Lucas was duly assigned to a rifle company.
In February,1945, Lucas was in a trench in Iwo Jima with three other Marines, when a firefight erupted against 11 Japanese nearby. When two enemy grenades landed in Lucas’ trench, the seventeen-year-old saved his comrades by shielding them with his own body. As he described it: “I hollered to my pals to get out and did a Superman dive at the grenades“. He landed atop one, and grabbed the other to tuck it beneath his body as well.
Of the two live grenades that Lucas hugged to protect his comrades, one was a dud and failed to explode. The other went off beneath the teenager and wounded him severely. “I wasn’t a Superman after I got hit“, Lucas recounted, as he recalled how he screamed after the explosion. He was lucky to survive, but was left with over 250 pieces of shrapnel in his body, and required 26 operations over the following months to repair the damage.
In October, 1945, before Lucas was discharged from the Marine Corps, President Harry S. Truman personally placed the Medal of Honor around the teenager’s neck. He went on to get a business degree, and in 1961, enlisted in the US Army. He joined the 82nd Airborne as a paratrooper, and survived a training jump in which both parachutes failed to open. He was commissioned, reached the rank of captain, and was assigned to train paratroopers in Fort Bragg. Lucas volunteered to serve in Vietnam, but after his request was denied, he resigned his commission in 1965.
When the Civil War began, John Cook, a thirteen-year-old child from Cincinnati, Ohio, enlisted as a bugler in the 4th United States Artillery Regiment. On September 17th, 1862, during the Battle of Antietam, Cook – by then fifteen – secured his place in history. His battery section was ordered to support the attack of General John Gibbon’s division up the Hagerstown Pike. As the battery reached its assigned position and began to unlimber, a column of Rebels unexpectedly emerged from the nearby West Woods.
The Rebels poured a devastating volley that immediately felled most of Cook’s section, and pinned down the survivors with withering rifle fire. When Cook’s captain was shot off his horse and seriously injured, the lad sprang into action. Dragging his wounded commander to safety, Cook returned to the battery section and discovered that all the artillerymen had been struck down. The young lad rose to the occasion, seized the moment, and became a hero.
With his battery section in a jam, fifteen-year-old John Cook saved the day. Spotting a dead comrade with a full pouch of ammunition, he unstrapped it from the corpse and rushed to the guns, which were in danger of being captured by advancing Rebels. Displaying remarkable valor and heroism as he serviced the guns, Cook played a key role in beating back three separate enemy attempts to charge and capture the exposed guns. The last Rebel charge came within 5 yards of the cannons before recoiling.
As Cook was engaged in his heroics, the division’s commander, General Gibbon, saw what was happening and rushed to the endangered battery. Ignoring rank during the emergency, the general pitched in as a common artilleryman and personally took part in the fighting, servicing one of the guns until the threat receded. In recognition of his conspicuous courage that day, Cook was (eventually and belatedly) awarded the Medal of Honor in 1894.
John Cook was not done with displays of exceptional valor. A year after his exploits at Antietam, he once again performed heroic deeds, this time at the Battle of Gettysburg. Serving as a messenger, he frequently ran to and fro, across a half-mile stretch of open ground that was swept by enemy fire in order to deliver his messages.
He also helped destroy an artillery caisson in order to prevent its capture by advancing Rebels. After the war, Cook settled in Washington, DC, and joined the federal civil service as an employee of the Government Printing Office. He died in 1915, a week shy of his 68th birthday, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
After his father’s death and mother’s remarriage, Calvin Leon Graham (1930 – 1992) found himself one of seven children living with an abusive stepfather in Houston. At age eleven, the child moved out with an older brother, and supported himself by delivering newspapers and telegrams on the weekends and outside school hours.
A year later, in 1942, he told his mother he was going to visit relatives. Instead, the twelve-year-old child headed to a recruitment office. There, lying about his age, Calvin joined the US Navy. That made him WWII’s youngest American serviceman, as well as the youngest one decorated for heroism during that conflict.
Calvin Graham was sent to Pearl Harbor after completing Navy boot camp in San Diego. There, in September, 1942, he was assigned to the recently commissioned battleship USS South Dakota, whose crew he joined as a loader for a 40mm antiaircraft gun. The following month, he served the guns during the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands, for which the South Dakota and her crew received a Navy commendation.
During the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on the night of November 14-15, 1942, the South Dakota came under fire from at least three Japanese ships, was struck 26 times, and suffered significant damage. Calvin was hit by shrapnel, but ignored it to participate in rescue operations and help pull other more seriously injured crewmen to safety. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his conduct that day, and a Purple Heart for his wounds in action.
After the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the battered South Dakota sailed to New York City for repairs. While it was docked, Calvin Graham went AWOL to attend his grandmother’s funeral in Texas. That was when Calvin’s mother discovered where her twelve-year-old son had been. She told the Navy, but incredibly, rather than immediately discharge the child, they sent him to the brig as punishment for going AWOL. It was only after Calvin’s sister threatened to go public that the Navy let him go, giving him a dishonorable discharge and confiscating his awards.
It was not until 1977, after writing to Congress and with the approval of President Jimmy Carter, that Calvin’s awards were restored. Except for the Purple Heart, for some reason. His dishonorable discharge was also changed to honorable. In 1988, his story was told in a TV movie, Too Young the Hero, in which Calvin was played by Rick Schroeder.
In 1850, William “Willie” H. Johnston was born in New York, where he lived until shortly before the Civil War, when his family moved to Vermont. When hostilities began, Willie’s father enlisted in the 3rd Vermont Infantry Regiment in July, 1861. The eleven-year-old child accompanied his father, and sought to join as well. Willie was rejected due to his age, but he accompanied the regiment anyhow, and served without pay. In December, 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. Willie got his first taste of combat at Lee’s Mill, Virginia, on April 16th, 1862 – a battle in which his father was wounded. A few months later, between June 25th and July 1st, Willie’s regiment saw heavy fighting during the Seven Days Battles, as Union forces retreated from the outskirts of Richmond under a series of heavy Rebel attacks. Willie’s conduct during the course of that retreat won him national fame.
As the Union Army retreated from the gates of Richmond, falling back under relentless enemy pressure, its men suffered 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. Although still a child, 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 Fourth of July parade, it was discovered that 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, and he heard the tale of the conscientious drummer boy. Lincoln reportedly wrote Secretary of War Stanton, recommending Willie Johnston for a medal. So the child received the Medal of Honor on September 16th, 1863. At age thirteen, Willie became the second recipient ever to have received the Medal of Honor. He remains the youngest person ever awarded the nation’s most prestigious decoration – for exploits performed when was only eleven years old.
When his term of service ended in 1864, Willie reenlisted and served 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 16th, 1941 – on the 78th anniversary of his September 16th, 1863, Medal of Honor award.
In 1862, a Union Army recruiter visited the small town of Alma, Wisconsin, set up shop in the schoolhouse, and made his pitch to the locals. One of them, fifteen-year-old Elisha Stockwell, Jr., stepped forward to enlist, but his father caught wind of what his son was trying to do. So the senior Stockwell marched to the gathering, confronted the recruiter, and informed him that his son was still a child, and that he did not consent to the boy’s enlistment. Since underage recruits needed their guardians’ permission (a requirement frequently ignored during the Civil War), the recruiter was forced to cross the crestfallen Elisha’s name off the list.
The child did not stay crestfallen for long. Soon thereafter, Elisha 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, Elisha was duly enrolled in the 14th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.
It was not long before Elisha Stockwell got his first taste of combat. It came during the second day of the Battle of Shiloh, April 7th, 1862, when the child saw his first dead body. He also took part in a bloody bayonet charge against the Rebels, during which almost half of Elisha’s regiment were killed or wounded.
As Elisha described that come-to-Jesus moment, when he realized the difference between his fantasies and the reality of war: “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 did not go unscathed: he took a bullet in the shoulder, and was struck by canister in his arm.
After recovering from his wounds, Elisha Stockwell saw combat with the 14th Wisconsin in the battles of Iuka, Corinth, Champions Hill, and in the siege of Vicksburg. Next, he marched to Georgia with William Tecumseh Sherman, fought in the battles of Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, and Jonesboro.
After the war, Elisha returned to Wisconsin, where he eventually settled down as a farmer, married, and raised a family. After his wife died in 1927, a grieving Elisha was talked into writing a memoir of his Civil War experiences. It was mostly to help take his mind off his loss. Despite his advancing years and failing eyesight, he completed a manuscript, which was eventually published as the interesting and highly readable Elisha Stockwell, Jr., Sees the Civil War. He lived to the age of 89, and died in North Dakota in 1935.
Orion Perseus Howe was one of the youngest recipients of America’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor. Born in Ohio in 1848, Orion moved with his family to Illinois shortly before the start of the Civil War. When he was a child of twelve, Orion and his younger brother Lyston enlisted as musicians in the 55th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, in which their father served as the regimental band leader. During his service, Orion was present at 14 separate battles in which his regiment fought.
His moment of fame came during the Vicksburg Campaign, on May 19th, 1863. During an assault on Vicksburg that day, the 55th Illinois ended up pressed close to Rebel lines. The Illinoisans wound up in a vicious firefight that quickly exhausted nearly every man’s cartridge box, and it became critical to secure a resupply of ammunition from the stocks in the rear. It was Orion’s moment to shine.
When the 55th Illinois ran out of ammo outside Vicksburg, resupply became a matter of life and death. However, the regiment was situated such that anybody leaving its relatively covered position for the rear would have to cross hundreds of yards of open ground that was swept by enemy fire. When the regimental commander sought volunteers to make the dangerous dash, Orion Howe was one of the soldiers who stepped up.
Sprinting to the rear up a rise swept by Confederate canister and rifle fire, the volunteers were killed one by one, until only Orion remained, scrambling onward to complete his mission. His comrades held their breath as the child made his way through a storm of enemy fire, with bullets, shot, and shell kicking up puffs of dust all around him. Stumbling, falling, but always rising again and moving on, Howe was severely wounded in the leg, but gamely limped on until he crested the summit’s rise and disappeared from sight.
9. “I’ll Warrant the Boy Has the Elements of a Man“
Although bleeding heavily and groggy from loss of blood, Orion Howe managed to locate General William Tecumseh Sherman, and informed him of his unit’s dire need of ammunition. Impressed by the boy’s demeanor and determination, Sherman ordered him to seek medical care, promising to see to it that his regiment would get the necessary resupply. Indeed, Sherman was so impressed by Orion that he wrote Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, stating: “I’llwarrant the boy has the elements of a man, and I commend him to the government as one worthy of the fostering care of one of its national institutions“.
It took Orion several months to recover from his injury and rejoin his regiment. He reenlisted, and was finally discharged in late 1864 as a corporal. After the war, he went to New York University and graduated from its dental school, before settling in Springfield, Missouri. Due to snafus at the War Department, he was not awarded his Medal of Honor until 1896, more than three decades after his exploits before Vicksburg. He lived to be 81, and died in 1930.
Frank Pettis was born in 1850, in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. In 1862, as a child of eleven, Frank joined the Union Army’s 19th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. He enlisted as a drummer boy in the regimental band alongside his father, a fife player, and served in a company commanded by his school teacher, captain A.P. Ellinwood.
Drummer boys had been in use for centuries in many armies. The era’s tactics called for closely formed columns and lines to advance and fight in well-ordered formations and in neat rows and lines. The shouted commands of officers were often difficult to hear above the din and roar of battle, so musical instruments such as bugles and drums were used to signal commands. Drummers beat a pace, or rhythm, to assist with the evolutions and formations involved in marching or advancing on the enemy. Drummer boys, tapping the appropriate beats as directed by the officers in charge, accompanied their units into combat, and were thus exposed to shots and shells as the battle raged and men fell.
Since drummer boys might be needed at any moment to tap out an alert to the unit of pending operations and movements, they were frequently at the side of unit commanders. There were different drum calls to signal assembly, notify the officers to gather for a meeting, sound the advance or retreat, or tap out any of the sundry beats that were part of the drummer’s repertoire.
Frank Pettis served dutifully with the 19th Wisconsin as it campaigned in Suffolk, Virginia, in New Berne, North Carolina, and in the sieges of Petersburg and Richmond in Virginia. As the war drew to a close, Frank was present when the 19th Wisconsin raced into Richmond, and won the distinction of being the first Union regiment whose colors were triumphantly flown over the captured Confederate capitol building.
After mustering out in August of 1865, Frank Pettis returned home to Wisconsin. There, he worked in his father’s tailor shop, before changing careers at age 20 to become a miller. He grew into a prominent member of his community, remained a lifelong active member in the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War’s premier veteran’s association, as well as an active member in the Reedsburg Drum Corps.
He raised a family, and died in 1918, aged 68, leaving behind five grown children. Reedsburg’s Drum Corps headed the funeral procession. They tapped muffled drums, until his coffin was lowered to his final resting place, buried near his former teacher and captain.
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 probably 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, following the death of his mother, to enlist in the Union Army in 1861.
He was rejected by regiment after regiment, because of his age and small size. However, little Johnny was persistent. He eventually latched on to the 22nd Michigan Infantry regiment when it mustered in 1862, and followed them around. Finally, the regiment’s members relented, allowed him to tag along as a mascot and drummer boy, and 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.
During the Battle of Chickamauga, September 19-20, 1863, John Lincoln 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 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.
Demonstrating that it is not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog, Clem proved his mettle during bouts of 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, tiny Clem proved himself the equal of giants. During the course of the fighting, his army cap was pierced three times by bullets.
John Lincoln Clem’s courage at Chickamauga was not enough to ward off defeat, and the Union Army came to grief. During the afternoon of September 20th, at the close of the battle, Clem found himself one of the thousands of defeated federal soldiers separated from their units during a chaotic retreat that was more like a flight than an orderly withdrawal.
Wearily lugging his sawed-off rifle, Clem heard a horse approaching from behind. Looking back, the child soldier 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 demanded that 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. He then hauled off at a mad sprint through brush and brambles, until he reached the safety of Union lines.
After the Battle of Chickamauga, twelve-year-old John Lincoln 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, turning him into 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.
A month after the Battle of Chickamauga, John Lincoln 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. 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 US Army. John Lincoln Clem died in 1937, aged 85, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading