17. An Uphill Struggle to Enlist
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.