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