The Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors
The Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors

The Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors

Khalid Elhassan - June 9, 2020

The Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors
Book cover depicting Orion’s Howe’s courageous dash. Sutton Nebraska Museum

10. Running to Save the Regiment

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.

The Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors
General Sherman’s letter to Secretary of War Stanton about Orion Howe. Civil War Talk

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’ll warrant 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.

The Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors
Frank Pettis, age 11. Sauk County Historical Society

8. The Little Drummer Boy

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.

The Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors
Frank Pettis. Sauk County Historical Society

7. In at the Kill

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.

The Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors
Union drummer boys during the Civil War. Vimeo

6. Drummed Into the Great Beyond

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.

The Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors
Sergeant John Lincoln Clem. Wikimedia

5. The Civil War’s Most Famous Child Soldier

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.

The Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors
John Lincoln Clem. Fine Art America

4. Shining at Chickamauga

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.

The Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors
Clem dropping a Confederate colonel. Patheos

3. Dropping a Confederate Colonel

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.

The Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors
Sergeant John Lincoln Clem. NCO Journal

2. The US Army’s Youngest Sergeant

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.

The Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors
John Lincoln Clem in later years. NCO Journal

1. Resting With the Nation’s Heroes

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

American Battlefield Trust – John Clem

Antietam on the Web – Bugler John Cook

Beyer, Walter Fredrick, and Keydel, Oscar Frederick – Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor (1901)

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

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

Lucas, Jack, and Drum, D. K. – Indestructible: The Unforgettable Story of a Marine Hero at Iwo Jima (2006)

Midlothian Mirror, November 10th, 2019 – Texas 12-Year-Old Calvin Graham Lied About His Age to Enlist in the Navy During WWII

Military Times, June 7th, 2017 – Marine, Youngest American Killed in Vietnam, Honored by Hometown

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

New York Time, June 7th, 2019 – He Enlisted at 14, Went to Vietnam at 15, and Died a Month Later

Ohio History Central – Johnny Klem

Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau – Calvin Graham, the Youngest Recruit

Sauk County Historical Society – Frank A. Pettis, Reedsburg’s Civil War Drummer Boy

Smithsonian Magazine, December 19th, 2012 – The Boy Who Became a World War II Veteran at 13 Years Old

Styple, William B. – The Little Bugler: The True Story of a Twelve Year Old Boy in the Civil War (1998)

United States Navy Memorial – Aspinwall Fuller

Wikipedia – Child Soldiers in the American Civil War

Wikipedia – Powder Monkey

Wikipedia – Orion P. Howe