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
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.

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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

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