Archive for February, 2013

The youngest boy to ever enlist in the history of the military and one of the war’s most famous drummer boys

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Born in 1853, Edward Black signed up with the 21st Indiana Volunteers’ 1st Regiment on July 24, 1861. He was 8 years old, believed to be the youngest ever to serve in the military. In 1862 he was sent home for being too young. Later that year he reenlisted with his father and served the remainder of the war. In the Battle of Baton Rouge he was taken prisoner. He survived to be a Civil War veteran at the age of 11. Having never fully recovered from the traumatic experience of the war, Edward died in 1872 an the age of 19. His Civil War drum is in the collection of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

Source: “Lost Indiana”

John Joseph Klem

Johnny Clem’s story appears in many collections including When Johnny Went Marching by G. Clifton Wisler, and in Too Young to Die by Dennis M. Keesee; as well as a number of on line locations searching “Civil War drummer boys” images and other key words. His is probably one of the most written about biographies of young boys from the Civil War.

John Joseph Klem was born August 13, 1851. He and his younger siblings sold produce from their parents’ small farm, carrying it in a wagon. His mother was killed crossing the railroad tracks, and when John’s father remarried, John did not get along with his stepmother. Problems with his stepmother made life at home unpleasant.

Johnny began cutting classes so he could drill as a drummer boy with a local unit, Company H, 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Many of John’s relatives had enlisted in the army, and he felt such admiration for the president that he changed his middle name to Lincoln and the spelling of his last name to Clem. Recruiters turned him down because of his age.

Eventually Johnny ran away from home to join the army in May 1861, though he was only 9-years old. He finally got far enough away from home that they let him stay. When he offered his services as drummer to a company commander of the Third Ohio Volunteer Regiment, the captain looked him over, laughed and, according to Clem, ‘said he wasn’t enlisting infants.’ Johnny then tried to join the Twenty-second Michigan Regiment and was refused. But he ‘went along with the regiment just the same as a drummer boy, and though not on the muster roll, drew a soldier’s pay of thirteen dollars a month,’ which was contributed by officers of the regiment.

* * *

In his Historical Collections of Ohio, Henry Howe tells us the story of when young Johnnie Clem ran away. As part of his research, Howe was able to interview Clem’s family in Newark, Ohio. Lizzie Clem, who was 7 years old when her older brother left home for the Army recalls the following events from the day prior to Johnny’s departure:

It being Sunday, May 24, 1961, and the great rebellion in progress. Johnnie said at dinner table: “Father, I’d like mighty well to be a drummer boy. Can’t I go into the Union Army?” “Tut, what nonsense, boy!” “you are not ten years old.” Yet when he had disappeared it is strange we had no thoughts that he had gone into the service.

When dinner was over Johnnie took charge of us, I being seven years old and our brother, Lewis, five years, and we started for the Francis de Sales Sunday-school. As it was early, he left us at the church door, saying, “I will go and take a swim and be back in time.” He was a fine swimmer. That was the last we saw of him for two years.

The distress of our father and step-mother at Johnnie’s disappearance was beyond measure. Father, thinking Johnnie must have been drowned, had the water drawn from the head of the canal. Mother traveled hither and yon to find him. It was all in vain. Several weeks elapsed when we heard of him as having been in Mount Vernon; and then for two years nothing more was heard and we mourned him as dead, not even dreaming that he could be in the army, he was so very small, nothing but a child.

* * *

The 4-foot-tall youngster made himself indispensable around camp and the following spring was officially mustered into the regiment as a musician. Intelligent despite his limited education, Clem was given the important duty of regimental marker, carrying the guidon that a unit formed its line on.

A few months later, the 22nd Michigan was heavily engaged at the Battle of Chickamauga. On Sept. 20, 1863, in the midst of a retreat, Clem found himself face to face with a Rebel colonel on horseback. As the story goes, the officer yelled, “Stop, you little Yankee devil!” Clem refused to surrender. As he later described it, he picked up a discarded rifle, pointed it at the officer — and to both combatants’ great surprise, shot him out of the saddle.

It evolved that the colonel wasn’t killed. But the boy did evade capture by rolling himself in a blanket before finally making it back to his decimated regiment. Word of the exploits of 12-year-old Clem spread quickly among the demoralized troops.

The youngster’s admirers in the press and the army didn’t quibble over all the details of his heroism. Before he knew it, “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” was a celebrity, written up in national publications, posing for photographs, and accepting the gift of a pony. According to some sources, the song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” was based on Clem, who was promoted to sergeant. Countless youths were motivated by his example.

In October 1863, Johnny was captured in Georgia by Confederate cavalry while detailed as a train guard. The Confederate soldiers took his uniform away from him which reportedly upset him terribly–especially his cap which he said had three bullet holes in it. He was exchanged a short time later, but the Confederate newspapers used his age and celebrity status to show “what sore straits the Yankees are driven, when they have to send their babies out to fight us.”

Clem didn’t quite approach “great man” status as he grew older, but he was able to seize advantage of the connections fame had brought him. After his skimpy education torpedoed his attempt to enter West Point, he prevailed upon President Ulysses S. Grant to appoint him a second lieutenant in the Regular army. Clem served from 1871 to 1916, when he retired as a mildly competent but beloved major general. He was the last Civil War veteran to leave active duty. He died at his Texas home on May 13, 1937, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His gravestone at Arlington reads, “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.”


Bennett, Kevin. “Clem: Newark’s most famous veteran,” The Advocate (Newark), June 17, 2002.

Casamer, Douglas M. The Michigan 22nd Infantry and the Men Who Served.

Casamer, Douglas M. E-mail message, March 9, 2004.

Clem, John L. “From Nursery to Battlefield,” Outlook” magazine CVII (1914), 546-547.

Schmidt, Barb. E-mail message, February 11, 2011. Schmidt is a distant relative and her family has been collecting information on Johnny.

Taylor, Nicholas J. E-mail message.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Louisiana State University Press, 1952. (The edition quoted here is the 1978 reissue.)

next week: The Howe brothers and a Medal of Honor

An 11-year-old Drummer Who Received the Medal of Honor

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Believed to have been born sometime in July 1850, William E. “Willie” Johnston, serving as volunteer drummer for regimental recruiters, joined Company D of the 3rd Vermont Infantry when his father enlisted. Due to his age, he could not formally muster in for pay, but in December of 1861 he enlisted and went along anyway serving in all the camp duties of a regular musician. As the summer campaign got underway, he was mustered in and immediately saw action in the Peninsula Campaign. The Federal Army had advanced to the outskirts of Richmond when the Confederate General, Joseph E. Johnston was wounded and replaced by Robert E. Lee. The tide was turned and the Union soldiers found themselves driven back toward the Chesapeake Bay. Finally, at a place called Malvern Hill, they regrouped and held their ground.

Willie, like many others, had lost most of his gear through it all, but he hadn’t lost his drum, for he knew he was useless to his comrades without it. When the regiment assembled the following week for a grand review, President Lincoln was there. He noticed that the makeshift band had but a few fifers and only one drum. It was Willie. The president paused to speak to the boy. He was visibly shaken to learn the boy’s name was Willie. His own son, Willie, had recently died of a fever. They would meet again.

Willie became sick that summer and ended up in a hospital in Baltimore. After he recovered, he was assigned there as a nurse and orderly. In September of 1863 he was taken to Washington, DC, bathed, clipped, and fitted out with a new silk uniform. Afterwards, Willie found himself in the reception hall of the War Department facing Colonel E. D. Townsend, assistant adjutant general of the entire United States Army. The colonel spoke a few words to the crowd of dignitaries gathered there, then presented Drummer Willie Johnston, just 13 years old at the time, with the Medal of Honor. The medal had been authorized July 12, 1862, to be presented to non-commissioned officers and privates for gallantry in action. General Smith had noticed Willie’s actions that summer and had submitted his name in recommendation for the medal. The picture above was taken the day of the ceremony.

President Lincoln had not forgotten the single drummer from the previous summer. Following the presentation he visited privately with Willie before the boy left to return to his duties.


Willie Johnston’s story can be found in When Johnny Went Marching by G. Clifton Wisler, and in Too Young to Die by Dennis M. Keesee, along with the stories of dozens of other young boys who fought in the Civil War.

Next week: one of the war’s most famous drummer boys and the brief story of the youngest boy to ever enlist in the history of the military

A Drummer Boy from West Chester, Pennsylvania

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

When the war broke out and troops began to gather in West Chester, 12-year-old Charley King was fascinated by all the activity. He loved music and frequently was seen practicing his drumming near the 49th Pennsylvania. Charley begged his father for permission to enlist, but was refused. Even though age 12 was approved for enlistment as a musician, his parents still considered him too young. But Company F Captain Benjamin Sweeney had noticed the boy and was impressed by his skill. He talked to Charley’s father explaining that drummers were non-combatants and were safely behind the lines helping with the wounded. His father consented and gave permission for his eldest child to enlist.

Charley performed well impressing the men and officers so much, that he was promoted to Drum Major of the field music of the 49th Pennsylvania Regiment, a distinct honor for any musician. Participating in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, he became a veteran of combat. The Confederate Army moved into Maryland in September of 1862. The bloodiest single day of the war took place at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on the 17th. There the Union Army rushed troops to block Lee’s advance into the North. In that single day of combat, more than 23,000 men from both armies, were killed and wounded.

The 49th Pennsylvania was held in a reserve position. Nevertheless, Confederate artillery hammered the regiment during the battle, wounding several of the soldiers. Charley was “shot through the body” by a piece of shrapnel falling into the arms of H.H. Bowles of the 6th Maine. Bowles carried the boy to the field hospital where every effort was made to save him. Charley died three days later. He was thirteen and a half years old, one of the youngest to die during the 4 years of the war.

Charley’s father was informed of his death and retrieved his body after the battle. He is buried at Old Cheney Cemetery near his home in West Chester.

Several boys from the war have become incorporated in the stories of 20th century authors. In most cases their stories have been fictionalized. Charley’s story is the basis of Broken Drum by Edith Morris Hemingway and Jacqueline Cosgrove Shields. Retitled Drums of War, it is available from Scholastic at book fairs and book clubs nationwide.

On Saturday, June 18, 2005, Brendan Lyons, of West Chester, Pennsylvania, completed his Eagle Scout project, culminating in a memorial service for Charley King and the dedication of a memorial stone in his memory at West Chester’s Greenmount Cemetery, where both of Charley’s parents are buried.
Charley King’s story is gathered from information contributed by Andy Waskie, teacher and author of Civil War history; and
Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day, by William A. Frassanitoo, 1978 and
History of the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteers, by Robert S. Westbrook, 1898 and
articles from the Village Record at the Chester County Historical Society

next week: an 11-year-old drummer boy who received the Medal of Honor

Gustav Schurmann’s Story

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Gustav’s story also appears in Too Young to Die, by Dennis Keesee. There is also a biography written by William Styple, The Little Bugler. Born in Westphalia, Prussia, in 1849, Gus was 11 years old when he first enlisted in the 40th New York Volunteers. Rejected at first because he was too small, his father spoke to the commanding officer, and Gustav was given a drum and told to play. The colonel said he would do. He was with the regiment from their first engagement at the Battle of Williamsburg, until they went to Harrison’s Landing. There he was asked to serve General Kearny as an orderly for a day since General McClellan was to review the army.

Reporting the next day, Gus received a horse provided by General Kearny. During the course of the review, the general had occasion to jump a large ditch. Gustav followed along, but most of the staff did not. That evening, after the review, when he reported to take his leave and return to his regiment, Gustav was told to go get his gear and bring it to headquarters and consider himself the general’s orderly in the future. He also became the general’s principal bugler. Kearny was killed August 31, 1862 at the Battle of Ox Hill. General David Birney replaced Kearny and kept Gustav as his bugler and orderly. Following Antietam, he was appointed to General George Stoneman’s Third Corps staff and promoted to Corps bugler.

Following the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, Birney was replaced by General Daniel Sickles, who in turn promoted Gustav to sergeant, owing to his gallant service. During the grand review of the Army of the Potomac, April 9, 1863, President Lincoln noticed Gustav riding beside the general. The president’s son, Tad, also noticed Gustav. The two met and an invitation to the White House followed. Gustav received an extended furlough and spent many happy days with Tad. The two became good friends, and Gus visited whenever he was in Washington.

The Battle of Chancellorsville followed in which General Sickles was nearly cut off and captured. A daring plan which commenced at the sound of Gustav’s bugle resulted in a successful fight to return to the main army. Following the Federal defeat and in order to rebuild spirit, a medal was created in honor of Kearny, the “Kearny Cross of Honor,” and presented to five hundred select men for bravery and good conduct. Gustav was a recipient; it was a proud moment.

Nearly two months later, the army was headed to Gettysburg where General Lee’s army was engaged in battle. General Sickle’s corps advanced to a place in front of the Union line on the afternoon of July 2nd and came under a fierce attack near a farmhouse. The general was struck below the knee by a cannon ball and Gus placed a tourniquet on the leg. He went with the general to the hospital and then back to Washington. President Lincoln visited them, telling of the victory at Gettysburg. The president ended Gus’s military career and sent him home to his family to attend school and prepare to enter West Point. Thus, at age 15, Gustav Schurmann was a sergeant and veteran of ten major battles, having served on the staff of four generals. But all prospects of West Point ended with Lincoln’s death. Gustav attended the funeral when the train passed through New York City, then went on with life after the war. He never saw Tad again.

next week: the drummer boy from West Chester, Pennsylvania