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

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

7 Responses to “An 11-year-old Drummer Who Received the Medal of Honor”

  1. William says:

    Great content here, I learned at the same time of being entertained, great read!

  2. classen says:

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  3. dj says:

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  4. Mark Golding says:

    Do you have specific statement that the picture of Willie was taken in Septerbr 1863 during the award ceremony?

    His uniform looks very light colored, like a rebel gray uniform, and not a dark blue regulation Union infantry uniform. When I saw a copy of the photo, I assumed that he was wearing a light blue Invalid Corps/Veteran Reserve Corps uniform and thus that the photo was taken in 1864, when he could have been as old as fourteen.

    If the drum was the regulation size, Willie would have been about 55 inches (four feet seven inches) tall when he was photographed, five inches shorter than his five foot height described when he mustered in in May, 1862.

    • admin says:

      Sorry for the late reply. I haven’t monitored this blog for too long, having added a publisher who republishes my work in full color. The current blog is at Thank you for your comment. I hope you will find my work at the new blog is just as good.

      As to your question about the date and uniform for the photograph, over the summer of 1863 Willie was sent to Chesapeake General Hospital near Fort Monroe, Virginia, to recover from an illness, and from there to Baltimore. From there, in September of 1863, he was ordered to Washington, D.C., where he was cleaned up, dressed in a new silk uniform, then taken to the War Department to be presented the Medal of Honor. [Wisler, G. Clifton, When Johnny Went Marching, Harper Collins Publishers, 2001, p. 13/photo from Professor Jay S. Hoar collection]

      Joel Moore, author and retired teacher
      P.O. Box 23, Narvon, Pa. 17555
      610-209-3931 and w/Facebook and Twitter links
      and blog page stories of boys in the war
      recognized by the Moms’ Choice Award
      for excellence in young adult historic fiction series

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