D Is For Drummer Boy Of Chickamauga

The Rain Crow, my historical novel, is based largely on many events that actually happened during the war. One scene involves a little Union drummer boy who was wounded during a battle. A Union soldier who was captured after the battle wrote home about how tenderly he and the little drummer boy had been treated by the “Rebs” and the letter was published in a newspaper. While researching something else, I ran across it and the scene I included in my book came to me. There were, unfortunately, several very young drummer boys on both sides. One of the youngest was the drummer boy of Chickamauga, little Johnny Lincoln Clem.

Born to Roman and Magdalene Klem on August 13, 1851, in Newark, Ohio, somewhere along the line, the last name got changed to Clem. Like many others, he’d heard the call to arms following the shelling on Ft. Sumter and his heart yearned for adventure. Johnny ran away at age 9 in May 1861, after his mother died in a train accident leaving him an orphan. He was going to join the army and be a drummer boy, but the 3rd Ohio Infantry rejected him. He was simply too young and too small. Not one to give up, he next tried the 22nd Michigan, but they also refused him. He simply didn’t go away. The men eventually gave up trying to drive him away and adopted him as a mascot and drummer boy. Men took up donations to have a uniform made for him and officers chipped in to pay him $13 a month, a regular soldier’s pay. He was allowed to officially enlist two years later.

Popular legend says he nearly lost his life at the Battle of Shiloh and thereby earned the nickname, Johnny Shiloh. However, his unit wasn’t there for the fight, so he couldn’t have been wounded there. The 22nd Michigan mustered into service in August 1862, four months after the battle.

In addition to the pint-sized uniform, his men armed him with a sawed-off musket small enough for him to carry and a small sword. Clem was with his unit at Chickamauga at Horseshoe Ridge on September 20. They were surrounded by Confederates and retreating when a Confederate colonel shouted, “I think the best thing a mite of a chap like you can do is drop that gun.” Clem instead shot the colonel and escaped back to Union lines. As with many stories, there’s some debate regarding the shooting, despite stories from the era supporting the event. It’s possible Col. Calvin Walker of the 3rd Tennessee may be the wounded colonel in question as they opposed the 22nd Michigan Regiment near the end of the battle. Due to his actions, he was promoted to sergeant, the youngest soldier ever to become a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army. News spread about him in the papers dubbing him the “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.”

His unit later traveled to Perryville, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw, and Atlanta, where Clem was wounded twice. The Confederate Army captured Clem and used his notoriety for propaganda purposes, as he was already a known figure. Confederate papers wrote, “What sore straits the Yankees are driven when they have to send their babies out to fight us.” He was returned to the Union Army in a prisoner exchange soon thereafter.

Clem was discharged from the Army in 1864 at age 13. He went on to finish high school and then tried to rejoin the military in 1870. President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Clem to West Point, but Clem failed the entrance exam several times. Clem gave up on his dreams of joining West Point, and Grant did the best he could for him by appointing him a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army quartermaster’s division. Clem did well there and eventually became assistant quartermaster general. He retired on the eve of U.S. entry into World War I with the rank of major general, the last Civil War veteran to actively serve in the U.S. Army.

Clem married twice. His second wife was the daughter of a Confederate veteran and he often joked that made him the most United American in the U.S. He died in 1937 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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