History

The Little Drummer Boy of Chickamauga: A Story of the Civil War

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The story of the Little Drummer Boy of Chickamauga is one of the most compelling tales of the Civil War. John Lincoln Clem passed away in San Antonio, Texas, in 1937, but in his youth, he was famous for his courage displayed on the battlefield and for becoming the youngest noncommissioned officer in U.S. Army history.

After Clem’s mother died in a train accident, the ten-year-old boy ran away from his Ohio home. The year was 1861, and the Civil War was raging. Clem was determined to become a drummer boy in the Union Army. The 3rd Ohio Infantry rejected Clem’s enlistment attempt due to his small stature and age. Clem wouldn’t give up so easily, however, and next tried the 22nd Michigan, which also rejected his offer. Nonetheless, young Clem chose to march with the 22nd anyway. His dogged determination led the 22nd to adopt him as an unofficial mascot and drummer boy. The officers all contributed to pay the boy $13 a month, a soldier’s normal wage. And so the child soldier marched into one of the bloodiest wars in history.

The Little Drummer Boy of Chickamauga: A Story of the Civil War

Photo: Wikipedia.com

A legend arose around Clem at the Battle of Shiloh. Whether the event actually occurred is a matter of debate among historians, but the story goes that Clem almost died when fragments from a shrapnel shell burst through his drum and knocked the boy unconscious. When his comrades found the boy, they christened him with the nickname “Johnny Shiloh.”

At the Battle of Chickamauga, Clem rode an artillery caisson to the front of the battlefield, and he carried a musket that had been cut down to his size. During a Union retreat, a Confederate officer ran after Clem and shouted, “Surrender, you damned little Yankee!” Clem shot the man, an action which led to his promotion to sergeant. “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” became the youngest noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army. Debate surrounds Clem’s shooting of the Confederate officer, but it’s said that he might have wounded Col. Calvin Walker of the 3rd Tennessee. At any rate, Salmon P. Chase, then Secretary of the Treasury, decorated Clem for his antics.

The Little Drummer Boy of Chickamauga: A Story of the Civil War

Photo: Wikipedia.com

Confederate cavalrymen captured the young Clem in Georgia in October 1862. They confiscated his cap which bore three bullet holes. Clem was released in a prisoner exchange only a short while later, but southern newspapers made great use of the boy’s fame, using him to reveal “what sore straits the Yankees are driven when they have to send their babies out to fight us.” Clem went on to participate in many other battles and was wounded twice before he was discharged in September 1864.

As an adult, Clem had a long career in the U.S. Army, including his time as chief Quartermaster at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. When he retired, Clem was the final veteran of the Civil War still serving in the army. His final rank was that of major general. Following the death of his first wife, Clem married the daughter of a Confederate soldier in San Antonio. He had three children and passed away on May 13, 1937. Clem is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.