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Drummer Boy of Chickamauga - Johnny Clem


As a young boy, I can remember hearing family stories about an ancestor of mine who was the youngest person to enlist for the Union Army during the Civil War. It was told that he lied about his age and joined, becoming a Drummer Boy and later a Civil War hero of sorts. Walt Disney even made a movie about him "Johnny Shiloh" starring Brian Keith in 1963. One time my grandfather had in his possession a uniform supposedly worn by Johnny Clem. I can remember seeing it. He donated the uniform to a museum, but I don't know which one.

He was born in 1851 as John Joseph Klem. Our family name used to be Klemm but has now evolved to Clem. He reportedly changed his name to John Lincoln Clem because of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln.

He was rejected in May of 1861 when he tried to enlist in the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry but later that year somehow made it into the 22nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry as a Drummer.

Much has been written about my ancestor, so I will summarize.

What was the role of a drummer?

The drummer was used to sound out orders from the commanders in the heat of battle. An identifiable drum roll represented an order, that, if shouted, could be lost or unheard in the heat of battle. The soldiers had to learn the drum rolls for attack, retreat and other common battlefield commands. The drummer boy was much more than a mere mascot. Victory or defeat depended on effective communication and coordination of the troops.


His drum was destroyed by a shell fragment in the battle of Shiloh. He carried a musket in the battle of Chickamauga, where his legendary reputation was born. He was in the thick of the battle and reportedly 3 bullets passed through his hat. When a Confederate Colonel chased him down on horseback trying to capture the fearless little soldier, Johnny blew him out of the saddle with his musket, leaving him dead in the dirt. For this battlefield bravery he was made a Sergeant and placed on the roll of honor.


He was discharged from the Army in 1864 at the age of 13, but rejoined in 1871 with a commission from president U.S. Grant (who incidentally is an ancestor of mine also). He retired in 1915 at the rank of Brigadier General and the last Civil War Veteran on active duty in the armed forces. One year after his retirement, he was promoted to the rank of Major General, by and act of Congress.

He died in 1937, in San Antoino Texas and is buried in Arlington National Cemetary.



4wardthinker from Sierra Nevada CA on March 22, 2013:

What a great story! I didn't know about all of this history. Thanks for writing about it.

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