John Lincoln Clem – commonly known as “Johnny Clem” – was a veteran of the American Civil War and one of the youngest participants of the conflict to engage in combat. He was originally born John Joseph Klem on August 13, 1851, but would later change his name and take on several nicknames. The American Civil War is often referred to as the “Boy’s War” due to the large number of underaged combatants involved in the conflict. As such, Johnny Clem was no exception, yet he was one of the most prominent boys who served in the war due to his prolific use in propaganda efforts by both the Union and Confederacy. Enlisting in the Union Army at the age of 9 years old, Johnny Clem became one of the youngest veterans in U.S. history, and certainly one of the most iconic.
Life Before Service
Given that he joined the Army while underage, Johnny Clem’s military service would certainly be considered part of his “early life.” Before that, however, he supported his family by selling produce from his parent’s farm on a cart he used to bring food into town. Johnny Clem was born and raised in Newark, Ohio. His mother died when he was 9, and Johnny reportedly did not get along with his new stepmother after his father remarried. This may have contributed to his desire to leave home and join the Union Army. However, Johnny was more inspired to join up by Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and seeing many of his other relatives enlisting in the fight.
Johnny started off his attempts to join the Union Army by skipping school to attend drills as a drummer boy with the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He would make several attempts to join companies which moved through Newark without success. He was turned away by numerous commanders for his small size and age. Johnny then made attempts to ride a train further away from Newark and join a company where he was not so easily recognized, yet he was continually spotted by friends or family and sent back home. At one point he was rebuked by the commander of the 3rd Ohio Regiment who exclaimed the Army was not “enlisting infants.” Undeterred and determined to fight for the Union, Johnny continued his attempts to travel further away from home and find a unit which would enlist him.
Joining the 22nd Michigan Regiment
Johnny was eventually able to travel far away enough from home that he found a unit which did not know him and could not send him back. That unit was the 22nd Michigan Regiment which took on Johnny Clem as an unofficial mascot and drummer boy. A group of officers pooled their money together to cover his $13 monthly salary under the table. He was provided with the smallest uniform available and a modified musket with a sawed-off barrel to match his small stature. In May of 1863, Johnny was officially enlisted with Company C of the 22nd and began receiving his own salary from the Union Army.
Jonny Clem’s involvement in the war was embellished somewhat as he became a popular subject for war photographers. Reports were made claiming he took part in battles which he could not have been involved in, such as the Battle of Shiloh. This earned him the new nickname of “Johnny Shiloh.” He also changed his middle name to Lincoln after his hero, President Lincoln. Johnny also earned the nickname the “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” and the “Rock of Chickamauga” for his confirmed role in the Battle of Chickamauga.
The 22nd Michigan Regiment was stationed at Horseshoe Ridge in Chickamauga when the Confederate Army came on September 20, 1863. The Confederates gained significant ground and began capturing members of the 22nd. When Johnny was first confronted and ordered to surrender, he was riding aboard an artillery piece with his shortened musket in hand. A Confederate colonel reportedly exclaimed that Johnny should put down his weapon and ordered him to “surrender, you damned little Yankee!” With no intent on being captured, Johnny shot the colonel and managed to escape. He was still captured later, but managed to escape again. After his valiant efforts in the Battle of Chickamauga, dispatching a Confederate officer and escaping imprisonment, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. This made Johnny Clem the youngest noncommissioned officer ever to serve in the U.S. Army.
Life and Legacy
Johnny Clem would continue with his military career throughout the war, fighting in several other battles. He was wounded in the Battle of Atlanta twice, but managed to continue on and survive. He was discharged from the Army in 1864 at the age of 13 years old. Johnny would attempt to join the West Point military academy, but struggled to pass the entrance exams due to his lack of formal education. He was later recommissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army in 1871, serving the United States for the next 45 years before retiring in 1951 after rising to the rank of major general. Johnny Clem passed away on May 13, 1937.
Johnny was far from an exception to the norm as an underaged soldier in the American Civil War. The conflict brought people from every walk of life into the fray as the country was torn apart from within. However, as one of the most prominent young boys who fought in the war, Johnny Clem shows us that we are never too small to make a big difference in the world. The drummer boy’s bravery and commitment to his country was legendary, far surpassing that of most boys his age throughout history. Some may call his service foolish, though to do so would be to engage in chronological snobbery and irreverence toward the conditions of life in that time. The American Civil War brought strife straight to the front door of many American households, and everyone was needed to do their part. To that end, Johnny Clem played his part admirably, going steadfast into the unknown without allowing fear of giants overcome him. For that, he deserves to be remembered.
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