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The 12-Year-Old Who Fought In the Civil War

Heritage Auctions // Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, John Clem decided to enlist in the Union Army. There was just one problem: The Ohio resident was just 9 years old. Undeterred by his youth, Clem forced his way into the conflict. By the time he was discharged near the end of the war, he had not only seen active combat but had become a national folk hero as well—and he wasn't even 13.

Yet with folk heroes come folktales. Once a real person’s deeds achieve near-mythic status in public perception, hearsay tends to bury fact. While much of Clem’s story is 100 percent verifiable, he did make a few claims that some historians question. Here’s what we know for sure.

“I’D LIKE MIGHTY WELL TO BE A DRUMMER BOY”

The son of French-German immigrants, Clem was born in Newark, Ohio on August 13, 1851. Though his parents christened him John Joseph Klem, he later changed the spelling of his last name to “Clem” because he felt it sounded more American. (Clem would later adopt Lincoln as a replacement middle name.) Vegetable farming was the family business, and growing up, John pitched in by selling their freshly-grown produce door-to-door, with his younger siblings Lewis and Elizabeth usually tagging along. Sadly, the children lost their mother, Magdalene, when she was hit by a train when crossing railroad tracks in 1861. John’s father, Roman, quickly remarried, and although their stepmother was kind to the children, John would soon disappear.

John’s interest in military service had begun shortly after Confederate rebels fired on Fort Sumter, officially starting the U.S. Civil War. At one point, he approached the Third Ohio Regiment of Volunteers, which happened to be passing through Newark, and asked the commanding officer to take him on as their drummer boy. “He looked me over, laughed, and said he wasn’t enlisting infants,” Clem later wrote. But he wasn't willing to let the matter drop. His sister Elizabeth later recalled that as the family sat eating dinner one night in May 1861, “Johnnie said ... ‘Father, I’d like mighty well to be a drummer boy. Can’t I go into the Union army?’ ‘Tut, what nonsense boy!’ replied father, ‘You are not yet 10 years old!’”

After the Klems finished eating, John announced that he was going out for a swim. Instead, he ran away from home.

In his 1914 autobiographical essay “From Nursery to Battlefield,” Clem claimed that he took a train to Cincinnati, where he approached the Twenty-Second Michigan Regiment. Supposedly, this unit also rejected him at first, but he followed it around anyway until the men gradually accepted him as their drummer boy. Since he couldn’t legally be put on the payroll, the adults dug into their own pockets and pooled together a $13 monthly allowance. They also supplied Clem with, as he put it, “a soldier’s uniform, cut down by the regimental tailor from a man’s size.”

The historical record shows that at just 11, John Clem was made a private within that regiment on May 1, 1863. Little did he know that he was about to dive into a clash of historic and devastating proportions.

FROM CHICKAMAUGA TO ICON

After Gettysburg, the Battle of Chickamauga had the second-highest body count of any battle in the Civil War. For three days beginning on September 18, 1863, Union and Confederate forces tore into each other around the Chickamauga Creek in northern Georgia. The rebels’ goal there was to thwart a southward Union march. They succeeded, but it was a costly victory: By the time the battle ended, it had claimed the lives of 34,000 men—including 18,000 Confederates.

John Clem and the Twenty-Second Michigan Infantry were a part of that repelled northern advance. “At Chickamauga, I carried a musket, the barrel of which had been sawed off to a length suitable to my size,” Clem wrote in “From Nursery to Battlefield.” On the final day of the battle, Clem said he found himself behind enemy lines, where he shot and wounded a charging Confederate Colonel. Clem describes the incident in his essay, writing that the man “rode up and yelled at me ‘Surrender, you damned little Yankee!’” Rather than drop his gun, Clem pulled the trigger, and knocked the officer from his horse.

Up north, word quickly got around that a 12-year-old had shot a rebel officer. For unionists who’d grown desperate for some sliver of good news from the Georgian front, the story was a welcome rallying cry. The press nicknamed Clem “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” and, as news of his heroics spread across the Union, Clem quickly became a celebrity. Soon, his wardrobe got a free makeover thanks to some Chicago women who had obtained the boy’s measurements from his comrades and sent him a new handmade uniform.

Meanwhile, the war raged on. Just a few weeks after the battle that made him famous came to an end, Clem was captured in Georgia by Confederate forces. He was brought before Joseph Wheeler, then a Major General, who allegedly said, “See to what sore straits the Yankees are driven, when they have to send their babies to fight us!”

Two months later, Clem was set free as part of a prisoner exchange. The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga spent the remainder of the war serving under General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland. He was wounded twice and participated in such major battles as those of Kennesaw and Atlanta before being discharged in September 1864.

With the war nearing its end, Clem returned to civilian life, graduating from high school in 1870. His next move was applying to the U.S. Military Academy. Despite his decorated battlefield experience, the young man failed his entrance exam several times over—but by then, his celebrity was so well established that President Ulysses S. Grant felt compelled to intervene and make Clem a Second Lieutenant in the Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment on December 18, 1871.

Clem went on to graduate from Fort Monroe’s artillery school, took part in the Spanish-American War, and rose to the rank of Colonel. In 1915, when he retired, he became a Brigadier General (a tradition for retiring Civil War veterans). It was a truly historic departure: Before Clem left the military, he was the last Civil War veteran to serve the U.S. Army.

In 1916, Congress honored Clem by promoting him to Major General. He died on May 13, 1937, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

A LEGACY ON TRIAL

Did Clem really do everything he claimed to have done? In his lifetime, his supposed exploits in the Civil War were broadly accepted as fact. But today, some are skeptical of these anecdotes.

Consider this: In his autobiographical essay “From Nursery to Battlefield,” Clem states that he accompanied the Twenty-Second Michigan to the Battle of Shiloh, where a “fragment of a shell” totaled his drum. According to Clem, his comrades then gave him the nickname “Johnny Shiloh,” which Disney went on to use as the title of a 1963 movie about his life. There’s just one problem: The Battle of Shiloh was fought on April 6 and 7, 1862—and the Twenty-Second Michigan wasn’t established until the following summer. In fact, the new regiment didn’t even start recruiting troops until July 15.

Historians have their theories about this discrepancy. Some believe Clem wasn’t at the battle at all, while others suspect that he did participate—just with some other regiment. In a conversation with author and history popularizer Henry Howe, Elizabeth seemed to support the latter position. During their exchange, she said that her brother enlisted as the drummer boy of the Twenty-Fourth Ohio Regiment—which saw action at Shiloh—before leaving them to join the Twenty-Second Michigan.

And then there’s the matter of that wounded Confederate tale. In the late 1980s, Greg Pavelka—a park ranger and amateur historian—effectively called Clem a liar. His arguments were published in the January 1989 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated. Pavelka pointed out that Clem couldn’t have fought in the Battle of Shiloh as a member of the Twenty-Second Michigan Infantry. The ranger also dismissed the story about Clem shooting a southern officer at Chickamauga. Pavelka maintained that there was simply no record of a Confederate Colonel being wounded during this particular battle. So, as far as he was concerned, Clem must have falsified his war stories.

In Newark, Ohio, the article caused quite a stir. For over 120 years, Clem’s hometown had embraced him as one of its greatest heroes, even naming the local elementary school after him. To settle the debate over Clem’s legacy once and for all, the citizens of Newark invited Pavelka to defend his allegations in a mock “trial.”

The whole community took part. Linda Leffel, a now-retired teacher who worked at John Clem Elementary, has fond memories of the event. “I was thrilled to get the students, teachers, and parents involved in activities taking place the week leading up to the trial,” Leffel told the Newark Advocate in 2015. The school also organized an essay contest for its fifth graders. The winners—James Galbraith and Hila Hayes—were recruited to portray John and Elizabeth Clem at the trial. Clem’s defense was to be presented by Dr. Dean Jauchius, an ex-Marine and Franklin University professor who had collaborated with future Ohio governor James A. Rhodes to co-author a 1959 historical novel about Clem’s life.

On October 14, 1989, the trial began at Newark’s courthouse. Around 350 people showed up to witness the spectacle firsthand, including a number of curious bystanders in full Civil War regalia; a jury (made up of local politicians and public figures) was also in attendance. By far, the most esteemed visitor was General Dwight E. Beach, Clem’s great-grandson.

Once things kicked off, the mock “attorneys” were given 20 minutes each to state their cases. Pavelka reiterated the points he’d made in Civil War Times Illustrated; Jauchius countered by reminding the jury that Clem was only nine years old when his involvement with the Union army began. Clem’s age meant that his enlistment technically wasn’t legal. Hence, the professor argued, the regiment(s) he was involved with probably did not list him in their official rosters, lest they incriminate themselves by doing so. That, in turn, might explain why there’s no record of Clem at Shiloh.

As for the Chickamauga incident, Jauchius maintained that Clem really did shoot a Colonel who went on to become an attorney in Texas. He added that the two met face-to-face many years later, at which point the former Confederate told Clem, “So you’re the little [expletive] who shot me.”

Swayed by Jauchius’s evidence, the jury unanimously found Clem innocent of misrepresenting his war record in any way. “He’s become a legend,” Pavelka said, “and you can’t fight a legend.”

Since then, the city’s love affair with Clem has only grown. Ten years after the trial, sculptor Mike Major unveiled a bronze statue on Main Street. Dedicated to local veterans, it depicts a youthful John Clem tapping away on his war drum. In 2007, the Cincinnati-based film company Historical Productions, Inc. released Johnny, a biopic about the patriot. Naturally, its world premiere was held in Newark.

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Library of Congress // Public Domain
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History
The Key to Robert E. Lee's Puzzling Death Might Be Hidden in a Photo of His Earlobe
Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

When Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee died five years after the Civil War ended, the cause of his death had doctors stumped. He had been in poor health, but his specific illness was a mystery; there weren't many clues beyond symptoms Lee had described in letters. “The troops are not encamped near me and I have felt so unwell since my return as not to be able to go anywhere,” he wrote to his wife in 1863.

This was before electrocardiograms and x-rays existed. There were no obvious physical findings to support a formal diagnosis, either. Lee’s doctors made some educated guesses based on his gripes and treated him with everything but the kitchen sink: hot mustard plasters and footbaths, doses of turpentine or ammonia, and enemas, all of which were standard medical treatments in the Civil War era. Without a robust medical history to guide them, the doctors diagnosed stroke, rheumatism, and pneumonia in the months leading up to Lee's death.

Now, new research from East Carolina University sheds light on the age-old question of what actually caused Lee's demise, thanks to the discovery in a photograph of a crease running diagonally across Lee’s right earlobe. According to the case study, recently published in the American Journal of Cardiology, the crease is a physical sign that Lee likely died from heart disease.

Richard Reinhart, an emeritus professor of medicine at East Carolina University and author of the paper, says earlobe creases can help detect heart disease. Some previous reports have pointed to heart disease as the cause of Lee’s death based on written evidence, but “until now there hadn’t been an actual physical finding supporting this diagnosis,” Reinhart tells Mental Floss. “His earlobe crease is the only piece of objective physical evidence that helps back it up.”

Photo of Robert E. Lee showing a crease in his right earlobe
Virginia Historical Society

The possible connection between earlobe creases and heart disease was first made in 1973, and there have since been more than 120 studies investigating the link. Scientists aren’t sure why creases appear in the earlobes of some heart disease patients, but researchers have suggested that a heart condition may affect the blood vessels and elasticity of the earlobe in a way that forms a crease over time.

Reinhart, a history buff who has a particular interest in the life of Lee, saw a close-up photo of the general at the Virginia Historical Society one day and noticed the wrinkle on his ear. Aware of the possible link between earlobe creases and heart disease, he began poring through Lee’s personal letters and attending physicians’ notes, as well as previous reports of Lee’s illness, to see if his symptoms jibed with a failing heart.

It turned out the symptoms correlated well: Lee initially had an episode of chest pain in 1863, which progressively worsened when he exerted himself and eventually took on characteristics that would be recognized today as heart disease. And in the months before his death in 1870, he began to have chest pain even at rest, which suggests a heart attack was imminent.

“The constellation of symptoms, I believe, are readily explained by heart failure due to progressive coronary artery disease,” Reinhart says.

In an age where advanced medical diagnostic tools weren’t yet in play, a physical feature like an earlobe crease would have been a useful visual cue had doctors known it might signal heart trouble. But even if they had known, could they have done anything to help Lee? One option—a nitroglycerin-based substance called amyl nitrite, which dilates the coronary artery for better blood flow to the heart—had been documented in the British medical journal Lancet in 1867 but wasn’t used much clinically. Salicylate, the precursor to aspirin, which today's physicians recommend for preventing heart attacks, had been around since before the Civil War. But the idea of using it as an anti-platelet drug wouldn't occur for decades.

“Understanding heart disease back then was in its relative infancy, and I don’t think there’s anything that would have turned Lee’s condition around,” Reinhart says. “Even today, I believe the outcome from his final illness—end-stage heart failure—may not have been much better, given that the mortality rates for it are still significant.”

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Show and Tell
Photograph of Jefferson Davis in Women’s Clothing
International Center for Photography, Gift of Charles Schwartz, 2012

On May 10, 1865, Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, was captured by Union troops near Irwinville, Georgia. Davis’s capture, about a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, was the effective end of the Confederacy and the four-year war that had left hundred of thousands of Americans dead.

Davis, a true believer in the cause of the Confederacy, refused to accept Lee’s surrender, believing that the South could still wage a guerilla war against the Union (clearly, Lee disagreed). With that cause in mind, Davis and his family fled Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, hoping to make it to Texas, where he believed he could continue to fight. But the Davises would only make it as far as south Georgia before they were found by Union troops.

According to a handful of accounts from the period, Davis was captured while wearing women’s clothes. The story, as it’s generally told, depicts a man desperate to escape and so, with the encouragement of his wife, Varina, he donned her overcoat and shawl and slipped into the Georgia swamp with a female servant (other accounts say he grabbed his wife's coat and shawl accidentally). Union troops spotted the two “women” and, on closer look, realized that one was wearing spurred boots. Given away by his footwear, Davis surrendered to the Union troops.

The story of Davis in women’s clothing traveled quickly to the ears of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. Stanton recognized the story as an opportunity to discredit Davis, who still had numerous sympathizers throughout the country. Historians have noted that the North gendered its victory as masculine and heroic and, in contrast, portrayed the South as feminine and weak. Davis’s flight played into that narrative, portraying the Southern leader as a coward willing to emasculate himself in order to escape. In short, manly martyrs do not wear women’s clothes. (Never mind that numerous eyewitness accounts disputed the story, including two by members of the First Wisconsin Cavalry, one of the units that captured Davis and his party and another by Davis’s coachman.)

Nevertheless, Stanton planned to exploit the account to the Union’s full advantage. But there was a slight hitch in his plan—namely, the look and style of Varina Davis’s overcoat and shawl. Mrs. Davis’s overcoat was essentially unisex, and bore a striking resemblance to the raincoats of Union soldiers. Furthermore, the shawl was also worn by many men in the mid-19th century, including Abraham Lincoln. The original plan foiled, Stanton encouraged the rumor that Davis had been captured wearing women’s petticoats, earning Davis the derogatory nickname “President in Petticoats.”

The rumor proved incredibly popular. Historian Gaines Foster writes, “Northerners delighted in the accounts of how the Confederate chieftain had tried to escape in female disguise.” Indeed, even P.T. Barnum couldn’t resist the spectacle: The circus king exhibited what he claimed to be the very clothes Davis was wearing at the time of his capture.

Boston Public Library via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Numerous prints circulated of Davis in petticoats, and photography—a relatively new medium at the time—took up the theme as well. In this combination photograph (up top) produced by the Slee Brothers of Poughkeepsie, New York, and now owned by the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, Davis is depicted in the petticoats of a woman, his head, taken from a separate photographic portrait, having been imposed on another body. Here, Davis wears bonnet, shawl, and petticoats, a fanciful elaboration on the story of his capture, and the skirts are lifted to reveal his spurred boots. The Slee Brothers were one of many photography studios to use combination printing—the production of a single positive through multiple negatives—to play with the theme of Davis fleeing in women’s clothes.

Other photographs from the period depict Davis’s head superimposed on a body wearing full hoop skirts with large men’s boots also imposed over the body, as well as Davis (again in full women’s dress) sneaking through the Georgia swampland while holding a dagger. In almost all of these photographs, the boots are prominently displayed, noting Davis’s folly and a clear part of the narrative of the North’s victory.

Photography was undoubtedly a powerful tool to disseminate the story of Davis’s and the South’s defeat. Davis himself recognized the importance of the new medium: In 1869, he commissioned a photograph of himself wearing the actual clothes he had worn when captured. But the act was fruitless and, despite his insistence, the “President in Petticoats” is a story that stuck with Davis long after death.

Header image: International Center for Photography

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