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