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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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Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
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John W. Jones: The Runaway Slave Who Buried Nearly 3000 Confederate Soldiers
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

John W. Jones was as close to a sinless man as you could find—with the exception of the time he lied to his mother.

It was a late June evening in 1844 and the 26-year-old enslaved man, who lived on a plantation near Leesburg, Virginia, told his mother that he was leaving to attend a party. His real plans were much riskier. Jones slipped outside, grabbed a pistol, and rendezvoused with four other enslaved men. With starlight as their guide, they crept through the Virginia woods. Their destination: North.

The men hiked approximately 20 miles every day, dodging slave catchers in Maryland and crossing the Mason-Dixon Line into the free state of Pennsylvania. Following a major route along the Underground Railroad, they needled through Harrisburg and Williamsport and traced a path along what is now State Route 14. When the exhausted men snuck into a barn near the New York border to sleep, Jones kept guard as the others rested: He sat down, laid a shotgun on his lap, and kept his eyes peeled.

“He was serious about getting his freedom,” says Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. “He understood the danger, and he constantly took responsibility for others. You’ll notice that was a thread for him—responsibility for others.”

Jones never had to use the gun. When the barn’s owner, Nathaniel Smith, discovered the five men on his property, he invited them into his home. His wife Sarah served the group hot biscuits and butter and cared for them until their strength returned. It was the first time many of them had ever been inside a white person’s home. According to an 1885 profile in The Elmira Telegram, the gesture brought the men to tears.

On July 5, 1844, Jones crossed a toll bridge into Elmira, New York, with less than $2 in his pocket. Unlike most runaways bound for Canada, Jones decided to stay in Elmira. It’s here that Jones would become one of the country's most successful Underground Railroad conductors, one of the richest black men in the state of New York, and the last earthly link for nearly 3000 dead Confederate soldiers.

 
 

Living in the north did not mean Jones had it easy. He could not vote. He still shared sidewalks with former slave-owners. When he asked to receive an education at the local schools, he was denied.

But Jones had a knack for cracking ceilings. After earning the admiration of a local judge, he was allowed to study at an all-women’s seminary, exchanging janitorial work for reading and writing lessons. He joined a church with abolitionist leanings and become its sexton, maintaining its cemetery. Then he became the sexton of a second cemetery, and then a third. The community quickly grew to respect his work ethic and, eventually, Jones had earned enough money to buy a small house—a house that he transformed into a vital hub for the Underground Railroad.

At the time, the Underground Railroad—an informal network of trails, hiding places, and guides that helped slaves escape northward—was under intense scrutiny. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had created financial incentives to report runaways living in free states. “Slave catchers from the south could come up to a place like Elmira and claim that a person of color was a runaway slave, and they could haul them back into slavery—even if that person had been born free,” says Bruce Whitmarsh, Director of the Chemung County Historical Society. There were steep penalties for aiding a person’s escape.

Jones didn’t care. Not only did he join the Underground Railroad, he was openly vocal about it, loudly pledging his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in a message that was published in abolitionist newspapers across the region: “Resolved, that we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States.” Jones committed to resisting the law, even at the risk that “everyone of us be assassinated.”

The Underground Railroad in Elmira was unique: Since the town included the only train stop between Philadelphia and Ontario, it actually involved locomotives. Jones communicated regularly with William Still, the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and built a cozy network of abolitionists who worked on trains passing through town. He provided runaways with housing, food, and even part-time jobs. “Runaways usually came in groups of four, six, or 10,” Aaron says. “But he had up to 30 at once in his little house.” Jones arranged hiding space for all of the escapees on the 4 a.m. “Freedom Baggage Car” to Canada, as it was unofficially known.

Over the course of nine years, Jones aided the escape of around 800 runaway slaves. Not one was captured.

During the last years of the Civil War, the same railroad tracks that had delivered hundreds of runaways to freedom began to carry thousands of captive Confederate soldiers to Elmira’s new prisoner of war camp. Once again, Jones would be there.

 
 

Of the 620,000 Civil War deaths, approximately 10 percent occurred at prison camps. The most notorious P.O.W. camp—in Andersonville, Georgia—saw 13,000 Union troops, or approximately 29 percent of the prison population, perish. After the war, Andersonville's commander was tried for war crimes. The camp is now a National Historic Site.

Meanwhile, the prison camp in Elmira has been largely forgotten. Today, the riverside site is little more than an unremarkable patch of dandelion-speckled grass; a small, easy-to-miss monument is the only marker. It belies the fact that while Elmira's camp was noticeably smaller than Andersonville's—only one-quarter its size—it was just as deadly: If you were a prisoner at “Hellmira,” there was a one-in-four chance you would die.

Elmira Prison Camp
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

Elmira was never supposed to have a prison camp; it was a training depot for Union soldiers. But when the Confederacy began refusing to exchange African-American soldiers—who it considered captive slaves, not prisoners of war—the Union stopped participating in prisoner exchanges. “Both sides started scrambling for places to expand, and that’s how Elmira got caught up in the web,” says Terri Olszowy, a Board Member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

The rollout was ill-planned, Olszowy explains. When it opened in July 1864, the camp had no hospital or medical staff. The first prisoners were already in rough shape and deteriorated quickly. Latrines were placed uphill from a small body of water called Foster’s Pond, which quickly became a cesspool. A shelter shortage meant that hundreds of soldiers were still living in tents by Christmas. During spring, the Chemung River flooded the grounds. Rats crawled everywhere. When authorities released a dog to catch them, the prisoners ate the dog.

The camp grew overcrowded. Designed to hold only 5000 prisoners, it saw approximately 7000 to 10,000 men confined there at its peak. Across the street, an observation tower allowed locals the opportunity to gawk at these prisoners through a pair of binoculars. It cost 10 cents.

It must have been a depressing sight, a scene of men stricken with dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, and smallpox. Many prisoners attempted to escape. One group successfully dug a 66-foot tunnel with spoons and knives. One man fled by hiding in a barrel of swill. Another hid inside a coffin, leaping out as he was being hauled to Woodlawn Cemetery.

It’s said that 2973 Confederate prisoners left the Elmira prison camp in coffins for real. The job to bury them belonged to the town’s sexton: John W. Jones.

 
 

The P.O.W. cemetery in Elmira is unique. The dead at many prison camps were buried in mass graves; Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, for example, contains a plot filled with the remains of prisoners detained at Camp Douglas that is believed to be largest mass grave in the western hemisphere. All 2973 of the dead at Elmira, however, received an individual, marked grave in a special section of Woodlawn Cemetery. Only seven are unknown. Jones's effort to give each soldier an individual grave, as well as his meticulous record-keeping, were a big part of why the federal government designated the P.O.W. portion of Woodlawn a "National Cemetery" in 1877—a status awarded to veterans' cemeteries deemed to be of national importance, and which has only been awarded to 135 cemeteries nationwide.

Jones treated each dead soldier with superhuman levels of grace. Overseeing a crew of 12, he managed the burial of about six soldiers every day, treating each body as if that person had been a member of his own church. He kept detailed records of each soldier’s identity by creating improvised dog tags: Around each person's neck or under their arm, Jones tucked a jar containing a paper detailing their name, rank, and regiment. That same information was neatly scrawled on each coffin. When the dirt settled, Jones marked each plot with a wooden headstone.

“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” Aaron says. “He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.”

According to Clayton W. Holmes’s 1912 book Elmira Prison Camp, “History does not record anything to challenge the assertion that at no prison, North or South, were the dead so reverently cared for, or a more perfect record kept.” In fact, when representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy came to Elmira at the turn of the century to consider repatriating the remains, Jones’s handiwork convinced them to touch not a blade of grass. Instead, a monument in the cemetery commemorates the “honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man.”

Aaron sees a second moral in the story. “People always talk about the tension between him being an escaped slave and burying with respect and dignity these Confederate soldiers fighting to keep people like him as slaves,” she says. “But to me there’s a subtext: Here is a grown man who escaped slavery, and the first thing he wanted to do when he reached freedom was get an education. Because of that, he was able to keep these meticulous records that later led to this national designation: It became a historical moment because this man, who was denied an education, got one.”

John W. Jones
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

It also made a mark on Jones’s bank account. Jones earned $2.50 for each soldier he buried. It wasn’t much, but by the time he had finished burying nearly 3000 Confederate dead, he had become one of the 10 richest African-Americans in the state of New York. With that money, he bought a handsome farm of at least 12 acres.

It was a bittersweet purchase. Not only is it believed that parts of his home were built from wooden scraps of the disassembled Elmira prison camp, Jones had purchased the home when New York state law stipulated that black men must own $250 worth of property in order to vote. His home—today listed on the National Register of Historic Places [PDF]—earned Jones that right to vote.

For the remainder of his life, Jones continued working as a sexton and church usher. In 1900, he died and was buried in one of the cemeteries that had become his life’s work.

Incidentally, his death also marked the end of a local mystery: For nearly two decades, fresh flowers kept appearing on the freshly manicured grave of a woman named Sarah Smith. Nobody knew why the flowers appeared there or where they originated—until the decorations stopped appearing immediately after Jones’s death. Residents later realized that the grave belonged to the same Sarah Smith who, 56 years earlier, had invited John W. Jones and his friends into her home for butter, biscuits, and a good night’s rest.

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Library of Congress // Public Domain
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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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