By Lucas Bernard
When most Americans think of child soldiers, our minds flash to rebel groups in Africa or South America, pitying the thought of youths being forced to clutch rifles instead of books or baseball bats. It’s a sorrowful thing that happens in less developed and more dangerous societies, where political and geographical tensions run deep and blood flows cheap. In the age of American hegemony, it is easy to forget that not so long ago, we too were considered an upstart and underdeveloped country by older nations blessed by time to forget the blood that soaked their lands. Our Civil War was no less bloody, no less terrible, no less destructive than any that happens today. It was our first total war, leaving the line between the front and the home blurred and gray. Men, women, and even children were not spared desolation; all had a part to play in our national tragedy—even little Johnny Clem.
On August 13, 1851, John Clem was born in Newark, Ohio. Not long after the first shots of the war were fired at Ft. Sumter, little Johnny ran away from home. He was nine years old. With his mother being killed in a train accident, he sought refuge in the Army. First attempting to enlist in a local Ohio company, he was turned away on account of his pre-adolescent state. Continuing his search, he eventually he came across the 22nd Michigan, who rejected him for the same reasons as before. Undaunted, with no home to return to, he trailed along the column of blue jacketed men like a lost puppy. Realizing they would not be able to rid themselves of this resolute little rascal, the officers of the 22nd decided they might as well put him to work. Adopting him as their mascot and drummer boy, the men chipped in to afford him a regular soldier’s pay, thirteen dollars a month. Clem marched with them and kept the step with his drum, becoming such a beloved member of the unit he was allowed to formally enlist two years later at the age of 11. Shortly after his official entry into Union service, little Johnny’s mettle was tested in the rolling hills of Georgia.
The Battle of Chickamauga was a hell of a place for a Yankee’s first time seeing the Elephant. It was the most important Union loss in the Western Theater, having the second highest casualty rate of the war, only following Gettysburg. Stories report that Clem rode an artillery caisson to the front, wielding a Springfield rifle cut down to his size. His unit was eventually forced into a desperate retreat after suffering 85% casualties. Clem escaped unharmed; but had the misfortune of running right into the presence of a Confederate colonel. No doubt bemused at the sight of this small statured soldier, the Rebel called Johnny a “damned little Yankee devil,” ordering him to drop his weapon and surrender. Johnny was having none of that shit; he was a soldier in Lincoln’s army. He raised his little rifle and blasted a 500-grain lead pill right into that secesh son of a bitch’s heart and ran like hell.
Upon arrival back to Union lines, Clem became an instant celebrity. For his heroism and tenacity, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant, becoming the youngest noncommissioned officer in US Army history. His fame was cemented in the epithet given to him, from thereon known as the “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.” Johnny Clem went on to fight at many more significant battles dotting the pages of our history, being captured once and wounded twice in the process. Discharged from service at the ripe age of fourteen, his officers encouraged him to finish his education, and Clem dutifully followed orders. Upon graduation, President Grant personally commissioned Clem as a 2nd lieutenant, and he went on to serve the next 44 years of his life wearing Union blue. Upon mandatory retirement at age 64, he was customarily promoted to brigadier general in 1915, the last Civil War veteran still in uniform. At a later Memorial Day service, a journalist asked the old soldier what memory was utmost in his mind.
“My memory pictures today what my kid eyes saw 51 years ago today, a soldier in blue and a soldier in gray, shaking hands like two loving comrades between the trenches, swapping tobacco and coffee. In the morning they were to stab each other brutally with bayonets in a fierce hand-to-hand fight for those very trenches. Yet what I like to think of first on Memorial Day is not the bloody fight, but that tender scene preceding it, which showed me that after all, man to man, we soldiers of the North and of the South were friends and brothers always. We of the North hated that which they fought for, but we did not hate them personally, nor they us.”