John Clem: youngest Union Soldier

"I was the youngest soldier to serve in the Civil War. Almost literally ... from the nursery to the battlefield."

"I was the youngest soldier to serve in the Civil War. Almost literally ... from the nursery to the battlefield."

Meet John Lincoln Clem (1851 - 1937), the youngest Union soldier in the Civil War who, in 1915 at age 64, retired from the US Army, the only surviving Civil War veteran then in active service. He was a brigadier general in the Quartermaster Corps. He was appointed to Major General by special act of Congress in 1916, one year after his retirement. 

By his own account, in 1861, still age 9, and in answer to Lincoln's call for volunteers, he ran away from home and attempted to enlist in the 3rd Ohio Infantry. Rejected because of his age and small stature, he tried to join the 22d Michigan which also refused him. Undaunted, he tagged along anyway until the 22d adopted him as mascot and drummer boy. Officers chipped in to pay him the official soldier's wage of $13 a month. Two years later in 1863, they allowed him, age 11, to officially enlist. He wore a uniform cut down by the regimental tailor from a man's size and wielded a musket with the barrel cut down to fit his size.

The "baby of the regiment" in his marching kit.

The "baby of the regiment" in his marching kit.

"I slept in a tent with two soldiers, drew the regular army ration—the principal items of which were pork (commonly called ‘sowbelly’), beans, hardtack, and coffee—and, of course, had my own knife and fork, tin plate, tin cup, and tin spoon. In all the hardships of war I endured my share—such as marching in rain or snow, sleeping without protection against the elements, and on occasions going hungry. On the other hand, there was a great deal of fun in camp. We used to play handball, townball, and ‘one-cat and two-cats’—all three of these games being rudimentary forms of baseball.
"As for provender, the regular soldiers’ fare was often varied and amplified by the proceeds of foraging expeditions. Boys, being constitutionally devoid of respect for the property rights of other people, are first-class foragers."

 

The "Drummer Boy of Chickamauga" with his sergeant's stripes and cut down musket.

The "Drummer Boy of Chickamauga" with his sergeant's stripes and cut down musket.

Still serving as a drummer boy with the 22d, John saw combat at the first Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863. He

"became a national celebrity for his actions at Chickamauga. Armed with a musket sawed down for him to carry, Clem joined the 22nd Michigan in the defense of Horseshoe Ridge on the afternoon of September 20. As the Confederate forces surrounded the unit, a Confederate colonel spotted Clem and shouted either ‘I think the best thing a mite of a chap like you can do is drop that gun’ or called him a ‘damned little Yankee devil,’ according to various sources. Rather than surrender, Clem shot the colonel and successfully made his way back to Union lines. For his actions, Clem was promoted to sergeant, the youngest soldier ever to become a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army, and became known as the ‘Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.’”

John Clem, Drummer Boy of Chickamauga,
Civil War Trust

Of the colonel being shot, John later said "I am glad to be able to [say] that, according to advices afterwards received, the Confederate colonel recovered from his wound." (From Nursery to Battlefield. “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga,” Democratic Thinker)

In October 1863, while on duty as a train guard, John was captured by Confederate cavalry. They took his uniform away, including his cap that had three bullet holes in it, upsetting him greatly. He was not long in captivity being soon exchanged. Upon his return, Major General George H. Thomas, the "Rock of Chickamauga," appointed John to his staff as a mounted orderly. Fellow Ohioan Salmon P. Chase, then Secretary of the Treasury and later Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, decorated him for his bravery at Chickamauga. John went on to fight at Perryville, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw and Atlanta, where he was wounded twice.

John Lincoln Clem, perhaps age 35 ca. 1886.

John Lincoln Clem, perhaps age 35 ca. 1886.

He was discharged from the Army in 1864 at age 13, but sought at age 19, in 1870, to rejoin. Nominated to West Point by President Ulysses S. Grant, he failed the entrance exam several times before Grant nonetheless appointed him a second lieutenant. He enjoyed a successful second military career, rising to the rank of colonel and Assistant Quartermaster General by 1903.

 

 

 

On the eve of US entry into WW I, the oldest surviving Civil War veteran in active service.

On the eve of US entry into WW I, the oldest surviving Civil War veteran in active service.

He retired in 1915, on the eve of U.S. entry into World War I, with the rank of brigadier general, the last Civil War veteran to actively serve in the U.S. Army. In 1916, by special act of Congress, he was promoted to major general. He died in 1937 at age 86 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

© 2015 Steve Alexander