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John Clem Fought in the Civil War at Nine Years Old

Readmikenow has written about various medical conditions. He has previously written a series of articles on Polyarteritis nodosa.

John Clem during the Civil War

John Clem during the Civil War

Who Was John Clem?

John Lincoln Clem was born on August 13, 1851. He ran away from his home in Newark, Ohio, when his mother died in a train accident. It was in May of 1861 when he spoke to the commander of the Army's 3rd Ohio regiment about joining the unit. Clem was nine years old. The commander told Clem he did not enlist infants and told him to leave.

Still determined to be a soldier, Clem spoke with the commander of the 22nd Michigan Regiment. The commander of this Army unit also turned him down. Clem did not give up. He stayed with the Army regiment from Michigan. He took on the role of drummer boy and was permitted to be in the unit. Clem was not officially part of the Army. He did camp duties and was given a soldier's pay of $13 each month. This amount was collected from the officers in the regiment and given to Clem.

Drummer Boy Job

The boys who served in the Army as drummers were not intended to fight. During a battle, there was a lot of confusion and noise. In many cases, it was difficult for soldiers to hear the commands from an officer. Each order an officer gave during a battle was related to men fighting with a series of drum beats. All soldiers and officers knew when a drumroll meant to attack, retreat, meet at a specific location, and other battlefield commands.

When not sounding calls, the drummer boys were stretcher-bearers. They walked around battlefields trying to find any soldier who had been wounded. It was their job to take the wounded to receive medical care.

Young Johnny Clem

Young Johnny Clem

Battle of Chickamauga

In September 1863, the Civil War battle of Chickamauga took place in southeastern Tennessee and northwestern Georgia. The Michigan Army unit was involved in the battle, and John Clem served as the drummer boy. During the battle, Clem was riding on an artillery caisson moving to the front of the battle. H

e had been given a musket by the soldiers in the Army unit. It had been altered to fit his small size. There came a time when the unit was given the order to retreat. As the troops retreated, Clem remained on the artillery caisson. A colonel from the Confederate Army rode toward him, demanding the little Yankee devil surrender. Clem used his musket to shoot and kill the Confederate colonel. As the battle continued, Clem became the focus of shooting. At the end of the day, his cap had three bullet holes.

After Chickamauga

Following the Battle of Chickamauga, Clem was made officially part of the Army and promoted to sergeant. He still holds the title of the youngest noncommissioned officer ever serving in the United States Army. Clem was 12 years old when this happened. It brought him national attention and the nickname The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga. Clem was given awards from the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, who was a fellow Ohioan.

Clem Is Captured

Clem was captured in Georgia in 1863 while serving as a train guard. The Confederates confiscated his official U.S. Army uniform. They took his cap with the three bullet holes. This made Clem very angry.

Later he was part of a prisoner exchange. The newspapers in the Confederacy used Clem's age and national recognition for propaganda purposes. They ran several stories stating the Union Army was in such bad shape that they had to send young children to do their fighting.

Other Civil War Battles

John Clem was involved in the battle of Chickamauga, Peach Tree Creek, Stone River, Kenesaw, Resaca, as well as Nashville and other places the Army of the Cumberland went to fight.

Three bullets missed him during the battle of Chickamauga, but he was once hit with a fragment and twice with bullets. During one incident, Clem delivered a dispatch to General Logan in Atlanta from General Thomas. He came under fire, and his pony was hit in the head and killed. Clem was wounded in the shoulder.

Johnny Shiloh Controversy

John Clem has often been referred to as Johnny Shiloh, the Smallest Drummer Boy. It has been said he was the subject of a famous Civil War song, "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh," by William S. Hays.

It has also been said that a cannonball hit his drum during the battle of Shiloh and knocked him unconscious. This would not be possible. Military records show the Union Army's 22nd Michigan Regiment, where Clem served, was not formed until four months after the Battle of Shiloh. Clem's service at the battle of Chickamauga and other engagements are part of official Army records.

Lieutenant John Clem

Lieutenant John Clem

Post Civil War

After serving with the Army of the Cumberland, participating in many battles, and working as a drummer boy and mounted orderly, Clem was discharged from the Army in September of 1864 at the age of 13. He went to high school and graduated in 1870. He joined a District of Columbia Army National Guard militia unit in 1871.

Clem then tried to get into United States Military Academy. He took the entrance examination a few times, but each time he failed. Clem was then appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant in December of 1871 as a second lieutenant and attached to the Twenty-Fourth United States Infantry Division.

In 1874, Clem advanced in rank to first lieutenant, and in 1875 he completed artillery school at Fort Monroe. In 1882, Clem was promoted to captain and began serving in the Quartermaster Department. He stayed there for the rest of his military career.

Spanish–American War

During this time, Clem served in Portland, Oregon as a depot quartermaster. He worked for the Department of Columbia. When the Spanish–American War was over, he was part of the occupation of Puerto Rico. In San Juan, he was the depot and chief quartermaster.

John Clem after retirement

John Clem after retirement

End of Military Career

In 1901, John Clem was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and in 1903 he was promoted to colonel. From 1906 to 1911, Clemworked as chief quartermaster at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

On August 13, 1915, Clem was 64 and had reached the Army's mandatory retirement age. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. This was customary for veterans of the Civil War. At the time of his retirement, Clem was the last American Civil War veteran serving in the U.S. Army. He had spent over 53 years on active military duty.

John Clem statute in Newark, Ohio

John Clem statute in Newark, Ohio

Personal Life and Death

In 1875, John Clem married Anita Rosetta, but she passed away in 1899. In 1903, Clem married Bessie Sullivan of San Antonio. He was the father of three children. After retiring from the military, he lived in Washington, D.C. Clem moved to San Antonio, Texas. On May 13, 1937, at the age of 85, John Clem passed away. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

John Clem grave marker

John Clem grave marker

Further Info on Johnny Clem


Blazeski, Goran. (2017). "The Little Drummer Boy: Sergeant John Clem was 12 years old when he became a Civil War hero." The Vintage News,

"John Clem." (n.d.). American Battlefield Trust,

"Johnny Clem." (n.d.). Ohio History Central,

© 2019 Readmikenow


Readmikenow (author) on October 29, 2019:

John, thanks. I agree. I remember when I was 9 years old. I couldn't think beyond little league baseball and watching cartoons on Saturday. He was a unique individual.

John R Wilsdon from Superior, Arizona USA on October 28, 2019:

This is a great article. Given his circumstances, I am sure that John Clem desperately needed a family, and indeed, he found one. So good to know that he lived to an old age. Imagine a 9 year old doing such things! Thanks for the good read.

Readmikenow (author) on February 15, 2019:

FlourishAnyway, thanks. I found it a fascinating story.

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 15, 2019:

I knew they accepted young enlistees, but wow! His service and the extent that he went to to were remarkable. This was an entertaining and educational article. Thanks for highlighting him.

Readmikenow (author) on February 12, 2019:

Doug, thanks. Yeah, I think John Clem was a unique individual. At 9, I don't think I would have done such a thing.

Readmikenow (author) on February 12, 2019:

Liz, thanks. Going from a 9 year old enlisted guy to an Army general is amazing.

Doug West from Missouri on February 12, 2019:

Great story. That is scary to have nine year old in a war. That is the age of my grand children.

Liz Westwood from UK on February 12, 2019:

This is a fascinating biography. I read on, hoping that he was not killed at a yoing age. I was pleased to see that he lived to a good old age.