John Clem Fought in the Civil War at Nine-Years-Old

Updated on February 13, 2019
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Readmikenow enjoys writing about unique and interesting people. He likes to learn about individuals who live or have lived unusual lives.

John Clem During Civil War
John Clem During Civil War

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 during May of 1861 when he spoke to the commander of the Army’s 3rd Ohio regiment about joining the unit. Clem was 9 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 given by an officer 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 as well as 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

During September of 1863, the Civil War battle of Chickamauga took place at 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. He 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 in it.

After The Battle

Following the Battle of Chickamauga, Clem was made officially part of the Army and promoted to sergeant. He still holds the title of being the youngest noncommissioned officer to ever serve 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 was captured in Georgia in 1863 when he was serving as a train guard. His official U.S. Army uniform was confiscated by the Confederates. They took his cap that had 3 bullet holes in it. 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, 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 was delivering a dispatch to General Logan in Atlanta from a 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 his drum was hit by a cannonball during the battle of Shiloh and it 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, working as a drummer boy as well as 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 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, Clem was at Fort Sam Houston, Texas working as chief Quartermaster. 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 and 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 Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

John Clem grave marker
John Clem grave marker


American Battlefields

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Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Readmikenow


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      • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


        7 months ago

        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.

      • GoldenRod LM profile image

        John R Wilsdon 

        7 months ago from Superior, Arizona USA

        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 profile imageAUTHOR


        15 months ago

        FlourishAnyway, thanks. I found it a fascinating story.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image


        15 months ago from USA

        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 profile imageAUTHOR


        15 months ago

        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 profile imageAUTHOR


        15 months ago

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

      • dougwest1 profile image

        Doug West 

        15 months ago from Missouri

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

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        15 months ago from UK

        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.


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