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John Clem: The “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga”


Happy birthday to the youngest soldier ever to become a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army, John Clem, born on August 13, 1851 in Newark, Ohio.

Although he wasn’t even ten years old, Clem rallied to the Stars and Stripes shortly after the outbreak of the American Civil War. Following President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to serve in the Union army for a three-year term in May 1861, Clem tried to join up with the newly formed 3rd Ohio. Although he was denied from serving with the Ohio outfit, he eventually found a home with the 22nd Michigan. The Wolverines admired the young boy’s determination and adopted him as a mascot and unofficial drummer boy. According to the American Battlefield Trust, the 22nd Michigan’s officers even “chipped in to pay his monthly salary of $13 before he finally was allowed to officially enlist in 1863.”

Clem’s actions at the bloody Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863 elevated him to national celebrity status. Wielding a musket that had been sawed down for him to carry, Clem helped his outfit defend the crucial rallying point known as Horseshoe Ridge on the afternoon of September 20. When Confederate troops surrounded his unit, a Rebel colonel noticed the young soldier. Depending on the source, the colonel reportedly said either “I think the best thing a mite of a chap like you can do is drop that gun” or called the boy in blue “a damned little Yankee devil.” Regardless of what was said, Clem was not going to be taken prisoner. He shot the colonel and ultimately made it back to Union lines. For his heroics at Chickamauga, Clem was promoted to sergeant, making him the youngest soldier ever to become a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army. He also earned the nickname, the “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.”

Clem saw further action after Chickamauga and was later wounded twice in the fight for Atlanta. Discharged from the Army in 1864 at age 13, he went on to reenter the service after the Civil War. Although nominated to the United States Military Academy at West Point by President Ulysses S. Grant, Clem was unable to pass the entrance exam. Undeterred, Grant appointed the battle-tested warrior a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. After a long career of service, Clem ultimately retired from the Army with the rank of major general in 1915. He was the last Civil War veteran to actively serve in the U.S. Army. Clem passed away on May 13, 1937 and is buried at America’s sacred Arlington National Cemetery.

Sources

American Battlefield Trust: John Clem.

Ohio History Central: John Clem.

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