John Clem: The Drummer Boy Who Shot A Confederate Colonel To Become A Sergeant At Age 12
When John Clem was finally of an age where the Union Army could pay him, he’d already served on the front lines for two years, beating a drum and following the 22nd of Michigan. That is, if you believe everything they say about him.
The story of John Clem, born John Joseph Klem on August 13, 1851, in Newark, Ohio, is as full of embellishments, or outright fabrications.
But, this much we know is true: Clem was really, really young when he tried to join the Union Army. He was also still young when he shot a Confederate Colonel. They made him a Sergeant because of it, but we shall come back to that story in a moment.
First, Ohio… Well, third, actually.
The 3rd Ohio
It is possible that Clem never attempted to join the 3rd Ohio Cavalry in 1861. He would have been just under 10-years-old, at the time.
The legend goes that in the wake of his mother’s passing, responding to the May 1861 call from President Lincoln for volunteers, Clem attempted to join, but that Ohio turned him down.
What history cannot substantiate is what date Clem ran away to join the Army. It may have been his intention to join the Ohio 3rd, but one fact is sure: he did not. He was too young.
The 22nd Michigan
In the summer of 1862, Clem the 22nd Michigan Infantry marched through Newark. John Clem followed them.
They would not enlist the boy, but legend has it that they allowed him to tag along, even paid him from a collection made by the officers so he could earn a living.
As the pay and the army’s tolerance of his presence would violate the laws of the time, substantiating this pre-enlistment story comes down to Clem’s word versus official documentation.
The official muster of the 22nd was in August of 1862. The Battle of Shiloh was four months prior, but legend maintains that Clem fought with the 22nd in that battle.
If legend were true, that was where he famously took a hit of shrapnel, blocked by his drum, knocking him down and earning the title: Johnny Shiloh.
In reality, if Clem was part of that battle, it was not with the 22nd.
What this may be, in fact, is a rewiring of history. There was a popular song at the time, by the name of “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh.”
Battle of Chickamauga
Maintaining with the 22nd, Clem marched with a drum until they granted him a modified musket. This was likely after May of 1863 when the 22nd finally allowed him to join. He was only twelve at the time.
Because of his stature, Clem could not carry a standard musket so they sawed off the end of one, and let him carry that.
In September of that same year, the 22nd met Confederate forces for two days in the Battle of Chickamauga. Clem’s role in that battle was unclear, but he was in retreat with his unit when a Confederate Colonel demanded his surrender.
Clem raised his musket and shot the colonel before retreating. The colonel did not die as it is often misreported, something Clem did not learn until years later, but he shot him.
The Confederate Army won the battle too, but Clem’s actions warranted a promotion to Sergeant; the youngest in history.
Clem fought in more battles after Chickamauga, took shrapnel, and one bullet to the ear along the way.
In October 1863, in Georgia, Confederates captured Clem but later exchanged him in a prisoner exchange. After the war, Clem attempted to attend West Point, nominated by President Ulysses S. Grant, but he could not pass the entrance exams.
In 1871, Grant overlooked Clem’s scholastics and made him a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, where he would serve until 1915.
During his time with the army, Clem fought in the Spanish-American War, served in the occupation of Puerto Rico, and in 1901 the U.S. promoted him to lieutenant colonel.
In 1903, they made him a colonel. By the time he retired, in August of 1915, Clem was a brigadier general, and the last soldier of the Civil War still in service.
A year later, they made his final rank of the retired list major general, a long way from the underaged drummer boy who wouldn’t go away.
John Clem lived until 1937, lived through the Great War and the Great Depression. Some of our parents were alive when he passed away in San Antonio, Texas. It was May, the same month he was born.
The army buried him at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.