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opinionator - a gathering of opinion from around the web The Boys of War By CATE LINEBERRY October 4, 2011, 7:53 pm

75 thumbnailPortraits of some of the children who served during the Civil War.

With hopes of adventure and glory, tens of thousands of boys under the age of 18 answered the call of the Civil War, many of them rushing to join Union and Confederate troops in the earliest days of battle. Both sides had recruitment rules that barred underage men from enlisting, but that didn’t stop those who wanted to be part of the action: some enlisted without their parents’ permission and lied about their ages or bargained with recruiters for a trial period, while others joined along with their older brothers and fathers whose partisan passions overwhelmed their parental senses. Most of the youngest boys became drummers, messengers and orderlies, but thousands of others fought alongside the men.

As each side scrambled to get troops into the field in the early days of the war, many of these boys went to battle with just a few weeks of training. It didn’t take long for them to understand what they’d gotten themselves into. Elisha Stockwell Jr., from Alma, Wis., was 15 when he enlisted. After the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, he wrote, “I want to say, as we lay there and the shells were flying over us, my thoughts went back to my home, and I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away and get into such a mess as I was in. I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me.”

While some regiments protected their boy recruits by sending them to the rear when fighting broke out, others expected them to work in the front lines as stretcher bearers. Harry Kieffer, a musician for the 150th Pennsylvania, wrote about his experience at Gettysburg: “[I am called] away for a moment to look after some poor fellow whose arm is off at the shoulder, and it was just time I got away, too, for immediately a shell plunges into the sod where I had been sitting, tearing my stretcher to tatters.” A 16-year-old musician, John A. Cockerill, who was also at Shiloh, later wrote,

I passed… the corpse of a beautiful boy in gray who lay with his blond curls scattered about his face and his hand folded peacefully across his breast. He was clad in a bright and neat uniform, well garnished with gold, which seemed to tell the story of a loving mother and sisters who had sent their household pet to the field of war. His neat little hat lying beside him bore the number of a Georgia regiment… He was about my age… At the sight of the poor boy’s corpse, I burst into a regular boo hoo and started on.

Perhaps the most famous boy of the war was John Joseph Klem, better known as Johnny Clem. At only 9 years old and roughly four feet tall, Clem tried unsuccessfully to enlist with the 3rd Ohio in May 1861, soon after Lincoln first issued the call for volunteers. Clem left his father, brother and sister in Newark, Ohio, to join; his mother had been killed in a train accident earlier that year. Undeterred by the rejection of the 3rd Ohio, Clem tried his luck again with the 22nd Michigan, which allowed him to join as an unofficial drummer boy. Until he was added to the muster roll in 1863, the $13 he earned each month came from donations made by the officers of his regiment.

Massachusetts Commanders Military Order of the Loyal Legion and the U.S. Army Military History InstituteJohnny Clem, perhaps the most famous drummer boy of the war, shot a Confederate officer who had ordered him to surrender.

Clem became a celebrity for his actions at Chickamauga, Ga., in September 1863. The 22nd Michigan was assigned to defend Horseshoe Ridge, but Confederate soldiers soon surrounded it. A Confederate officer spotted Clem, who was armed with a musket modified for his size, and demanded that he surrender. In the face of danger, Clem shot the officer and ran, making his way back to Union lines. Though he escaped unharmed, 389 of the 455 men who made up the 22nd Michigan were captured, wounded or killed in the battle.

Sixteen days later, Confederates captured Clem while he was riding on a wagon train carrying provisions to nearby Chattanooga, Tenn. He was paroled after just three days and sent to Camp Chase, Ohio, where he was exchanged as a prisoner of war. On his way back to his regiment, Clem told his story to Gen. William S. Rosecrans, who had been relieved of his command of the Army of the Cumberland following the Union defeat at Chickamauga. Impressed with the boy’s actions, Rosecrans informed the press. The Columbus Daily Express wrote, “The little fellow told his story simply and modestly, and the General determined to honor his bravery.” How modestly Clem told his story is debated, but people in the North embraced it. The “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga,” who had been promoted to sergeant, was now a Union hero. The daughter of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase asked her father to honor Clem with a medal, which Clem wore in at least one of the many pictures taken by photographers hoping to profit from the young boy’s newfound celebrity.

Massachusetts Commanders Military Order of the Loyal Legion and the U.S. Army Military History InstituteJohnny Clem, as a young man.

As his fame grew, Clem continued to serve in the Union Army. He mainly carried dispatches, suffering two minor wounds in Atlanta. Despite stories that claim Clem’s drum was destroyed at Shiloh, giving him the nickname “Johnny Shiloh” and inspiring the song “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh,” it’s unlikely he was ever there.

On July 6, 1864, the War Department forbid any officers to enlist any soldier under 16 or face severe penalties. Almost a month later, Lt. Col. Henry Dean of the 22nd Michigan requested Clem – who had changed his name during the war from John Joseph Klem to John Lincoln Clem in honor of the president – be released from service so that he “may have a better opportunity for educating himself.”

While awaiting his discharge, Clem went to Carlinsville, Ill., where he started school. But the war remained very much on his mind; In a letter to Capt. Sanford C. Kellogg, an officer in his former unit, in September, he wrote, “I am going to school here and am very much pleased with the institution and my schoolmates. Please tell my Colonel to write to me as soon as he can … How is Georgie Lutz getting along? Who has my little pony now? … If any of the officers are willing to write to me I would be very much pleased to hear from them.”

Clem graduated from high school in 1870 and was nominated to West Point by President Ulysses S. Grant. He failed the entrance exam several times, but Grant nevertheless appointed him a second lieutenant in the Army. After serving 43 years in the military, Clem retired with the rank of major general — the last Civil War veteran to actively serve in the Army. He died in 1937 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Though he became one of the most famous drummer boys of the war, Clem was just one of thousands of young men who proved to be as brave as the men in their regiments. At least 48 boys under 18 — 11 of whom were under 16 — received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their extraordinary valor in action. The youngest were mostly drummers: Willie Johnston, 11, was the only drummer in his brigade to hold onto his instrument during the Peninsula Campaign’s heavy fighting; Orion Howe, 14, was a drummer who, despite being severely wounded, remained on the battlefield at Vicksburg, Miss., until he had reported that troops needed more cartridges; and William Horsfall, 14, was a drummer who saved the life of a wounded officer lying between the lines at Corinth, Miss. John Cook, 15, was a bugler who volunteered to act as a cannoneer under enemy fire at Antietam, Md., while Cpl. Thomas C. Murphy, 16, who was born in Ireland, voluntarily crossed the line of heavy fire at Vicksburg carrying a message to stop the firing of one Union regiment on another.

These and the other boys who served, whether as drummers, orderlies or soldiers, risked their lives alongside men twice their age and, sometimes, size. Some became prisoners of war, while others were killed in the thick of battle or died from diseases that ravaged even the strongest men. Those who were lucky enough to survive were often left with a lifetime of haunted memories.

Follow Disunion at or join us on Facebook.Sources: Dennis M. Keesee, “Too Young To Die: Boy Soldiers of the Union Army. 1861-1865”; Jim Murphy, “The Boys’ War: Confederate and Union Soldiers talk about the Civil War”; Anne Palagruto, “Babes in Arms: Boys Soldiers of the Civil War”; G. Clifton Wisler, “When Johnny Went Marching: Young Americans fight the Civil War”; University of Houston’s Digital History Page on Boy Soldiers in the Civil War.
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