Posted by: Democratic Thinker | May 31, 2014

Weekly Story: From Nursery to Battlefield

Weekly Story

An Army officer—and Civil War veteran—relates how he started his career.

The Civil War was largely a boys’ war, one might say. Three out of every ten soldiers enlisted on the Union side were under twenty-one years of age.


John Clem, Age 12, Promoted to Sergeant.


From Nursery to Battlefield.
“The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga”



I WAS the youngest soldier that served in the Civil War. Almost literally it might be said that I went from the nursery to the battlefield.

Only a few days after the battle of Chickamauga I was captured by the enemy, and while a prisoner I was kept on the march most of the time. General “ Joe “ Wheeler, who was in command, took delight in exhibiting me to the women we came across, saying on each occasion, with a chuckle:

“See to what sore straits the Yankees are driven, when they have to send their babies to fight us!”

At that time I was barely twelve years of age. I was not yet ten years old when, in May, 1861, I offered my valuable services as a drummer to Captain McDougal, of the Third Ohio Regiment of Volunteers, which was on its way to the front. He looked me over, laughed, and said he wasn’t enlisting infants.

This was at Newark, Ohio, where at the time I was going to school. My mother was dead; my father had no notion of allowing me to go to the war. Accordingly, I decided to run away. The spirit of adventure had gripped me. It was necessary that the Union should be preserved, and my help was obviously needed.

I climbed aboard the train with the men of the Third Ohio, got passage in that way as far as Cincinnati, and there I offered myself to the Twenty-third Michigan Regiment. Again I was rejected, by reason of my age; but this time I was not to be kept from joining by any mere legal obstacle. I went along with the regiment just the same as a drummer boy, and, though not on the muster-roll, drew a soldier’s pay of thirteen dollars a month. The pay was not drawn from Government funds, however. It came out of the personal pockets of officers of the regiment, who “chipped in” to make up the amount.

From the view-point of the Twenty-second Michigan, I was a member in full standing of that military family—the baby of the regiment. I wore a soldier’s uniform, cut down by the regimental tailor from man’s size. Later on, after a little shooting scrape in which I was engaged at Chickamauga, accounts of which obtained a rather wide publicity, some kind ladies in Chicago secured my measurements from officers of the regiment and made with their own hands a very handsome uniform for me, to my great joy and pride.

I slept in a tent with two soldiers, drew the regular army ration—the principal items of which were pork (commonly called “sowbelly “), beans, hardtack, and coffee—and, of course, had my own knife and fork, tin plate, tin cup, and tin spoon. In all the hardships of war I endured my share—such as marching in rain or snow, sleeping without protection against the elements, and on occasions going hungry. On the other hand, there was a great deal of fun in camp. We used to play handball, townball, and “ one-cat and two-cats”—all three of these games being rudimentary forms of baseball.

As for provender, the regular soldiers’ fare was often varied and amplified by the proceeds of foraging expeditions. Boys, being constitutionally devoid of respect for the property rights of other people, are first-class foragers.

I remember one occasion, in Kentucky, when, just before the battle of Perryville, I had shot a little pig. Positive orders against foraging had been issued from headquarters, and great was my dismay when caught with the game in my possession by General Doolittle, who came along most inopportunely and demanded to know what I meant by such an outrage.

There was nothing to do but to bluff it out, so I replied, “Why. General, you wouldn’t let a rebel pig bite you?”

That is all there is of the story—except that General Doolittle had part of the pig for his own supper that night.

The Civil War was largely a boys’ war, one might say. Three out of every ten soldiers enlisted on the Union side were under twenty-one years of age. The minimum age of enlistment, under the law, was eighteen; but there were thousands much younger than that who managed to get themselves accepted as recruits. I was youngest of all, and decidedly the littlest, being small for my age.

Boys, generally speaking, were mighty welcome in the regiments. Their youthful enthusiasm counted for a good deal, and, as a rule, they made excellent soldiers. If I had control of affairs in time of war, I would permit, and even encourage, the enlistment of boys. They are good for an army, and for the boys the training and experience are most valuable.

I had some narrow escapes, though I was wounded only twice—once when a piece of shell struck me in the hip, and the other time, at Atlanta, when, while carrying a despatch from General Thomas to General Logan, a ball nipped my ear. On the latter occasion my pony was killed under me. These were mere scratches.

At Shiloh my drum was smashed by a fragment of shell. They called me “Johnny Shiloh” for a while after that. But I ought to explain that in May, 1862, I became a full-fledged soldier, being regularly enlisted at Covington, Kentucky, as a drummer.

At Chickamauga I carried a musket, the barrel of which had been sawed off to a length suitable to my size. I went into the battle seated on a caisson alongside of an artilleryman. If I may judge from historical accounts, it was quite a considerable scrimmage; but my own recollection of it is to some extent confused.

At the close of the day the Union forces were retiring toward Chattanooga, and my brigade was sore beset by the enemy. In fact, we were in a tight place. A Confederate colonel rode up and yelled at me, “Surrender, you damned little Yankee!”

Raising my musket without aiming, I pulled the trigger, and he fell off his horse, badly wounded.

It was this incident, a report of which was spread through the newspapers, that inspired the Chicago ladies of whom I have spoken with the idea of providing a fine uniform for little Johnny Clem. I am glad to be able to add that, according to advices afterwards received, the Confederate colonel recovered from his wound.

As I have said, however, it was a tight place. Three musket balls (as I subsequently ascertained) went through my cap. I decided that the best policy was to fall dead for the moment, and so I did. I lay dead until after dark, when I “came alive” again and managed to find my way to Chattanooga.

When I got there, I was made a sergeant. Think of it—my first promotion! I was a sergeant at twelve years of age.

At Chattanooga I saw General Grant. He knew me. Said he to General Thomas, “Where did you pick up little John?”

Said General Thomas, “At Chickamauga; and I have made him a sergeant.”

Looking up at him with boyish impudence, I said, “General, is that all you are going to make me?”

They both laughed at that. But, though I served all through the war, I got no further promotion.

When somebody asked me why I laid aside the drum and took up the musket, I replied that it was because I did not like to stand and be shot at without shooting back. What answer could be more obvious? I imagine that any soldier, boy or man, would feel that way.

A few days after the battle of Chickamauga I was captured, and was held a prisoner for two months before being exchanged. It was at this period that I was exhibited by General “Joe” Wheeler as the fighting Yankee “baby.”

My captors had no sympathetic interest in Yankee babies in uniform. They stole my jacket; they stole my shoes; they even stole my cap, which I was most anxious to preserve, on account of the bullet holes. I wish I had it now.

I would like, by way of parenthesis, to say a word about the qualifications of boys as soldiers.

Boys make first-rate soldiers. To begin with, they have in highest degree what the French call élan, a word feebly translated as “dash.” They are, above all, ambitious to do things, and in them the spirit of caution is not yet developed. It is notoriously a fact that the fighter most dangerous to the enemy is the man who himself is not afraid of being killed.

War is bald, naked savagery. Disguise the fact though we may try, it properly bears that definition. As compared with the adult man, the boy is near to the savage.

He can fire a gun as well as a man. He endures hardships at least as well. He is as quick to acquire education in the military art. He responds better than the man to discipline, because he is accustomed to obey. In some respects he takes care of his bodily health better, actually. For example, the adult soldier, sleepy, will go to bed without his supper. Not so the boy. He will get a meal somehow before bed, though he has to rout the mess cook out with the cook’s own kitchen poker.

When it is a Question of command, of course the matter is very different. Judgment is the prime requisite there, and this is a quality which boys can scarcely be expected to develop. Nevertheless, in the Civil War there were a number of instances where very young men earned distinction as officers. General Custer, for example, was a brigadier-general at twenty-four.

I was myself engaged in quite a number of battles of the Civil War—Stone River, Resaca, Kenesaw, Peach Tree Creek, Atlanta, Nashville, and others. At the end of that great conflict I was honorably mustered out; and thereupon I tried to enter as a cadet at West Point.

But, alas! for entrance at the Point schooling, rather than military experience, was the prime requisite. I had left school to go to war before I was ten years old, and my scholarship was sadly in arrears. I failed to pass the examinations.

That was certainly hard luck. What is the use of being a Civil War veteran, bearing honorable scars, if in one’s old age—the age of twenty, let us say, in sight—one is turned down by an unappreciative Government?

I thought I would speak of the matter to my old acquaintance and military comrade General Grant, who was at that time occupying the White House. I went to see him.

I told him that I had failed to get into the Point, and that I meant to try for a civilian appointment in the army. His reply was, “We can do better than that. I will appoint you now a second lieutenant, and will send you down to Fortress Monroe to catch up with your studies.”

My commission as second lieutenant, dated December 19, 1871, made me an officer in the regular army of the United States, in which, at the present time, I am the only veteran of the Civil War on the active list.

—Colonel John L. Clem, U. S.A., The Outlook (1914).


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