For those of you alive and kicking during the Civil War Centennial, you likely remember the Walt Disney TV movie featuring Kevin Corcoran as Johnny Clem, an orphan who becomes a drummer for the Union Army.
For those of you alive and kicking during the Civil War Centennial, you likely remember the Walt Disney TV movie featuring Kevin Corcoran as Johnny Clem, an orphan who becomes a drummer for the Union Army. As dramatic as that movie was, the real-life story of Johnny Clem is even more interesting and well documented. In the spring of 1861, John Joseph Klem ran away from his home in Newark, Ohio at age 9 and attempted to enlist with the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He had been drilling with the unit as a drummer. The commander rejected him, saying the Army didn't accept infants. Klem then tried the 24th Ohio with a decided margin of success. While he wasn't allowed to enlist, he was accepted as a volunteer. He ultimately ended up with the 22nd Michigan, a unit that adopted the persistent boy as a mascot and drummer boy. The officers of the unit chipped in to pay him $13 a month, which was the going salary for an enlisted man. At home in Ohio, his family was distraught and believed him drowned, because he told his brother and sister he was going for the swim on the day he disappeared. His sister Lizzie later wrote about it: "The distress of our father and step-mother at Johnnie's disappearance was beyond measure. Our own mother had met with a shocking death the year before: had been run over by a yard engine as she was crossing the track to avoid another train. "No own mother could be more kind to us than was our step-mother. Father, thinking Johnnie must have been drowned, had the water drawn from the head of the canal. Mother traveled hither and yon to find him. It was all in vain. Several weeks elapsed when we heard of him as having been in Mount Vernon; and then for two years nothing more was heard and we mourned him as dead, not even dreaming that he could be in the army, he was so very small, nothing but a child." They never dreamed of him running away to join the army despite a lunchtime conversation. "It being Sunday, May 24, 1861, and the great rebellion in progress, Johnnie said at dinner-table: 'Father, I'd like mighty well to be a drummer boy. Can't I go into the Union army?' 'Tut, what nonsense, boy!' replied father, 'you are not ten years old,' Lizzie recalled. "When dinner was over Johnnie took charge of us, I being seven years old and our brother, Lewis, five years, and we started for the Francis de Sales Sunday-school. As it was early he left us at the church door, saying, 'I will go and take a swim and be back in time.' He was a fine swimmer. That was the last we saw of him for two years." The youngster caught the train to Columbus, Ohio where he began his search for an infantry unit. Young drummers and buglers were fairly common during the Civil War. Enlistment age was 18 years old. While a good many teens lied about their age, younger boys could only join up as a drummer or bugler. It is estimated that more than 100,000 boys younger than 15 enlisted in the Union Army, there were even 300 boys younger than 13. Some of them joined the army with their fathers or brothers. While statistics aren't a readily available, the Confederate army also had its share of youngsters. "Little Oirish" was a Kentucky boy of about 11 who joined Confederacy's "Orphan Brigade." At Shiloh he is credited with stemming a rout by grabbing the colors and rallying elements of the brigade, which were in danger of breaking under a Federal assault. The famous brigade, led by Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, suffered heavy losses at Stones River. In the days before electronic communication, the drummer had an important role with the army. Their drums called the soldiers to battle, told them when to march double-time, when to fire and when to withdraw. Needless to say, that responsibility took the youngsters into harm's way. Some deny Johnny Clem was even at Shiloh, because the 22nd Michigan was not formed until Aug. 29, 1862 and deployed in September 1862. Shiloh was fought April 6-7, 1862. Newspapers featured the account of a brave little drummer boy whose drum was wrecked by an artillery blast. A song and a popular play were inspired by the story. The play caused several people to come forward claiming that they were the Drummer Boy of Shiloh. Research by Ray H. Mattison, former historian at the Shiloh National Military Park, proved that many of the claimants couldn't have been the drummer boy in question. Based upon Mattison's study, Clem has the strongest claim to the Shiloh title. Johnny was at the battle with the 24th Ohio Infantry Regiment, which saw action there. Charles S. Dunn, the former superintendent of Shiloh Military Park, confirmed that decades ago. His sister, Lizzie, said he first volunteered with 24th Ohio but eventually left it after discovering that an uncle was in the regiment. "He was in many battles: at Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro', Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Nashville, Kenesaw, and others, in which the army of the Cumberland was engaged," she said. It must be pointed out that the 22nd Michigan was at neither Perryville nor Murfreesboro, but that the 24th Ohio was. If he was at Stones River, no doubt he took part in the celebrated Battle of the Bands on Dec. 30, 1862 on the eve of the battle. However, there's no disputing that the 22nd Michigan was at Chickamauga, a battle where Clem earned the title that's etched on his gravestone, "The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga." At Chickamauga, the 22nd Michigan was part of the Union army's reserve and played a key role in Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas' heroic stand at Snodgrass Hill. The 22nd took heavy losses as most of the rest of the Army of the Cumberland retreated to Chattanooga. A large number of the Michigan troops were captured and sent to the notorious Rebel prison camp, Andersonville. Clem was among those who managed to escape. The 60-pound drummer boy caught a ride on an artillery caisson. Yelling "Surrender you damned little Yankee," a Confederate colonel tried to run Johnny down. He responded by shooting the colonel dead with a sawed off musket given to him by the enlisted men of the 22nd. Managing to escape in the confusion, Clem grabbed national notice with his actions. He also decided to change his name from John Joseph Klem to John Lincoln Clem, no doubt to cover his trail. As a reward for his bravery, Johnnie was allowed to enlist and was promoted to corporal by General Thomas. In January 1864, Thomas assigned Johnny to his staff as a mounted orderly. On Sept. 19, 1864, Johnny was discharged from the army and returned home to his amazed family in Ohio. After the war, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sponsored Clem for admission to the U.S. Military Academy, but academically he was unable to pass muster. He then rejoined the army with President Grant commissioning Clem a second lieutenant in 1871. Clem remained in the Army until 1915, when he retired with the rank of brigadier general. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His younger brother Louis didn't fare so well. Choosing a military career too, Louis Klem was killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn June 25, 1876.