Would you ever run off to join the army, leaving your family behind? That’s what nine-year-old John Lincoln Clem does in 1861.

Last week we talked about children and their experiences during the Civil War. This week we will be learning about one particular little boy, John Lincoln Clem. John Clem or “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” was a soldier in the service of the United States for most of his life. He was born on August 13, 1851, in Newark, Ohio. His actual name was John Joseph Klem. He changed it to Lincoln early on because of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln and changed the K to a C because he thought it would appear more American. Although Clem was only nine years old when the American Civil War began, he immediately tried to enlist in the Union army. He left his school classes to drill with the Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He tried to join a few more units before being accepted at the age of 10 by the 22nd Michigan Infantry Regiment whose motto probably wasn’t “What Child Endangerment?”

John Lincoln Clem, child soldier. CA. 1864

Despite allowing Clem to march to war with them, the 22nd knew the Army would not agree to pay such a young soldier. Officers of the unit collected donations to keep the kid in fruit gummies and bullets until he turned 13 and could officially enlist. Clem participated at the Battle of Chickamauga from Sep. 19-20, 1863 where he was nearly captured before using his sawed-off musket, a custom gift from unit officers, to shoot down the mounted Confederate colonel who was chasing him. His hat was reportedly shot through three times during the battle and his escape from Confederate pursuers. He made it back to Union lines and received a promotion to sergeant, making him the youngest ever.

Clem in 1867

“The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” was 12 years old when he was promoted to sergeant after firing on a Confederate colonel who was attempting to capture him. At that point John Lincoln Clem became the youngest non-commissioned officer in U.S. history and a Civil War hero. His actions at Chickamauga were published in newspapers around the North and he became a celebrity. Unfortunately, his celebrity status worked against him a month later when he was captured by Confederate cavalry who took away his hat with the three bullet holes.
Clem was swapped in a prisoner exchange and sent to serve as a mounted orderly for Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas. In the Battle of Atlanta, he was wounded twice. He was initially discharged at the age of 13 in 1864.

In 1870, Clem attempted to enter West Point but failed the entrance exam multiple times. President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned Clem as a second lieutenant in 1871, ignoring the fact that Clem couldn’t pass the tests. Clem went on to serve until 1915, mostly as an Army quartermaster. He was the last Civil War vet still on active duty when he retired as a brigadier general. Clem eventually settled in San Antonio, Texas, where he died on May 13, 1937.

Clem in 1922.


So, do you think you could have enlisted like John Lincoln Clem? Something to think about! Life has definitely changed from 1861. Come out see us at the Tunnel Hill Heritage Center and learn more about what life was like back then. We would love to see you!