In the song The Little Drummer Boy, the child played his drum because he didn’t have a gift to bring for the newborn Jesus, so he offered it as his gift instead. However, the Drummer Boy of Chickamauga used his drum (later replaced with a musket) to show his fearlessness amidst the war.
John Joseph Klem was born to immigrant parents in Newark, Ohio, in 1851. He later changed his name to John Lincoln Clem because he admired President Abraham Lincoln. When the Civil War broke, he was 9 years old, so he left school and tried to enlist himself as a drummer-boy in the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Unsurprisingly, he was rejected like a kid trying to play on his iPad at night after mom and dad shut off the wi-fi.
Clem did not let rejection stop him, so he tried to enlist on a few more units until the 22nd Michigan Infantry Regiment allowed him to tag along with them. Other accounts say it’s the 24th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Whichever it is, the fact that he was accepted at the age of 10 still remains. He was the mascot and drummer boy of the infantry, and the soldiers chipped in to pay him $13 a month, knowing that the army would not pay him. They also paid to fit him out in a uniform in his size. After two years, he was officially allowed to enlist since he had already been battle-proven. By that time, he was already gaining fame as he had already participated in numerous battles, where three bullets passed through his hat.
According to sources, he demonstrated calmness when a confederate ball smashed his drum while he was playing it. Clem participated in the Battle of Chickamauga, wherein one instance, he was separated from his group, and a Confederate Colonel saw him running with a musket in his hand. He yelled, “Stop you little Yankee devil!” as he tried to capture him. Clem halted and shot down the colonel, immediately killing him. He made it back, and journalists started reporting about him; he was an instant celebrity. People started calling him “Johnny Shiloh” and the “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.” He then received a promotion as a sergeant, and he was the youngest one ever.
Being a celebrity has its cons, as The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga became a target and was later captured by the Confederates in 1863. He was swapped in a prisoner exchange and served Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas. He was wounded twice throughout his career.
There is some controversy surrounding his wartime exploits. Historians point out that while he was certainly in the battle of Chickamauga, his Michigan regiment hadn’t formed until after the battle of Shiloh where he was also said to have fought. In 1864, Clem was discharged from the army when he was 13. President Ulysses S. Grant wanted to give him an appointment to attend West Point but he did badly on the entrance exams. Obviously, he had neglected his studies while he was fighting in the Civil War for three years. So, in 1871 President Grant gave him a direct commission as a Second Lieutenant. He probably had more combat experience than any other Second Lieutenant in the Army at that time. Notwithstanding his lack of formal education, Clem served in the army until 1915 and was retired at the mandatory of age sixty-four as a Brigadier General in the custom of promoting Colonels who had reached retirement age. Then in 1916, he was promoted in retirement again to Major General which was mostly about increasing his pension. Joining up at the age of ten made Clem the youngest member of any American army in history and when he retired he made history again as the last veteran of the Civil War to leave the military.
The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga died in 1937 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
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