The Civil War in Georgia Commemorating 150 years Civil War Georgia Sesquicentennial

John Lincoln Clem

The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga: An American legend

Portrait of John Lincoln Clem
John Lincoln Clem, The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga: An American Legend

More than 10,000 soldiers under the age of 18 served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Many of the youngest served as drummers or fifers. One of the youngest was John Lincoln Clem, who became known as "The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga." A national hero by the time he was 12, Clem would go on to serve in the U.S. Army for three wars and nearly 50 years. When he retired in 1916, Clem was the last Civil War veteran on active duty.

Born John Joseph Klem in Newark, Ohio, on August 13, 1851, he was one of three children. By the census of 1860, the family name had been changed to Clem. In May 1861, nine-year-old Clem ran away from home to join an Ohio regiment but was rejected because of his age. He would eventually join the 22nd Michigan Infantry as a musician. A popular legend suggests Clem served as a drummer boy with the 22nd Michigan at the Battle of Shiloh and came very near losing his life. However, in truth, the 22nd Michigan had not yet been constituted by the time of the Battle of Shiloh.

At the Battle of Chickamauga, Clem rode on an artillery caisson to the front and wielded a musket cut down for his size. During the fighting at Horseshoe Ridge, as remnants of the Federal army held the last line of defense, Clem shot a Confederate officer from his horse. Allegedly, the Confederate officer ordered Clem to, "Halt! Surrender, you damned little Yankee son of a bitch," just before Clem administered the coup de grace. Clem was dubbed by the press "The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga" and became a nationally known figure. He was promoted to sergeant and became the youngest noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army.

Clem was captured by the Confederate cavalry in October 1863 while detailed as a train guard. Reportedly, the Confederate soldiers took his uniform away, including his cap that had three bullet holes in it, which upset him greatly. He was not held captive long and was soon exchanged, but the Confederate newspapers used Clem's age and celebrity status to show "what sore straits the Yankees are driven, when they have to send out their babies to fight us."

Upon his return to the Federal army, Major General George H. Thomas, the "Rock of Chickamauga," assigned Clem to his staff as a mounted orderly. On Sept. 19, 1864, he was discharged from the army and returned home.

In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Clem to the United States Military Academy at West Point, but, unable to pass the entrance exam, he was then appointed a 2nd lieutenant in the 24th U.S. Infantry. He went on to become a colonel and assistant quartermaster general in 1903. Clem reached the mandatory retirement age of 64 on Aug. 13, 1915, and was promoted to the rank of major general.

He died in San Antonio, Texas, on May 13, 1937, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.