drummer boy

During the Civil War, military personnel was often short supply, and so, soldiers weren’t always adults. Sometimes, children enlisted, and sometimes they were “hired” on as messengers, scouts, and servants. They also might be hired on as musicians, such has drummers or buglers. On ships, children carried powder to fire the cannons, earning the nickname “powder monkeys.” In fact, one in five soldiers during the Civil War was under the age of 18.

One such musician was Drummer John Joseph Klem. A popular legend suggests that Klem served as a drummer boy with the 22nd Michigan at the Battle of Shiloh. Legend has it that Klem came very near to losing his life when a fragment from a shrapnel shell crashed through his drum, knocking him unconscious and that subsequently his comrades, who found and rescued him from the battlefield, nicknamed Klem “Johnny Shiloh.” Klem slayed enemies in the Battle of Chickamauga…shooting a Confederate officer. Though Klem was only 10 years old, the Union made him a sergeant. Now imagine taking orders from a 10 year old sergeant.

Klem was born on August 13, 1851, to Roman and Magdalene Klem. His mother was killed crossing the railroad tracks when he was just 9 years old. As devastating as that was, his father’s second marriage was worse. John did not get along with his stepmother, and I suppose that could have contributed to his wanderlust spirit. He attended school in Newark, but often skipped school so he could drill as a drummer boy with a local unit…Company H, 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Like many people of that time, Klem felt strongly about the Civil War, but it was probably unusual for such a young boy to feel that way. Most likely the main factor the problems with his stepmother, making life at home unpleasant. His relatives joining up was probably another factor.

Motivating Klem was the fact that many of his relatives had enlisted in the army. He also deeply admired the president. In fact, he so admired President Lincoln that he changed his middle name to Lincoln. Because of his young age, recruiters turned Klem down when he tried to enlist. Several regiments passed through Newark on the way to the War. Klem immediately went to each and tried to join up, but each time he was turned down because of his age. He tried a new tactic, and traveled by train to try to enlist. That failed too, because he was always recognized by a friend or relative and sent home. Finally, Klem just ran away from home, to join the Army in 1861, at the age of 9. He finally got far enough away from home that they let him stay. Even then, he didn’t really enlist, because he was still too young. They allowed him to join the Michigan unit because they knew he would not give up until somebody let him join. When he offered his services as drummer to a company commander of the Third Ohio Volunteer Regiment, the captain looked him over and said he wasn’t “enlisting infants.” Johnny then tried to join the Twenty-second Michigan Regiment and was refused. Finally, he simply “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.” His pay was contributed by officers of the regiment.

At some point, Johnny Klem became Johnny Clem, although I am not sure just when. When Johnny Clem enlisted in the Army, legally or not, his intention was to stay. He might have been just a drummer boy at first, but when the shell hit his drum, he was not scared. Over the years of his service, he proved himself to be an invaluable member of the unit. He gained fame for his bravery on the battlefield, and became the youngest soldier ever to achieve the rank of sergeant, and I expect that record still stands. Clem retired from the United States Army in 1915, having attained the rank of brigadier general in the Quartermaster Corps. At the time of his retirement, he was the last veteran of the American Civil War still on duty in the US Armed Forces. By special act of Congress on August 29, 1916, he was promoted to major general one year after his retirement.

Clem was married twice. He first married Anita Rosetta French in 1875, and after her passing in 1899, he met and married Bessie Sullivan of San Antonio in 1903. Sullivan was the daughter of a Confederate veteran. Clem enjoyed that fact, and often said, that he was “the most united American” alive. Clem was the father of three children. After his retirement in 1915, Clem lived in Washington DC before returning to San Antonio, Texas. Just as he had as a child on the battlefield, Clem defied the odd, living a long and healthy life. He died in San Antonio at the age of 85 on May 13, 1937, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia.

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