John Clem: The Youngest Noncommissioned Officer in US Army History

Photo Credit: 1. Schwing & Rudd, Army of the Cumberland / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 2. unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

When the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, it was an all-hands-on-deck situation for the Union and Confederate armies. All men of fighting age were expected to take part. Of course, no one expected children to participate, but that’s precisely what John Clem hoped to do. Amazingly, the 9-year-old got his chance.

This is his story.

John Clem’s childhood

John Clem was born in Newark, Ohio, in August 1951. He was orphaned at a young age, after his mother died in a train accident. Heeding the call of President Abraham Lincoln, Clem attempted to join the 3rd Ohio Infantry as a drummer boy. He was rejected due to his young age and small stature.

Undaunted, Clem tried to join the 22nd Michigan Regiment, but was, again, rejected. With nothing to go back to, he continued to follow the regiment. Eventually, they accepted him as a mascot and chipped in to pay his $13.00 a month wage.

John Clem standing in uniform
John Clem in uniform during the American Civil War. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Drums had been used in armies for hundreds of years, first by the Chinese and Ottomans. Their use not only helped soldiers to march in-step, but they could also be used for communication. While adults commonly acted as drummers, it became more common for underage soldiers to perform the role in the 19th century.

The use of drummer boys dissipated heavily in the latter part of the 19th century.

Life in the Union Army

After two years of following the 22nd Michigan Regiment, Clem was allowed to formally enlist as a drummer boy. According to legend, he participated in the Battle of Shiloh, fought in April 1862. It was said a fragment of shrapnel hit Clem’s drum and he was knocked unconscious. His fellow soldiers rescued him and gave him the nickname “Johnny Shiloh.”

Artist's depiction of the Battle of Shiloh
Artist’s depiction of the Battle of Shiloh. (Photo Credit: Thure de Thulstrup / Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

This story, however, is unlikely to be true. The 22nd Regiment was the only unit Clem served in and it didn’t participate in the Battle of Shiloh, coming into existence four months after it occurred. The source of the legend was likely the Civil War-era song “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh” by William S. Hays.

Battle of Chickamauga

Clem was serving as a drummer boy during the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863. Only 12 years old at the time, he rode an artillery caisson to the front and was armed with a musket that had been cut to his size. The Confederates won the battle and the Union Army moved to retreat.

During the course of their retreat, a Confederate colonel demanded Clem surrender. Instead, the preteen shot him. He was promoted to the rank of sergeant after the battle, becoming the youngest soldier ever to become a noncommissioned officer. There has been some debate regarding the shooting, despite stories from the era supporting its truth. It’s possible he wounded Col. Calvin Walker, whose regiment, the 3rd Tennessee, opposed the 22nd Michigan Regiment near the end of the battle.

John Clem standing with his arms crossed
16-year-old John Clem, 1867. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Later in the war, the Confederate Army captured Clem. They used his notoriety for propaganda purposes, as he was already a known figure. Confederate papers wrote, “What sore straits the Yankees are driven when they have to send their babies out to fight us.” Shortly after his capture, Clem returned to the Union Army in a prisoner exchange.

John Clem’s later life

Following the Civil War, Clem enrolled in high school, graduating in 1870. He’d hoped to enter the US Military Academy, but failed the entrance exam. President Ulysses S. Grant personally appointed him a second lieutenant in the 24th Infantry Regiment and Clem spent the next 40-plus years in the military, often serving as quartermaster, including during the Spanish-American War.

Military portrait of John Clem
John Clem. (Photo Credit: G.W. Chase, Newark, Ohio / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Upon his retirement in 1915, Clem was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. This was a common custom for American Civil War veterans who had achieved the rank of colonel. He was the last veteran of the conflict still serving in the US Army at the time. In 1916, Clem was again promoted, this time to major general.

Clem’s legacy

John Clem lived to the age of 85 and died in San Antonio, Texas. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The long-time soldier was honored in a number of ways. A six-foot-tall statue of Clem as a youth was erected in his hometown of Newark. An elementary school – Johnny Clem Elementary School – was named for him, as was a World War II-era troopship, the USAT John L. Clem.

Artist's illustration of John Clem shooting a Confederate soldier
Illustration showing John Clem shooting a Confederate soldier (Photo Credit: Interim Archives / Getty Images)

His story was told in the 1963 Disney film, Johnny Shiloh, starring Kevin Corcoran. A song about Clem, titled “Drummin’ Drummin’ Drummin’,” was featured in the 1968 Walter Brennan film, The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band.

Finally, in 2007, Historical Productions made a film about Clem’s life, called Johnny: The True Story of a Civil War Legend.