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Johnny Clem - The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga



Diary of a Soldier Boy

Stephanie and Daphne as Rebels and Confederates
Stephanie and Daphne as Rebels and Confederates

January 5, 1861. Dear Diary,

Father just left a few hours ago. He said that there is a war going on, and that he must fight to preserve the honor of our nation. Half the men of our town joined him. They call themselves the 3rd Ohio Regiment. Johnny and I got to watch them try on their new blue uniforms and shiny black boots. They looked so brave with their muskets slung over their shoulders! We wish we could be soldiers too.

Before Father marched away, he gave me this little red diary. He told me to write in it whenever I missed him. So that's what I'm doing.

Your friend, Bobby

Confederate flags speckle the southern landscape
Confederate flags speckle the southern landscape

March 3, 1861. Dear Diary,

Yesterday afternoon, Johnny and I were playing Hide and Seek in the barnyard when my big brother and some of his pals walked in. I'm glad they didn't see us, or they would have whipped us a good one for spying. Anyhow, they started talking about the war. They said that it has divided the country in two -- the North and the South. Since we live in the North, everybody in the South is our enemy. I don't know what to think of this, seeing that I never met a Southerner before, but Father once said that people in the South believe in slavery. And I know that it ain't right to treat a human being like an animal, no matter what his color.

Once my brother left, Johnny and I got to talking about the war too. Johnny wants to join real bad. He heard that the Union Army sometimes lets kids like us play the drums or the fife. So I whittled me a little flute out of a piece of wood and Johnny stole one of his Mama's pots and we played like we were Union Soldiers. It was lots of fun.

Your friend, Bobby


April 22, 1861. Dear Diary,

It's nearly 11 in the evening. Mama would paddle me good if she knew I was up this late, but I have a big decision to make.

It all started last week when Johnny and I asked the commanding officer of the 3rd Ohio Regiment if we could join the Army. We begged and pleaded and even played the drums and fife for him, but when he learned we were only 9 years old, he told us to go home. "This is a grown man's war," he said. "We're not enlisting infants."

Boy, was Johnny mad! He took off running and I didn't see him for three whole days. But this afternoon I found him by the river, and guess what he told me? He saw in the paper that the 22nd Michigan regiment is looking for recruits. He plans to run away the Sunday after next and try his luck there.

Drummer Boy Henry Burke
Drummer Boy Henry Burke

What should I do? Johnny is my best friend in the whole wide world - and best friends stick together, don't they? Plus, maybe I could find Father out there. It's been such an awful long time since I heard from him.

Sometimes, I feel like the world is going on without me. In school, we are selling trinkets and magazine subscriptions to raise money for the Soldiers' Aid Societies, but it doesn't seem enough. I want to be where the action is.

Your friend, Bobby

May 5, 1861. Dear Diary,

Well, we did it. I told Mama I was spending the night at Johnny's and he told his Mama he was spending the night at mine. I packed a canteen, some salted pork, my bag of marbles and my wooden flute into a bedroll and met Johnny down by the river at dusk. We walked until dawn and then slept the whole next day in a barn. Once it got dark, we started off again. It gets kinda spooky when the cicadas start raising their ruckus, but I try not to pay them no mind.

Young boys often played the drum or fife in the Civil War
Young boys often played the drum or fife in the Civil War

We've been walking by moonlight for three days now. At this rate, we should be in Michigan by the end of next week.

I wonder how Mama is doing. I left her a note, promising her I'd be safe and brush my teeth. Hopefully she won't notice I forgot my toothbrush.

Your friend, Bobby

July 6, 1861. Dear Diary,

Oh boy, oh boy! The 22nd Michigan Regiment commanding officer has let me and Johnny join! We can hardly believe it! For weeks, he kept saying no, but Johnny and I were real persistent. We proved that we could drum and whistle just as good as any 13-year-old - and maybe even better. Some of the soldiers took a liking to us, and helped us convince the officer. We don't get paid or nothing, but that's okay. We get to be in the war like real men! It's going to be just like playing Cowboys and Indians - only this time, it will be real! I can't wait!

As Drummer Boy and Fifer, Johnny and I are the first to wake up and the last to fall asleep in the whole camp. In addition to playing the reverie, we call everyone to meals and keep cadence during drills and marches. We also run the soldiers' errands, pour the officers' whiskey and peel the cook's potatoes. But our biggest responsibility is keeping up the men's spirits by telling jokes and pretending to be soldiers. They get a big laugh when Johnny and I try to lift their muskets. They must weigh a ton or two!

Your friend, Bobby

Winter, 1861. Dear Diary,

I'm shaking so bad, I can hardly hold my pencil straight. Even if I live to be 100, I'll never forget the things I saw today.

Early this morning, Johnny and I sounded the reverie, just like always, and the men loaded their muskets, just like always. We marched out to a meadow - just like always. But instead of a row of trees, there was a line of men waiting on the other side. For years, I've been hearing about the Southern Rebels - and there they were. I half expected them to have horns sticking out their heads, but they looked just like us - except they were wearing gray instead of blue. And their muskets and cannons were pointed straight at us.


The Real Spice Girl / my taste buds have been put to the challenge - this time at a barbecue place called "Big Daddy's" in Des Moines, Iowa.

I looked at Johnny and he gave me a wink, but I suddenly had a terrible feeling in my stomach. Then the officer gave his command and it seemed like the whole meadow caught on fire at once. There were cannon shots and gunpowder and screaming and smoke and blood. I dropped my fife and started running in the opposite direction. If I'd known the way, I would have run all the way home to Ohio, I swear I would have. Since I didn't, I climbed a tree instead, all the way to the top. I would have climbed even further, but the tree ran out of branches. I must have been up there a century or two, crying for Mama, before Johnny found me. He looked so wild-eyed, I hardly even recognized him. He shouted out that our men were hurt and needed help. I didn't want to go, but I couldn't let Johnny think I was a sissy. So I climbed down and followed him back to the front line.

Stephanie pays respects to Drummer Boy Henry Burke
Stephanie pays respects to Drummer Boy Henry Burke

All the men that had been standing just a few hours before were now lying on their backs, covered with wounds, splattered with blood. They moaned as we walked by. I wanted to run away again, but my legs felt like lead. We finally found the head medic. He gave me a roll of bandages and a canteen full of water and told me to clean the men's wounds. I didn't want to do it, but I couldn't let him think I was a sissy. So I took the bandages in my trembling hands and set off searching for the worst of the wounded. In some cases, I was too late and had to close the men's gaping eyes. But a lot of them were still holding onto life, though by a thread. Every time I touched them, they clenched their teeth and winced. I thought about how I ran away and hid at the first sound of gunfire and felt very ashamed. These are the real soldiers. I am but a boy. So I did all their crying for them.


April 10, 1862. Dear Diary,

This last week has been the worst ever. They say we won the battle here at Shiloh, Tennessee, but we lost so many men it sure doesn't feel like a victory to me. Even Johnny had a brush with death. An artillery round missed him by inches and smashed a hole through his drum. Everybody has been calling him "Johnny Shiloh" ever since - even the newspapers. He's been doing real well in this war. He's even planning on applying to West Point when it's all over. Not me. I just want to go home to my marbles and Mama.

John Lincoln Clem - or Johnny Shiloh -- is said to be the youngest soldier ever to serve in the Civil War
John Lincoln Clem - or Johnny Shiloh -- is said to be the youngest soldier ever to serve in the Civil War

Everything around me is either dead or dying. We ran out of bandages long ago, and have been packing soldiers' wounds with lint. I've been burying men and mules all day. I am so numb, I can hardly tell the difference between the two. Nothing feels real anymore. Food has lost its taste. The sun has lost its warmth. I feel as though I am a dead man walking.

I realize it's been a long time since I've written. That's because every time I pick up a pencil, I feel a lump in my throat. Why do I want to record such terrible things? Sometimes I think it would be better to bury this diary in the dirt, along with the dead. That way, there would be no proof that I took part in this war, and I could go back to being a boy again. But deep down, I know that my purpose in life is to record the ugliness of this war so that it will never be forgotten. Maybe that way, it will never be repeated.


Please Note:

While there was, in fact, a John Lincoln Clem who served in the Union Army, Bobby is a product of my overactive imagination. The events that I have described, however, are not. Consider these statistics:

  • It has been estimated that more than 2 million Federal soldiers were 21 or under.
  • More than one million were 18 or under.
  • About 800,000 were 17 or under.
  • About 200,000 were 16 or under.
  • About 100,000 were 15 or under.
  • 300 were 13 or under - most of who were fifers or drummers.
  • 25 were 10 or under.

This all goes to show that little boys -- like women, African-Americans and Native Americans -- played just as important a role in the Civil War as the generals themselves. Isn't it time they be remembered?


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - And the answer is "c) We are ignorant of our past"
Irene - Was the Civil War really about freedom?
Nick - The bloodiest square mile in America
Teddy - It's never enough to just get by
Making A Difference - When our wars destroy our children