As the Battle of Chickamauga drew to a close, the mounted Confederate officer pursued a diminutive figure in blue on smoke-covered Snodgrass Hill and commanded, “Stop you little Yankee devil!” Instead of surrendering the little Yankee stopped, turned, cocked and fired the musket in his hands. The Confederate officer and his horse went down in a crumpled pile. The boy turned and continued his retreat.
Nine year-old John Clem of Newark, Ohio, had unsuccessfully tried to join the army as a drummer when the Civil War broke out in April 1861. In the fall of 1862, he successfully, but unofficially, attached himself to the 22nd Michigan Infantry. A few months later in May of 1863, he was officially mustered into the unit. Young John began as a drummer but eventually rose to the more important position of regimental flank marker, a soldier who marked the position of the ends of the regimental battle lines with a small flag. When the troops were paraded and reviewed, the youth was noticed by everyone including Generals William Rosecrans and George Thomas. Soon John was a minor celebrity in the Army of the Cumberland. When the smoke cleared from Snodgrass Hill, he was soon a legend in the hearts and minds of the Northern people.
After he shot the officer and as the Confederates rounded up prisoners on the now dark Snodgrass Hill, John rolled himself up in a blanket to escape detection. That night he wandered into the camp of the 22nd Michigan, which had lost 389 men of the 455 it entered the battle with, and its soldiers were elated. They bragged throughout the army of Johnny’s feat; his celebrity status grew. He was promoted to the rank of sergeant at age 12 for his deeds on Snodgrass Hill.
While on wagon train duty during the siege of Chattanooga, he was captured by Confederate cavalry near Bridgeport, Alabama. Taken to General Joe Wheeler to be interrogated, he was asked, “What are you doing here you damned little Yankee scoundrel?” Little Johnny replied, “I am no more a damn scoundrel than you are sir!” He was soon exchanged and told a reporter that the worse part of being a prisoner was that the rebels stole his hat “which had three bullet holes in it, received at Chickamauga.”
It was during the trip north to Camp Chase, Ohio, as part of the prisoner exchange process that the story of the young boy who had run away from home to join the Union army began to take on national scope. His story appeared in countless magazines and newspapers and was told and retold, often with inaccuracies. Today 150 years later it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Gen. Rosecrans presented him with a “Badge of Honor” which was sewn to his uniform. He posed for countless photos to whet the public’s appetite to see him. He adopted “Lincoln” as his middle name to honor the US President. He was held up as an example to northern children. He was a “pop culture” hero of 1863-64.
Young Johnny returned to the Union Army during the 1864 Atlanta campaign. He served as an orderly at General George Thomas’s headquarters, where he suffered two minor wounds. Fearing for his safety, leading officers obtained his discharge and, after completion of high school, his admission to West Point. Unable to handle the course work, he left the Academy but used his fame in 1871 to obtain a commission as a second lieutenant in the U. S. Army. For the next 44 years he served the army he loved so much, enjoying numerous promotions. His career was yeoman-like, mainly administrative duties. It can safely be said his brightest moment had been as a small boy on Snodgrass Hill on a fall day in 1863.
He retired in 1915 as the last veteran of the Civil War to be carried on the active rolls of the United States Army. Through act of Congress, John Lincoln Clem was awarded in 1916 the rank of major general, retired. His career rise from drummer boy to major general is unique in American military annals. He rests today in Arlington Cemetery underneath a tombstone that proudly proclaims his epitaph, “THE DRUMMER BOY OF CHICKAMAUGA”.
Anthony Hodges, D.D.S. recently retired after thirty-three years of practice in Red Bank. He is Vice-President of the East Tennessee Historical Society and Museum in Knoxville. For more information visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley, 423-866-2090.