Biographies: John Joseph Klem (1851-1937)

Figure 1.--A HBC reader informs us that the boy in this Civil War portrait is Johnny Clem. He was the drummer for the 22 Michigan Infantry. He went on to become a "lance seargent" on Generals Thomas's staff. Our reader believes he stayed in the Army after the War and retired as a General. Click on the image to learn more about him.

John Joseph Klem, often refered to as Johnny Clem, was probably the most famous boy who served in the Civil War, if not the most famous boy in American history. He is known to hostory as the "Drummer Boy of Chickamauga" and also "Johnny Shiloh." He was one of the youngest, but not the youngest to do so. Like most younger boys who participated in the War, he served as a musician. The Federal Army alone had places for 40,000 muscians. Many of the boys given the turmoil of battle became involved in the actual fighting. Johhny was the most famous Union boy soldier. He became a drummer in the 22nd Michigan Infantry at age 11 years. He fought in the battles of Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, and Atlanta. He was eventually promoted to serve as a mounted orderly on the staff of General George H. Thomas, with the "rank" of lance sergeant.


Johnny's parents were Roman and Magdalene Klem. His mother died when he was still only 9 years old.


John Joseph Klem was born August 13, 1851. He was was christened at St.Francis DeSales Church in Newark, Ohio where he grew up. He and his younger siblings sold produce from their parents' small farm, carrying it in a wagon. His mother was killed crossing the railroad tracks, and when John's father remarried, John did not get along with his stepmother. [Schmidt] He attended school in Newark where a primary school is now named after him. We do not know just why he felt so stongly about the War. Many at the time did. Generally preservation of the Union was their primary motivation, but a smaller number were motvated by the ideal of abolition of slavery. One factor was probably the problems with his stepmother made life at home unpleasant. His relatives joining up was probably another factor.

Civil War

After the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, a wave of successionist sentiment spread over the South. A Confederation of southern slave states succeeded from the Uniin and set of the Confederate States of America (CSA). CSA forces seized Federal aresenals and forts throughout the South. Fort Sumter in Charlestown Harbor, hiwever, refused to surrender. Confederate forces began firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. This is generally accepted as the begining of the American Civil War--the most costly war in American history. President Lincoln among other steps issued a call for volunteers on April 15, the first step in the building of a massive Federal Army.

Attempts to Enlist

Johhny began cutting classes so he could drill as a drummer boy with a local unit--Company H, 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Many of John's relatives had enlisted in the army, and he felt such admiration for the president that he changed his middle name to Lincoln. Recruiters turned him down because of his age. Several regiments passed through Newark on the way to the War. Each time he tried to join he was turned down because of his age. He traveled by train to try to enlist, but he was always recognized by a friend or relative and returned home. One author who writes a little about Civil War musicians approaches battlefield exploits of the drummer boys cautiously, owing to the fictional and romanticized accounts of balladists and writers. On the other hand "Shiloh had its real drummer boys, of course, though the deeds of none seem to accord fully with those of song and story." [Wiley, p. 297.] Wiley writes that the "most famous of the Shiloh drummers, and probably of the whole war, was John L. (Johnny) Clem who ran away from home to join the army in May 1861, though he was only 9-years old. He finally got far enough away from home that they let him stay. He did not really enlist at the time, as he was too young, but 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, laughed and, according to Clem, 'said he wasn't enlisting infants.' Johnny then tried to join the Twenty-second Michigan Regiment and was refused. But he 'went along with the regiment just the same as a drummer boy, and thoughnot on the muster roll, drew a soldier's pay of thirteen dollars a month,' which was contributed by officers of the regiment." Wiley credits Johnnie's own article "From Nursery to Battlefield". [Wiley, p. 297.]


Most of the really young boys entered the Federal and Confederate Armies as musicians. One source estimates that were places for 40,000 muscians in the Federal Army alone. Many of the younger boys served as drummers and fifers. There were many more drummers than fifers. These instruments were best suited for younger boys. While much attention is given to drummers, perhaps because they were often the youngest boys, there were also many bugglers. Large numbers of bugglers were also required as the buggle was important in communicating orders in the heat of battle in the years before modern communication. The buggle could often be heard when voice commands were impossible. With the buggle, lung power was essential, making it suitable for slightly older boys or youths. Some younger boys, however, also served as bugglers. One source writes, "There are numerous tales of buglers too small to climb into saddles unaided, who rode into pistol-and-saber battles with their regiments. Most famous of these on the Union side was Johnny Clem, who became drummer to the 22nd Michigan at eleven, and was soon a mounted orderly on the staff of General George H. Thomas, with the "rank" of lance sergeant." [Burke Davis, "The Civil War, Strange and Fascinating Facts"] Another noted drummer boy was Robert Henry Hendershot who became known as 'the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.' He was a drummer boy for the Eighth Michigan.


There seems to be some difference of opinion about Johnny's unit.

The 22nd Michigan

Finally Johnny took matters into his own hands. Shortly after his mother died, Johhnny decided to run away from home, determinned to answer President Lincoln's call to arms and join the Federal Army. He was not yet 10 years old. When the next Federal unit marched south through Newark (it was the 22nd Michigan Infantry), Johnny simply tagged along. [Cassamer] (Some accounts erroniously say the 22nd Massachusetts.) Johnny proved to be popular and the men of Company C eventually adopted him as their mascot and drummer boy. As he was at first not enrolled, the officers reportedly chipped in on his $13 monthly salary. He performed camp duties and learned to be a drummer boy. Fellow enlisted men provided him with a shortened rifle and a uniform in his size, or as close as they could get to it. He was allowed to officially enlisted in the 22nd Michigan in May 1863 and beagan to receive his own pay.

24th Ohio

A HBC reader writes, "I was reading your biography on Johnny Shiloh and I believe I have found an error. I have a letter from Chas. S. Dunn, Superintendent, of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. In this letter, written to Percy A. Dolle dated January 3, 1958, it states that Johnny served with 24th Ohio during the Battle of Shiloh, it was later after Shiloh that he attached and enlisted with the 22nd Michigan. I hope this evidence will be considered and reviewed. " -- [Taylor] As far as HBC can determine, Johhny's service was primarily with the 22nd Michigan. Accounts that we have noted suggest that Johhny tried to join the 24th Ohio, but they thoughthe was too young and discouraged him. Of course after he became famous, probably a lot of units would have liked to have claimed him. One authority tells us, "If anything he was simply 'extra baggage' and was officially told to go home by them, without any official enrollment. In fact I thing he actually followed them for about 1 week, before being told to 'Go Home'. He was with only the 22nd Michigan. He also took his name Lincoln, from President Lincoln. Simply because he thought a great deal of him, as a young boy of nine." [Casamer]

Shiloh (April 1862)

The Battle of Shiloh was one of the most important engagements in the western theater (April 6-7, 1862). It was the first of the great killing fields of the War. Shiloh set the mold for the hugely costly battles of the Civil War. The combined casualties were 24,000 out of thge 110,000 combatants. No one in the early months of the War had anticipated casualties of these dimensions. Shiloh also had important consequences on how the War was to be fought. After Shiloh both Sherman and Grant no longer had illusions about how costly the War woukld be. The battle was unusual in that the Confederates prevailed the first day and Federal forces the second day. Johhny is alleged to have had his drum smashed by Confederate cannon fire during the battle. The nation was horrified at the carnage of Shiloh. Johnny's story was only a minor newspaper item. One historian writes, "The smashing of Johnny's drum at Pittsburg Landing won for him the sobriquet of 'Johnny Shiloh.' Subsequently, he exchanged gun for musket because, as he put it, 'I did not like to stand and be shot at without shooting back.' ... Johnny carried dispatches for General Thomas during the Atlanta campaign, had his pony killed under him and before the end of his service was twice wounded." [Wiley, pp. 297-298.]

Chickamauga (September 1863)

One of the major in the western campaign was the Battle of Chickamauga which took place in Georgia near Tennessee. The battle was a rate Condereate victory in the West despite loosing more men than the Federals. Many men of the 22nd Michigan were captured in the fighting which took place on September 19-20, 1863. Johnny managed to escape after shooting a Rebel officer who tryed to capture him. A Confederate colonel shouted for Johnny to stop. Johnny, who only weighed 60 pounds, had no intention of being a prisinor. He rode an artillery caisson to the front and wielded a musket trimmed to his size. In one of the many Union retreats at Chickamagua, the Confederate colonel ran after the cannon Clem rode on, shouting "Surrender you damned little Yankee!" Johnny fired his musket and killed the colonel. Later in the battle he was captured with other members of the 22nd, but managed to escape in the confusion of battle. Union Gen. George H. Thomas promoted Johnny to lance corporal. Thomas made his name at Chickamauga, his dogged defense of the Union left averted a miliatry disaster and earned him the title of "The Rock of Chickamauga".


Northern newspapers learned about Johnny's exploits. This time his exploits were splashed all over major as well as small town newspaers. Johhny was soon a celebrity and was nicknamed the "Drummer Boy of Chickamauga". Others called him "Johnny Shiloh" because of his experiences in that battle.

New Name

At some time during this period he changed his name and its spelling to John Lincoln Clem.


Johnny in October 1863, was captured in Georgia by Confederate cavalry while detailed as a train guard. The Confederate soldiers took his uniform away from him which reportedly upset him terribly--especially his cap which he said had three bullrt holes in it. [Bennett] He was exchanged a short time later, but the Confederate newspapers used his age and celeberty status to show "what sore straits the Yankees are driven, when they have to send their babies out to fight us." Another account indicates that he was held somewhat longer. According to one source, family members complained that he looked like a "dreadful corpse" and was said that when he came home he "couldn't have weighed over 60 pounds." [Bennett]


General Thomas in January 1864 assigned Johnny to his staff as a mounted orderly. Finally on September 19, 1864, Johnny was discharged from the army.

The Boys' War

Johnny's story is notavle for his youth and his experiences, but in fact thousands of boys of all ages served with both the Federal and Confederate forces. The youngest like Johnny served as drummer boys, but slightly older boys made up a substantial portion of the actual fighting forces. This has led one historian to describe to describe the Civil War as "The Boys War".

Army Career

resident U.S. Grant appointed Johnny to the Army military academy at West Point. Lacking the neccessary academic background, after all he had been fighting the Civil War rather than going to school, he failed several times to pass the entrance exam. President Grant in 1871 decided to appoint him a 2nd lieutenant without attending West Point. Johnny thus began a second period of Army service, this time a little less eventful. He became a colonel and assistant quartermaster general in 1903. He retired in 1915 with the rank of brigadier general. He was the last Civil War veteran on the army rolls at the time of his retirement.

Last Years

John Lincoln Clem died at the age of 85 in San Antonio, Texas on May 13, 1937. He was fittingly buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


The popular song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" honored Johhny. His exploits were the subject of a Disney film--"Johnny Shiloh."


Bennett, Kevin. "Clem: Newark's most famous veteran," The Advocate (Newark), June 17, 2002.

Casamer, Douglas M. The Michigan 22nd Infantry and the Men Who Served.

Casamer, Douglas M. E-mail message, March 9, 2004.

Clem, John L. "From Nursery to Battlefield," Outlook" magazine CVII (1914), 546-547.

Schmidt, Barb. E-mail message, February 11, 2011. Schmidt is a distant relative and her family has been collecting information on Johnny.

Taylor, Nicholas J. E-mail message.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Louisiana State University Press, 1952. (The edition quoyed here is the 1978 reissue.)


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Created: March 27, 2002
Last updated: 9:19 PM 2/9/2013