Michigan’s Little Drummer Boys of the Civil War

RHYTHM SECTION: Michigan’s intrepid drummer boys played their part in beating the enemy during the Civil War
Michigan troops crossing the Rappahonnock River at Fredericksburg, Va., Dec. 11, 1862. It was the battle that made the self-promoting drummer boy Robert Hendershot famous. // All images courtesy of Richard Bak

Amid the panoply of waving flags and patriotic speeches in the summer of 1861, Charlie Gardner ached to go off to war. The Flint youngster, eager to show the upstart Confederacy a thing or two, begged his mother to allow him to follow his favorite teacher, Samuel Guild, into the ranks of the 8th Michigan Infantry Regiment. Charlie’s father, Charles, was serving with the 2nd Michigan, so his mother was reluctant to see him go as well. Finally, she bowed to Charlie’s insistence that he be allowed to “take the place of a man who can handle a musket.” Charlie enlisted as a drummer boy in Company A of the 8th Michigan, commanded by Captain Guild.

The excitement and naiveté with which the schoolboy went to war quickly faded. By the end of 1862, both of Charlie’s father figures were dead. Captain Guild was killed in battle, while Charles Gardner died ingloriously of typhoid fever. Little Charlie soldiered on, shouldering the daily miseries of his older companions until he was wounded during the siege of Knoxville, Tenn. The regiment was recalled to Detroit, but for the Gardner family there was no happy homecoming at the train station. Charlie, who was thought to be recovering nicely, had died en route. He was 14 years old.

Nobody knows exactly how many Charlie Gardners served in the Civil War, the last conflict in American history to field large numbers of drummer boys and underage soldiers. According to historians’ estimates, as many as one in 10 Union soldiers were 17 or younger. Some were as young as 12. Government policy regarding the age of enlistees was inconstant. When the war began, the minimum age requirement of 18 could be waived with a parent’s or guardian’s permission (the same rule in effect in today’s armed forces). In 1862, the War Department forbade minors completely. Regulations concerning drummer boys, fifers, and other musicians specified no minimum age set until 1864, when Congress, alarmed by the growing number of casualties among this group, issued an act prohibiting the enlistment of anybody younger than 16.

It hardly mattered. Enterprising youths still found a way into uniform. Record-keeping was nothing like it is today, so in lieu of a birth certificate or other documentation it was easy to have an accomplice vouch for an eager recruit’s age. Boys concerned with committing the un-Christian act of lying often placated their guilty conscience by placing a slip of paper, the number 18 written on it, in their shoe. Thus when the recruiting officer asked the boy his age, he could truthfully answer, “I’m ‘over’ 18.”

Thousands of Michigan lads served in the ranks, including Robert Hendershot of the 8th Michigan Infantry, who became a national celebrity by dint of a single audacious act. According to an account that first appeared in the Detroit Free Press and then was reprinted in other papers and the magazine Youth’s Companion, the 12-year-old drummer from Cambridge had clung to the side of a boat as Michigan troops crossed the icy Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Va., on Dec. 11, 1862. Once on the other bank, Hendershot’s drum was “blown to atoms,” but he managed to capture one of the enemy. Hendershot reportedly had earned the praise of a general at the scene, who declared, “Boy, I glory in your spunk.”

Hendershot, a fatherless hellion who found himself an object of admiration for the first time, spent the rest of the war — indeed, the rest of his life — capitalizing on his fame. He accepted an expensive and ornate drum from a New York newspaper, traveled to England to be showered with praise, appeared at P.T. Barnum’s museum of curiosities, and visited the White House to meet Abraham Lincoln. He posed for countless photographs, shamelessly promoting himself as “the most wonderful Drummer in the World.” Several poems were written about him, including “The Hero of the Drum.” Hendershot’s presence at a recruiting rally in Michigan “created much enthusiasm,” the Free Press reported. More than a few wide-eyed boys in attendance could envision themselves standing on the platform, boasting of his exploits, and soaking in the admiration and the applause, just like “The Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.”

Years later, it would develop that Hendershot, by now a staple of the convention circuit, was a fraud, the tale he had weaved for newspapers wholly discounted by members of the Michigan regiments on the scene. The real story of his time in service revealed a litany of discharges, desertions, and other unseemly behavior. “Worse than useless,” was one veteran’s appraisal of the boy who had demonstrated absolutely no ability to play an instrument or shoulder a weapon. If Hendershot was remembered for being at Fredericksburg at all, it was for joining in the looting that took place there — “the Forager of the Rappahannock,” said another Michigan vet. But in the early stages of the war, the North was hungry for all the heroes it could get — authentic or manufactured. Hendershot, undaunted by the controversy, would keep on beating his own drum right up until his death in 1925.

LEFT: Robert Hendershot. RIGHT: Pint-sized Johnny Clem was only 9 when he joined “Mr. Lincoln’s army.” He was known correctly as “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” and incorrectly as “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh.”

Thanks in part to the well-publicized exploits of Hendershot and another nationally celebrated juvenile, Johnny Clem of the 22nd Michigan, heroic boy soldiers — some toting a rifle, others banging a drum — became staples of songs, stories, poetry, and skits throughout the North. It’s easy to imagine a bored farm boy in Plymouth or Bay City, for example, eagerly devouring the pages of the latest Youth’s Companion and being inspired by “The Little Soldier”:

“O would I were a soldier,” / Cried little Bertie Lee;
“If I were only older, / How very brave I’d be;
I’d fear not any danger, / I’d flee not from the foe,
But where the strife was fiercest / There I’d be sure to go.

Unlike little Bertie Lee, George Sidman didn’t just sit back and daydream of donning a uniform. The 16-year-old from Owosso, Mich., was the youngest and smallest member of his regiment when he enlisted in the 16th Michigan. Despite his inability to play the many calls required of a drummer, he was kept on the rolls “in order to let him grow to a soldier’s stature,” a colleague said.

At the Battle of Gaines Mill, Va., in 1862, Sidman was conspicuous in fighting off the enemy and encouraging his comrades until a bullet ripped through his hip. Down but not out, the youngster continued to fight until he fainted. “Dragging himself to an open ditch in the rear, he clubbed his musket over a stump to destroy its usefulness to the enemy, and throwing his accoutrements in the ditch, he crawled on his hands and knees off the field of battle and through Chickahominy Swamp,” an eyewitness reported. Captured and then released in a prisoner exchange, Sidman twice escaped from hospitals, eager to rejoin his friends. Hobbling along on crutches, then grabbing a ride on an ambulance, Sidman worked his way back to his regiment the best he could. He finally stumbled into camp riding a broken-down horse he had found by the wayside.

According to a colleague, “officers and comrades were loud in their approval of his patriotism and faithfulness to duty.” Sidman was wounded twice more in the war before being invalided out of the service. In recognition of his fidelity and courage at Gaines Mill, he was later awarded the Medal of Honor — one of the youngest recipients of the Civil War and still the youngest Michigan soldier ever to receive the decoration.

In 1959, as America was on the cusp of commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Civil War, James A. Rhodes published Johnny Shiloh: A Novel of the Civil War. Four years later, the book was made into a popular movie by Walt Disney, with Kevin Corcoran playing the title role of a runaway boy who tries to join an infantry regiment known as the Blue Raiders but is rejected as being too young. This doesn’t stop the persistent and courageous Johnny who, in the end, proves size and age aren’t the only measures of a fighting heart.

Johnny Shiloh was a character based in part upon the most famous drummer boy of the Civil War, Johnny Clem, of the 22nd Michigan Infantry. Newspaper readers throughout the North loved reading about the spunky lad who was photographed with a musket sawed down to accommodate his diminutive size.

Separating fact from myth is always hard when it comes to celebrity soldiers like Clem. He was born Aug. 13, 1851, in Newark, Ohio, and was just 9 years old when he “ran off to join Mr. Lincoln’s army” (as the song in the movie goes). He was reportedly rejected by the commander of the 3rd Ohio, who said he “wasn’t enlisting infants,” before finally managing to hook up with the 22nd Michigan Infantry in the late summer of 1862. The 4-foot-tall youngster made himself indispensible around camp and the following spring was officially mustered into the regiment as a musician. Intelligent despite his limited education, Clem was given the important duty of regimental marker, carrying the guidon that a unit formed its line on.

A few months later, the 22nd Michigan was heavily engaged at the Battle of Chickamauga. On Sept. 20, 1863, in the midst of a retreat, Clem found himself face to face with a Rebel colonel on horseback. As the story goes, the officer yelled, “Stop, you little Yankee devil!” Clem refused to surrender. As he later described it, he picked up a discarded rifle, pointed it at the officer — and to both combatants’ great surprise, shot him out of the saddle. As one typically overheated newspaper account of the incident put it, “The proud Colonel tumbled dead from his horse, his lips fresh stained with the syllable of vile reproach he had flung upon a mother’s grave in the hearing of her child.”

It evolved that the colonel wasn’t killed, and that Clem had not shot him with a custom-fitted miniature musket, as widely reported. But the boy did evade capture by rolling himself in a blanket before finally making it back to his decimated regiment. Word of the exploits of 12-year-old Clem spread quickly among the demoralized troops.

The youngster’s admirers in the press and the army didn’t quibble over all the details of his heroism. Before he knew it, “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” was a celebrity, written up in national publications, posing for photographs, and accepting the gift of a pony. According to some sources, the song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” was based on Clem, who was promoted to sergeant. Countless youths were motivated by his example. One general, employing his best once-upon-a-time style, was moved to write his own young son:

“What shall I write to you about? I will tell you a story of a little boy who once lived in Michigan. His name is John Clem … . He was a good boy — always obeyed his Captain and always tried to do his duty like a man. Being a good boy, everyone liked him, because good boys always have a great many friends — he had many. Last summer his drum was broken by some accident and poor Johnny often cried because he had no drum to beat, but he always kept up with his Company in either hot or cold weather and often he had to sleep on the cold damp ground without a blanket … . Johnny will make a great man some of these days and so will any boy who is obedient and faithful in the performance of his duty.”

Clem didn’t quite approach “great man” status as he grew older, but he was able to seize advantage of the connections fame had brought him. After his skimpy education torpedoed his attempt to enter West Point, he prevailed upon President Ulysses S. Grant to appoint him a second lieutenant in the Regular army. Clem served from 1871 to 1916, when he retired as a mildly competent but beloved major general. He was the last Civil War veteran to leave active duty. He died at his Texas home on May 13, 1937, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Curiously, for all of his adult life, Clem often was erroneously referred to as “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh.” This was no fault of Clem’s. Rather, it was the result of an 1871 newspaper article that mistakenly identified him as the youngster who’d famously had his drum destroyed by a shell at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. That incident — most likely apocryphal — inspired one of the most popular songs of the war, “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh,” which in turn begat a play by the same name. Performances of this patriotic tearjerker were a staple of school fundraisers and veterans’ gatherings well into the 20th century and kept the name alive in the public mind.

The story was widely circulated as a pamphlet and found its way into Clem’s service jacket. The appellation stuck, although a number of other young soldiers would always claim to be the real “Johnny Shiloh.” Writers and historians used the 1871 article for more than a century without bothering to check its claims against Clem’s service records. If they had, they would have realized that Clem’s participation at Shiloh would have been impossible. At the time, the 22nd Michigan hadn’t even been organized, and in any case Clem had yet to join the regiment.

Clem never really claimed to be Johnny Shiloh. He was satisfied being, as his gravestone at Arlington reads, “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.”

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