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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Reichley: Story of John Klem, the little drummer boy

  • We are “celebrating,” or about to celebrate, so many wars it's hard to keep up with them.
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  • We are "celebrating," or about to celebrate, so many wars it's hard to keep up with them. Saturday's column was about the War of 1812, which is in its bicentennial, and today's is about the Civil War, in its sesquicentennial, which means 150 years.
    The below information came from a 5 ½ by 5 ½ inch card with facts about the Civil War. Red at the Treasure Box gave me about 30 cards as they were not a full set and he couldn't sell them. This is the second one I've used in a column, so to me even a few of them is good. Too bad the set is not complete; just think how many Civil War columns readers might be inflicted with.
    The star of this card was John Joseph Klem, a 9-year-old who ran away from home in Newark, Ohio, shortly after the war began in April 1861. He wanted to join up and do his bit, but every recruiting officer he approached said he was far too young.
    Finally the 22nd Massachusetts, a unit he tagged up with, adopted him as a drummer boy. Its officers chipped in a salary of $13 a month for him, and he became known as Johnny Klem. Many members of the unit were captured at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863 and Johnny would have been too, but he shot a Confederate officer and escaped.
    He became known as "the drummer boy of Chickamauga" and "Johnny Shiloh," as he was alleged to have had his drum smashed by cannon fire in that 1862 battle. For unknown reasons he changed his name to John Lincoln Clem.
    Alas in October he was captured while detailed as a train guard. He was exchanged a short time later but not before his photograph was widely circulated through the South embodying "the sore straits the Yankees are driven to when they have to send their babies to fight us."
    In January 1864 Gen. George Thomas assigned Johnny to his staff as a mounted orderly, and he was discharged on Sep. 19, 1864.
    President Grant appointed him to West Point, but he failed several times to pass the entrance exam. In 1871 Grant made him a second lieutenant, and he began the second phase of his career that continued until he retired in 1915.
    Fail repeated entrance tests or not, he retired that year as a brigadier general in the U.S. Army, the last Civil War era soldier still on the Army rolls. He died at age 85 in San Antonio on May 13, 1937, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
    On my next visit to the Washington D.C. area a visit to Arlington just made its way to high on my list of places to go. As mentioned, I'd never heard of Johnny Klem, nor Clem, but was certainly impressed by what I read.
    Page 2 of 2 - And no, I didn't check this out to verify its veracity, as I sincerely doubt that anyone would falsify a claim that someone became a brigadier general. That's easy enough to check out if one knows the procedures to check.
    I chose to accept the card's information at face value, even though I've never heard of Johnny Clem, or Klem, before.
    It's an amazing story, and I only wish Red had had the entire set of Civil War information cards. But if he had the whole set, he'd likely have sold them before one of my infrequent visits to his emporium. Thanks for a partial set anyway, young buddy.
    The cards may be useful for several more columns before the sesquicentennial ends in 2015. But by then, we'll be at the end of the War of 1812 bicentennial also, and into the second year of the centennial of WW I. Much more info out there on the horizon.
    John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.
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