John Lincoln Clem (christened John Joseph Klem) was born on August 13, 1851, at Newark Ohio. He was the son of Roman and Magdalene Klem. Clem spent his youth working on the family farm and attending school in Newark. Tragedy struck Clem’s life at age nine when a train killed his mother while she crossed railroad tracks. Clem’s father soon remarried. Friction with his new step-mother may have prompted Clem to run off and attempt to join the Union Army before his tenth birthday.
The commander of the 3rd Ohio Infantry rebuffed Clem’s first attempt to join the army as a drummer boy because of the youth’s small stature and his tender age. Clem, however, was undeterred. In a first-person narrative, published in 1914, Clem recalled that:
I climbed aboard the train with the men of the 3rd Ohio, got passage in that way as far as Cincinnati, and there offered myself to the Twenty-third (sic) Michigan Regiment. Again I was rejected, by reason of my age; but this time I was not to be kept from joining by mere legal obstacle. I went along with the regiment just the same as a drummer boy, and, though not on the muster-roll, drew a soldier’s pay of thirteen dollars a month. The pay was not drawn from Government funds, however. I came out of the personal pockets of officers of the regiment, who “chipped in” to make up the amount. From the viewpoint of the 22nd Michigan, I was a member in full standing of that military family—the baby of the regiment.
Clem earned the nickname “Johnny Shiloh,” when he reportedly avoided death or serious injury from a shell fragment during the Battle of Shiloh. Clem later confirmed the account of his brush with disaster in his 1914 narrative, claiming that, “At Shiloh my drum was smashed by a fragment of a shell. They called me ‘Johnny Shiloh’ for a while after that.”
Clem’s recollections of his experiences joining the army and his exploits at Shiloh contain one formidable inconsistency. The Battle of Shiloh occurred on April 6-7, 1862, and the 22nd Michigan Infantry did not muster into federal service until August 29, 1862. Obviously, Clem could neither have joined the 22nd Michigan Infantry in 1861 nor could he have taken part in the Battle of Shiloh as a member of the 22nd Michigan Infantry.
There is, however, another scenario that could have placed Clem at the Battle of Shiloh, as he claims. Despite Clem’s recollections about how he joined the army, his sister maintains that he initially hooked up with the 24th Ohio Infantry, not the 22nd Michigan Infantry. Mustered into volunteer service on June 17, 1861, and trained at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio, the 24th Ohio departed for western Virginia on July 26, 1861. It is possible that the unit would have passed through or near Newark on its way east at about the same time that Clem was trying to join the army.
The 24th Ohio served several months in Virginia before being redeployed to Kentucky, where it joined the 10th Brigade, 4th Division of the Army of the Ohio. In late February 1862, the unit moved southwest, and by April 5, camped at Savannah, Tennessee, eleven miles from Pittsburg Landing, where the Battle of Shiloh erupted the next day. The 24th Ohio arrived at Pittsburg Landing on the evening of April 6 and was fully engaged in the Union’s successful counterattack on April 7, thus lending credence to Clem’s account of his participation in the Battle of Shiloh—albeit not with the 22nd Michigan Infantry.
Clem’s 1914 narrative provides two further clues that support his sister’s recollections. Clem mentions being in Kentucky just before the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862) and being engaged at the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863). The 24th Ohio took part in each of those conflicts; the 22nd Michigan participated in neither.
Although Clem’s sister’s account fits with the facts of the 24th Ohio’s regimental history, it does not explain how Clem could have been so confused or careless in 1914, when describing his early adventures in the army. There is no record of Clem serving with the 24th Ohio. In addition, there is no explanation for how he eventually ended up as a member of the 22nd Michigan Infantry. Although the details of Clem’s early involvement in the army may forever remain clouded, it is certain he mustered into the army as a private with Company C of the 22nd Michigan on May 1, 1863, at Nashville, Tennessee.
During the summer of 1863, Clem’s unit served with Major General William S. Rosecrans‘ Army of the Cumberland, driving Confederate General Braxton Bragg‘s Army of Tennessee toward Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was about this time that Clem changed his middle name from Joseph to Lincoln (in honor of President Abraham Lincoln) and that he changed the spelling of his last name from Klem to Clem.
Battle of Chickamauga
Later in 1863, Clem earned national notoriety for his actions during the Battle of Chickamauga (September 18-20, 1863), although details surrounding his deeds remain ambiguous. Clem reported that, during the fighting, he became separated from his unit and he avoided capture by shooting a Confederate colonel who was pursuing him. Confederate battle records, however, contain no reports that substantiate the story. Whatever the case, people throughout the North celebrated the exploits of the “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.” After the battle, officials reportedly promoted Clem to the rank of sergeant, making him the youngest non-commissioned officer in the history of the U.S. Army. However, Clem’s official muster-out voucher, dated June 26, 1865, lists his rank as a “pvt” (private). Possibly, as was typical during the Civil War, appropriate paperwork for this battlefield promotion was never filed, so official records would have him listed as a private.
Capture and Release
In October 1863, Confederate troops captured Clem while he was guarding a train in Georgia. The captors incensed Clem when they confiscated nearly all of his belongings, especially his cap, which he claimed had three bullet holes in it from the Battle of Chickamauga. Clem asserted that, while the Rebels held him, Confederate General Joseph Wheeler exhibited him as a fighting Yankee baby, exclaiming “what sore straits the Yankees are driven, when they have to send their babies out to fight us.” After two months of captivity, the Rebels released Clem as part of a prisoner exchange.
Upon being paroled, Clem became a mounted orderly on General George H. Thomas’ staff. He served with the Army of the Cumberland through the Atlanta Campaign and the Franklin-Nashville Campaign until the end of the Civil War. Clem mustered out of volunteer service on June 26, 1865, at age fourteen.
U.S. Army Officer
Upon returning to civilian life, Clem found it was easier to take the boy out of the military than to take the military out of the boy. In 1870, Clem’s lack of schooling stymied his attempts to secure an appointment to the United States Military Academy. One year later, on December 18, 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned Clem as a 2nd lieutenant in the 24th United States Infantry.
On October 5, 1874, army officials promoted Clem to 1st lieutenant. After graduating from artillery school at Fort Monroe in 1875, the army sent Clem to Texas, where he campaigned against American Indians and border outlaws for several years.
While stationed in Texas, Clem married Anita Rosetta French in San Antonio on May 24, 1875. His bride was the daughter of Major General William H. French, who commanded the 3rd Army Corps for several months during the Civil War. The couple had one child, John Clem, Jr., during their twenty-four-year marriage that ended with Mrs. Clem’s death in 1899. On September 23, 1903, Clem remarried. His second wife was Elizabeth Sullivan of San Antonio, Texas. They were the parents of one child, Elizabeth Ann, born on June 24, 1906.
Clem steadily climbed the ranks during his career as a military officer. In 1890, he transferred to the quartermaster corps, and he received a promotion to captain on May 4, 1882. Three years later, Clem advanced to major on May 16, 1895. During the Spanish-American War (1898), Clem served as Chief Quartermaster of the Department of Puerto Rico, where he remained until 1901. He was then back in Texas from 1900 to 1903, serving as Deputy Quartermaster of the Department of Texas. On February 2, 1901, the army promoted Clem to lieutenant colonel. From 1903 until 1905, he served overseas as Chief Quartermaster of the Philippine Department. On August 29, 1903, Clem received a promotion to the rank of colonel. Upon returning from the Philippines, he organized a relief column during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. From 1906 to 1911, Clem served as the Department of Texas Quartermaster. In 1911, army officials appointed Clem as the Chief Quartermaster of the Department of the Lakes. He served there until reaching the mandatory retirement age of sixty-four years in 1915.
When Clem retired on August 13, 1915, the Army promoted him to the rank of brigadier general, as was customary for soldiers having achieved the rank of colonel. At the time of his retirement, Clem was the last Civil War veteran still on active duty with the army. One year after his retirement, by special action of the United States Congress on August 29, 1916, Clem received a promotion to major general in recognition of his service during the Civil War.
Clem lived for over two decades after his retirement. He lived briefly in Washington, D.C., before returning to San Antonio, Texas, where his son owned an automobile dealership. Clem died there on May 13, 1937, at age eighty-five. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.