John Lincoln Clem (August 13, 1851 – May 13, 1937) was a United States Army general who served as a drummer boy in the Union Army in the American Civil War. He gained fame for his bravery on the battlefield, becoming the youngest non-commissioned officer in Army history. He retired from the Army in 1915, having attained the rank of Brigadier General in the Quartermaster Corps. When advised he should retire, he requested to be allowed to remain on active duty until he became the last veteran of the Civil War still on duty in the Armed Forces. By special act of Congress on August 29, 1916, he was promoted to Major General upon his retirement.
Born in Newark, Ohio, in 1851 as John Joseph Klem, he ran away from home to become a Union Army drummer boy. He attempted to enlist in May 1861 in the 3rd Ohio Infantry, but was rejected because of his age and small size. He then tried to join the 22nd Michigan, which also refused him. He tagged along anyway, and the 22nd eventually adopted him as mascot and drummer boy. Officers chipped in to pay him the regular soldier’s wage of $13 a month, and finally allowed him to enlist two years later.
A popular legend suggests that Clem served as a drummer boy with the Michigan at the Battle of Shiloh. The legend suggests that he came very near to losing his life when a fragment from a shrapnel shell crashed through his drum, knocking him unconscious, and that subsequently his comrades who found and rescued him from the battlefield nicknamed Clem "Johnny Shiloh."
The weight of historical evidence however suggests that Clem could not have taken part in the battle of Shiloh. The 22nd Michigan appears to be the first unit in which Clem served in any capacity, but this regiment had not yet been constituted at the time of the battle. The Johnny Shiloh myth appears instead to stem from a popular Civil War song, "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh" by William S. Hays which was written for Harpers Weekly of New York. The song was written following the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, and may have been written with Clem in mind because he had already become a nationally known figure by that time.
At the Battle of Chickamauga, he rode an artillery caisson to the front and wielded a musket trimmed to his size. In the course of a Union retreat, he shot a Confederate colonel who had demanded his surrender. After the battle, the "Drummer Boy of Chickamauga" was promoted to sergeant, the youngest soldier ever to be a non-commissioned officer in the United States Army.
In October 1863, Clem was captured in Georgia by Confederate cavalry while detailed as a train guard. The Confederate soldiers confiscated his uniform which reportedly upset him terribly—including his cap which had three bullet holes in it. He was exchanged a short time later, but the Confederate newspapers used his age and celebrity status to show "what sore straits the Yankees are driven, when they have to send their babes out to fight us."
After participating with the Army of the Cumberland in many other battles, serving as a mounted orderly, he was discharged in 1865. Clem was wounded in combat twice during the war.
Clem graduated from high school in 1870. In 1871, he was elected Commander/captain of the "Washington Rifles" a District of Columbia Army National Guard Militia unit. After he attempted unsuccessfully to enter the United States Military Academy, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him second lieutenant in the Twenty-fourth United States Infantry. Clem graduated from artillery school at Fort Monroe in 1875, transferred to the quartermaster department in 1882, and rose to the rank of brigadier general by the time he retired in 1915.
Clem spent a number of his Army years in Texas. From 1906 to 1911 he was Chief Quartermaster at Fort Sam Houston; after retirement he lived in Washington, D.C. for a few years, then returned to San Antonio, Texas. He married Anita Rosetta French in 1875. She died in 1899, and he married Bessie Sullivan of San Antonio in 1903. Clem was the father of two children. He died in San Antonio on May 13, 1937, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA.