Great kids in history: the youngest drummer boy

The Youngest Drummer Boy image

The Union Army’s Regimental Fife and Drum Corps. Willie Johnston (Not pictured) was the youngest member and went on to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. (Image from http://www.civilwarphotogallery.com)

By Michael Williams

The Medal of Honor is the highest honor that can bestowed on an American, either as a civilian or a soldier. Most of the time the medals are awarded to combat veterans. Earning the medal is very difficult and requires that a person show bravery and valor under difficult conditions.

As incredible as it may sound, the youngest person to ever win the Medal of Honor was 13-years-old.

His name was William “Willie” Johnston. He was born in July of 1850 in Morristown, New York. The family later moved to Salem, Vermont (now known as Derby). When Willie was 11, the United States was torn by the Civil War. The southern states broke away with the plan to form their own country. This caused the nation to go to war with the northern states fighting the south.

Willie’s father volunteered to join the Army and fight in the war. Willie was an adventurous boy and when he learned his father was going he begged his father to let him go.

Reluctantly, his father agreed and the commanding officer of the 3rd Vermont Infantry approved of the young boy’s service. The commander had a special job for Willie, but it was dangerous. Willie would serve his company as a drummer boy.

Most drummer boys were age 13-15. Willie was younger than most, but not the youngest. Tommy Hubler was only nine when he enlisted. The job of a drummer boy was to carry a drum and beat it to a rhythm while the men marched into battle. This is known as keeping cadence. This was extremely dangerous as some drummer boys were killed in action.

But Willie wanted to be with his father and he craved adventure. His first taste of battle came at Lee’s Mill, Virginia on April 16, 1862. Willie was dressed in a blue Army uniform, the smallest one in his regiment.

At around 3 p.m. Willie’s regiment charged across a dam to fight the Confederate Army. Suddenly, bullets fired all around Willie as he continued to beat his drum. The fighting became more intense with the sounds of cannons firing and the crack of muskets filling the air mixed with the shouts of commanders. The noise and the danger proved too much for some drummer boys. Some threw down their drums and ran away to safety, but Willie held his ground continuing to tap out cadence as the fighting escalated.

The battle raged for two hours when finally General William Smith called for his men to retreat. As the Union Army fled the field, Willie remained steadfast and marched along with the other men calmly drumming. Thirty-five of Willie’s fellow soldiers were dead and another 121 was wounded.

Two months later, Willie found himself in the throes of battle once again. This time he was involved in the Seven Days Battle that took place from June 25 to July 1, 1862 when Confederate forces fought the Union Army forcing them to retreat from Richmond.

The battle was an epic conflict between the two armies. More than 100,000 Union soldiers battled the Confederate Army of  92,000 men for seven days. In the end, nearly 36,000 men lay dead.

On the final day of the battle, Willie’s regiment was called up to hold an area known as Williamsburg Road.

As night fell, Willie held his drum sticks firmly in hand as the men of the Vermont Brigade charged into a wooded area to face intense, murderous enemy fire. As bullets whizzed by, Willie continued drumming, never abandoning his task and never wavering as the fighting became ever more brutal.

As the hours passed, the night grew darker with the fighting growing more intense. The sounds of battle were deafening at times as cannon and gunfire shattered the silence of the summer night. Finally, at 2:30 a.m., General William Smith ordered the Vermont Brigade to retreat. They had lost too many men and could no longer stay in the fight. As the men began hurriedly picking up the wounded, Willie continued drumming. All the other drummer boys panicked as they saw the men running away from battle. They all threw their drums to the ground and fled, but not Willie. He never dropped his drum. In fact, he continued drumming as he retreated at the heels of the soldiers.

Days later, President Abraham Lincoln received reports about the defeat his Army had suffered. He was deeply disappointed in his Army and the generals, but when he heard of the bravery of young Willie, he was inspired. It turned out that Willie was the only drummer to leave the battle with his instrument, which was not an easy task considering the danger he was in.

Lincoln wrote a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton suggesting that Willie be given a medal for his courage under fire.

On September 16, 1863, Willie Johnston was awarded the Medal of Honor at the age of 13. He became the youngest person to ever receive the honor. Officially, the medal was awarded for his courage at the first battle when he was just 11. But, his valor was recognized for his bravery in the Seven Days Battle as well.

The drum sticks Willie carried into battle are now on display at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.

Michael Williams is the author of  “Great Kids in History,” a collection of 22 amazing stories of incredible kids that have accomplished amazing things. The book is wonderful reading material for parents and children alike and would make an excellent gift for the great kid in your life. “Great Kids in History” is available in Kindle or in print at  Amazon.com.

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