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John Clem’s Hymnal 

In 1861, at just 9 years old, John Clem attempted to join the Third Ohio Regiment of Volunteers as a drummer boy. When Clem offered his service to Captain McDougal, the officer “laughed, and said he wasn’t enlisting infants.” [1] This reaction did not deter young Clem. The “spirit of adventure had gripped [him],”[2] and he decided to run away from home. He stowed away on a train car with the Third Ohio Regiment and made it to Cincinnati where he attempted to join the Twenty-Third Michigan Regiment, only to be rejected again. Clem was persistent, however, and he tagged along with the regiment while serving as an unofficial drummer boy. Although he was not officially listed as a part of the unit, Clem was adopted by the men of the Twenty-Third Michigan Regiment, and the group thought of him fondly. The regiment’s tailor fashioned a makeshift uniform for Clem, and the officers chipped in to pay him a monthly thirteen-dollar salary. Besides providing him with a uniform and a drum, his fellow soldiers also sawed part of the barrel off a musket so Clem could have a gun to wield and carry.[3]

However, it was at Chickamauga that the now 12-year-old John Clem really proved his heroic character. Towards the end of the bloody battle, the Union soldiers were retreating to Chattanooga when Clem got separated from the rest of his unit amidst confusion and chaos. A Confederate colonel approached Clem on horseback and yelled for him to surrender. Instead of giving up, Clem fired his musket at the colonel, badly wounding him and knocking him off his horse. With musket balls flying all around him, Clem decided to play dead until nightfall when he could find his regiment without risking capture or death. Under the cover of darkness, Clem “came alive”[4] and found his way back to Chattanooga. Upon his arrival, Clem reunited with his regiment and was promoted to sergeant.

Clem continued his military career as a successful young sergeant and went on to participate in the battles of Perryville, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw Mountain, Peach Tree Creek, and Atlanta.[5] Although he was never promoted again during the Civil War, Clem began his commission as a second lieutenant on December 19, 1871.[6] Clem was appointed to the position by President Ulysses S. Grant himself, after he was unable to gain admission into West Point due to his lack of preliminary education. Clem continued to serve and climb the ranks, eventually becoming a colonel in 1903. After 54 years of service, Colonel John Clem retired from the Army on August 14, 1915 with the rank of Brigadier General, “an honor accorded by act of Congress to all civil war veterans who hold the rank of Colonel on reaching the legal age of retirement.”[7]

Seen here from the Mercury Collection is John Clem’s hymnal and a photograph of the young officer. This small hymnal would have been carried by Clem during his time as a soldier during the Civil War, and features multiple signatures from Clem in which he spells his last name as both “Klem” and “Clem.” The photograph is a rare shot of Clem at 12 years old dressed in his uniform and holding his musket. The musket dwarfs Clem and gives a great perspective on just how young and small the valiant little soldier was.

John Clem's Hymnal

Works Cited:

[1] Clem, John. From Nursery to Battlefield. Outlook. July 4, 1914. p. 546.

[2] Clem, p. 546.

[3] Last Veteran of ’61 to Leave the Army. The New York Times. August 8, 1915. p. 1

[4] Clem, p. 547.

[5] Last Veteran of ’61 to Leave the Army, p.1

[6] Clem, p. 548.

[7] Last Veteran of ’61 to Leave the Army, p.1


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See the Mercury One Permanent Collection first hand at the Rights & Responsibilities Museum, Father’s Day weekend, June 15-17.

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