He was known as U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s “drummer boy,” the youngest American ever awarded the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military honor.
William “Willie” E. Johnston was born in Morristown in St. Lawrence County in July 1850, but his family had moved to Salem, Vt., by the time the Civil War had begun.
When his father enlisted in Company B, 3rd Vermont Infantry Regiment in St. Johnsbury, Vt., the 11-year-old Willie begged the commander to allow him to join the Army so he could be with his father. He enlisted as a regimental drummer on May 1, 1862.
During the Civil War, it was not unusual for children as young as 11 or 12 to serve as drummers. The drums were an important part of battlefield communications, allowing officers to signal different commands to troops by using various drum rolls.
During the Seven Day Battle Peninsula Campaign from June 25 to July 1, 1862, Union General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was only miles from Richmond, Va., when Confederate General Robert E. Lee went on the offensive, repeatedly attacking in a series of battles known as the “Seven Days” that forced the Yankees to repeatedly retreat with the southerners just behind them.
As the Union forces retreated, many of the soldiers threw away extra equipment, and in many cases, even their muskets and ammunition, to lighten their load to escape the Confederate forces.
All of the regimental drummers threw away their drums during the retreat, except for Willie.
After the route, the weary troops gathered at Harrison’s Landing where the regiment was ordered to participate in a July 4th parade featuring the entire division.
The Division Commander, General William F. “Baldy” Smith, asked Willie to play his drum for the entire Division and noted in his report to his superiors that only the 11-year-old still had his drum to play for the troops during the parade.
The 11-year-old’s dedication to his duty by keeping his drum at a time when many of the adult soldiers were abandoning their equipment during the retreat became an example for the entire Union Army.
When President Lincoln heard the story, he wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, suggesting that Willie be awarded the recently created Medal of Honor to serve as an example to the nation’s troops.
Stanton agreed, presenting Johnston his Medal of Honor Sept. 16, 1863, making him the youngest person ever awarded the honor.
Young Johnston’s exploits were the subject of a book, Lincoln’s Drummer, written by G. Clifton Wisler.
Willie reenlisted at Brandy Station, Va., on Feb. 15, 1864, transferring to Company H. He was later promoted to Drum Major of the 20th Regiment of Veteran Reserve Corps, mustering out of service Dec. 30, 1864.