Earlier this week, I shared with you the story of Johnny Clem. The nine-year old earned fame for things he did and things he probably didn’t do. Called both “Johnny Shiloh” and “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga”, Johnny survived the Civil War and later in his life went on to have a second distinguished career in the United States Army
Johnny’s story is the subject of John Lincoln Clem: Civil War Drummer Boy. This is a work of historical fiction and author E.F. Abbott has done a wonderful job creating an engaging, book-length story for young readers. The main character, Johnny Clem himself, is a well-written multidimensional character. He is stubborn and defiant, but honorable. He has a moment of cowardice and resolves to be brave. He is good but flawed. He is someone you want to root for.
The author weaves in a lot of vignettes about camp life for ordinary soldiers including the rampant disease that would claim more lives than bullets did. She even uses a well documented description of General Grant-- “He wore an expression as if he had decided to drive his head through a brick wall and was about to do it.” The battle scenes are realistic and urgent and don’t romanticize what was truly a confused and terrifying experience.
As a piece of fiction, this book is top notch.
Unfortunately, the author’s research on her subject seems spotty. As I noted in my previous post, it is highly unlikely that Johnny was ever at Shiloh. The 3rd Ohio, the regiment he unofficially joined in this book did not fight at Shiloh and the 22nd Michigan, the regiment that he eventually formally enlisted with, was not mustered in until August 1862, several months after the battle of Shiloh.
Several times, the author refers to beating the long roll as a call to advance. The long roll was actually a call used to call the soldiers to arms. It was to get the troops’ attention and get them all in one place so that a subsequent order could be sounded. It was not beat throughout an advance or to announce a charge.
An additional concern appears when Captain McDougal asks the assembled crowd the reason the Confederate states seceded. The crowd answers “slavery” and McDougal adds a whole bunch of other things that are another way of saying slavery including economics and states’ rights and throws in the tariff for good measure. Captain McDougal tries to lessen the impact slavery had on the Confederacy’s founding, which does a disservice to the actual history. To add insult to injury, officers of the rank Captain are in command of a company of approximately 100 soldiers, not entire regiments (until later in the war when casualties began to mount). Regiments were commanded by Colonels.
Because of the strong fictional narrative, I still highly recommend this book despite the historical liberties taken. In fact, the inaccuracies provide an opportunity to research some primary documents in a critical manner.
John Lincoln Clem: Civil War Drummer Boy is a great way to introduce the role of children in combat with an engaging and fast moving story so long as it is understood to be historical fiction.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.