Thursday, July 23, 2015

Eleven-Year-Old Wins the Medal of Honor

By W.W. Minsinger, M.D., Vermont

June 25, 1862. With the Peninsula Campaign in full swing, McClellan's Army of the Potomac was just miles from Richmond. Between June 25 and July 1, Lee went on the offensive, attacking McClellan repeatedly in a series of battles known as the "Seven Days." In the Seven Days Battles the conduct of Willie Johnston, a drummer boy from St. Johnsbury, made him the youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor, which had only recently been created. Willie was eleven years old.

Each day Robert E. Lee's forces attacked General George McClellan's troops, and every night McClellan had his forces fall back. With soldiers fighting all day and marching all night, many discarded all their equipment to lighten their load as they retreated to Harrison's Landing and the protection of the artillery of the Federal gunboats on the James River. Willie was the only drummer in his division to come away with his instrument.

As the troops were regrouping after their retreat, a Divisional Review was set for July 4th at Harrison's Landing, and young Willie Johnston was selected by General William F. (Baldy) Smith to play for the whole division in recognition of his service in keeping his drum while others threw away their equipment. Smith also noted that fact in his report; President Lincoln learned of the story and suggested to Secretary of War Stanton that the boy be decorated. Some have speculated whether the death of his son Willie, also eleven years of age, only five months earlier influenced the President's response to the story. Willie was awarded the Medal of Honor by Stanton personally on September 16, 1863.

Willie had become a drummer boy because when Willie's father enlisted in December 1861, Willie begged to go with him, and the commanding officer agreed.

Both Willie and his father survived the war.

"Taps" Played for the First Time

It was at the same gathering at Harrison's Landing immediately after the Seven Days Battles that the bugle call "Taps" as we know it today was created.

"The music for Taps was adapted by Union General Daniel Butterfield for his brigade (Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac) in July, 1862. . . . General Butterfield was not pleased with the call for Extinguish Lights, feeling that the call was too formal to signal the day's end, and with the help of the brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton (1839-1920), wrote Taps to honor his men while in camp at Harrison's Landing, Virginia, following the Seven Days battle. . . . The new call, sounded that night in July, 1862, soon spread to other units of the Union Army and was reportedly also used by the Confederates. Taps was made an official bugle call after the war."

Image: Drummer boy Willie Johnston



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