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Men of Honor, Part 4: A Little Drummer Boy

In the first three parts of this series, I have told the stories of three medal of honor recipients who fought in World War II. All three of these men were active soldiers or airmen. This week's story comes from a much earlier conflict, and the recipient was awarded his medal at a much earlier age than the others who's stories I have shared.

photo by author

William H. "Willie" Johnston was born on 5 July 1850. Willie's parents were "William B. H. Johnston, and Eliza, [who were] both born in England. His mother died while he was young and the family moved to Montreal, Canada, by 1853 where his father, a railroad engineer and machinist, remarried to Theresa E. Martin." (1) By 1859, the family had moved again - this time to Salem, Vermont.

Soon the Civil War came. Willie's father enlisted in the military, yet his son was not to be left behind. Willie "was formally enlisted in Company D [in the 3rd Vermont Regiment] as a drummer on December 11, 1861, in camp. Descriptive rolls list him as 11 years old and five feet tall. His father was a member of Company B of the same regiment, with the rank of corporal, serving in the regimental color guard." (1)

Some may think that the role Willie held was just one to keep him out of trouble and away from the action. However, in reality, he held a very important role. Being a drummer meant that he assisted the officers in giving directions and orders to the men.

A soldier's morning started with Reveille (the video to the left contains a portion played by the Fort McHenry Guard Fife and Drum Corps). The song is built like a good alarm clock, as it starts softly with one drum and then as the other musicians wake up and join in, the song crescendos until the whole army is awake and assembled. Throughout the day the fifes and drums gave orders for mealtimes, chores, and directions on the battlefields. Besides these duties, the drummers like Willie also would sit and play music to entertain their fellow soldiers.

"It was between June 25 and July 1, 1862 — dates known as the Seven Days Battles — that Willie earned his medal. These battles were part of Union Army Gen. George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, in which McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had tried to invade the Richmond, Virginia, area. But Confederate States Army Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops drove them back, forcing the Union Army down the Virginia peninsula." (2)

As the Union soldiers fled in retreat, many of them dropped their guns, packs, and other items to make it easier to run. This included some of the musicians, except for Willie who kept his drum with him. "His service during the "Seven Days" retreat in the peninsular Campaign was exemplary, and he was the only drummer in his division to come away with his "instrument", by no means a trivial accomplishment." (3)

Because of his actions, Willie's division commander recommended to the President to bestow an honor on Willie. When President Abraham Lincoln heard of Willie's bravery, he encouraged Congress that Willie should receive the Medal of Honor. His was only the second Medal of Honor to be awarded, following Private Jacob Parrot - in March of 1863 - who had been part of the Great Locomotive Chase.

"On Sept. 16, 1863, Willie received the medal from War Secretary Edwin Stanton. He was 13 years old and remains the youngest person to ever earn the Medal of Honor." (4)

After he received his Medal of Honor, the records become less certain. On the first of March 1870, Willie married Nellie Murphy. The couple had five children together and lived in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Willie "was still alive in 1899 when he attended a Medal of Honor Legion reunion in Burlington, Vermont. In that article, his home town was not noted." (1) Willie worked as a machinist just as his father had. Records are not certain as to his death but it is likely that Willie passed away on 16 September 1941.

No matter how old you are your actions are noticed by those around you.



Congressional Medal of Honor Society ~ William "Willie" Johnston


Colonial Williamsburg ~ Duty Calls

Fort McHenry Guard Fife and Drum Corps ~ Yankee Doodle 1812 and Civil War Version and Marching into the Fort


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