Willie Johnston (Medal of Honor)

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William H. "Willie" Johnston
BornJuly 1850
Morristown, New York
DiedSeptember 16, 1941(1941-09-16) (aged 91)
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branchUnion Army
Years of service1861 - 1865
RankDrummer boy
Unit3rd Vermont Infantry
20th Regiment, Veteran Reserve Corps
Battles/warsAmerican Civil War
AwardsMedal of Honor
Other workMachinist, Boston Navy Yard

William H. Johnston (born July 1850), from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, was a drummer boy in Company D of the 3rd Vermont Infantry. His service during the Seven Days Battles in the Peninsula Campaign was exemplary. He was the only drummer in his division to come away with his instrument, during a general rout. His superiors considered this a meritorious feat, when fellow soldiers had thrown away their guns. As a result, he received the Medal of Honor on the recommendation of his division commander, thereby becoming the youngest recipient of the highest decoration at 13 years of age.[1][2]

Early life[edit]

Johnston was born in Morristown, New York, in 1850 to William B. H. Johnston, and Eliza, both born in England.[3] 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. Apparently his family moved to Salem, Vermont (now Derby) by 1859.[4]

Civil War service[edit]

Willie's father enlisted in the 3rd Vermont Infantry in June 1861 and the regiment mustered at St. Johnsbury on July 16. Young Willie intended to enlist at the same time and probably went with the regiment to Camp Griffin, outside Washington. He was present for duty with the regiment since it mustered but was originally denied pay, company officials thinking he was too young to draw pay. He was formally enlisted in Company D 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.[5][6]

Signaling duties[edit]

While in camp Willie would have been at work all day sounding orders such as reveille, water and wood details, doctor's call, officer's call, dinner, and tattoo. During combat, standing beside his mounted regimental or company commander, he drummed commands such as march, double-quick, halt, cease-fire, or retreat.

The Peninsula Campaign[edit]

The 3rd Vermont was assigned to Brooks' Second Brigade (made up of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Vermont Infantry Regiments, often referred to as the Vermont Brigade), Smith's 2nd Division, Keyes' IV Corps, for McClellan's Peninsula Campaign.

Johnston's first fight was at Lee's Mill, Virginia, on April 16, 1862. Companies D and F charged across the creek, temporarily taking the enemy works and suffering over thirty casualties. Willie's father William was wounded in the battle, losing his right forefinger to the second joint, from a gun shot while charging the enemy. Two members of the regiment were later awarded Medals of Honor for actions during this battle.

After Yorktown Brooks' Vermont Brigade, as part of Smith's Division, was ferried up the York River to Eltham's Landing where they built a pontoon wharf and offloaded supplies as they chased the withdrawing Confederates.

On May 7 they supported Hancock's Brigade at the Battle of Williamsburg, only coming under stray fire. On May 18, Vermont Brigade was assigned to Franklin's VI Corps.

During his next campaign, the Seven Days Battles from June 25 to July 1, 1862, Johnston earned his medal.

On June 26 the Vermont Brigade worked all day and through the night to erect a redoubt at the crest of a wheat field near Garnett's Farm. The next day brought lots of artillery shelling as they came under fire from Magruder's Division. Smith responded with his artillery and directed another battery to fire on the east side of the Chickahominy in support of Porter's V Corps. This action at Garnett's Farm convinced McClellan that he was fighting Confederate troops on both sides of the Chickahominy, prompting him to order a general withdrawal toward the James River.

On June 28 they were at Golding's Farm when the division was ordered to the left to connect with Sumner's II Corps line where they were again severely shelled.

On the 29th Smith's Division moved to a point in front of Savage's Station to help cover the Union withdrawal. Realizing he was ahead of the main battle lines, and as the enemy formed in front, Smith ordered the division to fall back to the station. As the battle heated up the Vermont Brigade was thrown to the left. As the 3rd was forming up in the woods an approaching soldier called out "Who are you?" A soldier of the 3rd called out "Friends!" Another query, "Which regiment?" "Third Vermont!", came the reply. It turned out to be the 5th Louisiana and the rest of Semmes' Brigade, McLaws' Division. A heated fire ensued. The Vermonters eventually charged the enemy, driving them off, but suffering heavily, taking 439 casualties including General Brooks, who was wounded in the thigh.[7] Assuming each regiment fielded about 500 men, one in six were wounded or killed. And Willie was right in the middle of it.

That night, unable to move the wounded, Smith left his surgical staff to tend them and marched to positions south of White Oak Swamp bridge, holding the right flank during the Battle of Malvern Hill. Again they were under heavy artillery fire, this time from Stonewall Jackson's force on the north side of the swamp.

On July 1 Smith's Division was posted to positions on Turkey Creek, arriving at Harrison's Landing early in the morning of the second. Smith noted in his summary report that every march was made at night.

During that retreat many men threw away all their equipment so they would have less weight to carry. Johnston, however, retained his drum and brought it safely to Harrison's Landing. There, he had the honor of drumming for the division parade on July 4, he being the only drummer to bring his instrument off the battlefields. Neither General Smith, the division commander, nor General Brooks, the brigade commander, made any note of Willie's feat in their after-action reports.[8]

President Lincoln arrived by gunboat and was present for the parade of the entire Army of the Potomac conducted on July 8. It is suggested that Lincoln heard the story and wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, suggesting the youth be given a medal, but no evidence exists. In any case Stanton approved the award and Willie Johnston was presented his Medal of Honor on September 16, 1863, at the age of 13, for a deed performed when he was but 11 years and 11 months of age.[9] No official details of the reason for Willie's award survive, but the story is found in contemporary newspapers.[10]

This was the second Medal of Honor ever awarded. Secretary Stanton presented the actual award and Willie's file contains a signed receipt for the decoration.

Post-award service[edit]

After the campaign, Johnston served as a nurse in a hospital in Baltimore and was transferred to Company H, 20th Regiment of Veteran Reserve Corps, where he played in the regimental brass band as Drum Major. His carte de visite photograph must have been taken at this time as his cap insignia is from this unit.

Johnston re-enlisted, on the same day as his father, at Brandy Station, Va., on February 15, 1864. After some confusion as to which unit he'd reenlisted in (He'd intended to return to the 3rd Vermont, yet he was still on the rolls of the 20th VRC) he was mustered out of service on December 30, 1865.

Post-war years[edit]

Tracing Willie's life after the army has frustrated many researchers, but new information has come to light.

He evidently had an interest in making the military a career. In 1867 Johnston competed for a position at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but wasn't selected.[11] He then attended Norwich University in 1869 but is listed as a non-graduate.[12]

He moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, and on March 1, 1870, was married to Nellie Murphy.[13] They had five children, the eldest son being named William Henry Johnston, so it is supposed this was also his father's full name.[14]

The family lived at 65 Tremont Street, Charlestown, where he worked as a machinist, the same occupation as his father. Since this address is just outside the gates of the Boston Navy Yard, and Willie's father had stated that he was with the navy, this was probably his employer.

An article in the Boston Journal, repeated in the May 17, 1888, issue of The St. Johnsbury Republican, described someone finding Willie's Civil War drum, complete with silver plate inscribed with his name and description of his medal of honor action, "in an old house in Chelsea", leading people and newspapers to speculate on his whereabouts. It was at this time that his father traveled to St. Johnsbury and told locals that he was 'with the Navy.' By 1878 Willie had moved to 136 Chelsea Street in Charlestown, so there may have been a mixup by the reporter.

He 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.[15]

It has been reported that he died on September 16, 1941, at an unknown location, but the source has never been properly cited. His resting place is unknown.

Medal of Honor citation[edit]

Rank and organization: Musician, Company D, 3d Vermont Infantry. Place and date: Unknown. Entered service at: St. Johnsbury, Vt. Birth: Morristown, N.Y. Date of issue: 16 September 1863.


Date and place of act not on record in War Department.


Plaque in Johnston's honor
  • Wisler, G. Clifton. Mr. Lincoln's Drummer. 1995.
  • Peladeau, Marius B. Willie Went to War, Vermont Civil War Enterprises, 2005, first biography.
  • A statue to him was erected in Santa Clarita, California.[16]
  • At the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont there is some Civil War memorabilia on display. This includes Johnston's photograph and drumsticks. Johnston is featured in the museum's kit and as "Mr. Lincoln's Drummer."[17]

A plaque was placed in his honor at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia in June, 2012 by the Vermont Civil War Hemlocks. The plaque states: "At Harrison's Landing on July 4, 1862, Willie Johnston—age 11, 3rd Vermont Drummer Boy played for Div. review. For keeping his drum during the arduous 7 days battles, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by Sec. of War Stanton. He remains the youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor. His gravesite is unknown. Dedicated June 2012 The Vermont Civil War Hemlocks. (Harrison's Landing is located at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia.)

Historical note[edit]

Until the establishment of the Medal of Honor there was only one decoration presented in the United States Army - the original Purple Heart. However, since the Purple Heart had not been awarded since the Revolutionary War, and would not be used again until World War I, the Medal of Honor was effectively the only award available to U.S. military personnel at the time of the Civil War.

After the war the government ordered a review of medal awards and rescinded many, but Willie's was allowed to stand.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-11-04. Retrieved 2008-11-08.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ At the time, this was the only medal available besides the purple heart.
  3. ^ National Archives and Records Administration, 1850 Federal Census, File: M432, Roll 589, pg. 51
  4. ^ Theresa later stated she'd emigrated in 1859. Nat'l Archives and Records Administration, 1900 Federal Census, Film: T623, Roll 120, pg. 98
  5. ^ Civil War Pension, Cpl. Wm. B. H. Johnston, application #407,829
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-07-06. Retrieved 2008-11-08.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^ War Dept, United States. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. ; Series 1 - Volume 11 (Part II), Washington: Govt. Printing Office, 1884. Chapter 23, Brig. Gen. Paul Semmes' Report: pg. 723.
  8. ^ War Dept, United States. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. ; Series 1 - Volume 11 (Part II), Washington: Govt. Printing Office, 1884. Chapter 23, Smith's Report: pp 463-465, and Brooks': pp 476-477.
  9. ^ <Congressional Medal of Honor Case File 2503
  10. ^ St. Johnsbury, The Caledonian, 31 Oct 1863
  11. ^ St. Johnsbury, The Caledonian, 22 Feb 1867, pg. 3
  12. ^ Ellis, William Arba, Norwich University, 1819-1911: Her History, Her Graduates, Her Roll of Honor, pg. 655.
  13. ^ Massachusetts, Marriages, 1841-1915, Volume 227, Charlestown, Massachusetts, State Archives, Boston; LDS microfilm 1433028, p. 149, No. 54
  14. ^ Massachusetts, Births, 1841-1915, LDS microfilm 1428075, pg. 171
  15. ^ The Vermonter, Publisher: Charles Spooner Forbes, St. Albans, Vermont, Vol V, No. 1, 1899, pps 15-17
  16. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-05-12. Retrieved 2008-11-08.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  17. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-08-20. Retrieved 2008-11-08.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

External references[edit]

 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the United States Army Center of Military History.