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Medal of Honor Monday: 11-Year-Old Willie Johnston

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Coming in first in the spelling bee or your school’s science fair is a big deal when you’re 11. So imagine earning the Medal of Honor at that young age.

Willie Johnston was a drummer during the Civil War, and he did just that.

Young boy wearing Union Army uniform holds drum, circa 1861
Willie Johnston
A young Willie Johnston in his Union Army uniform with his drum.
Photo By: DOD courtesy photo
VIRIN: 610601-O-ZZ999-605

Nowadays, there’s no way you could get away with joining up at age 11. But things were different in the late 1800s.

Willie’s father enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 when they were living in Vermont. Willie didn’t want to leave his father, so he begged to join with him. Somehow the commanding officer agreed, so off Willie went to join the other Army musicians in D Company of the 3rd Vermont Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

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.

Map of the Richmond, Virginia, area during July 1862
War Map
This map shows the route used by the retreating Union Army forces to march from Malvern Hill to Harrison's Landing around Richmond, Va., July 2, 1862.
Photo By: Library of Congress photo
VIRIN: 181128-O-ZZ999-695

As the Union soldiers fled, many of them dropped their weapons and other equipment to lighten their loads as they retreated. This included the musicians.

When the troops finally got to safety, Willie was the only drummer in his division to get back with his drum in tow. As the men regrouped, Willie was recognized for that and was asked to play his drum for the whole division.

When President Abraham Lincoln heard about Willie’s bravery, he recommended the boy for the Medal of Honor, which had been created around the time of the Seven Days Battles.

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.

Pretty cool, right? After all, what were you doing when you were 11?

This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.

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