Torrents of rain turned the Virginia countryside outside Richmond into a formless swamp following the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862. But the Union soldiers, exhausted from days of combat, had one more fight to face—marching from fields and woods where so much bloodshed had occurred to the safety of the base at Harrison’s Landing along the James River.
Those who made that roughly dozen mile trek remembered it as a low point of their service. Wagons and caissons made the roads impassable, leaving weary soldiers to endure a miserable march, many scarcely able to place one muddied boot in front of the other. To lighten the load, they dropped muskets, backpacks and other equipment into their watery wake.
In the Vermont Brigade, officers and men suffered along with tens of thousands of other Northern men. Their number included a father and son in the 3rd Infantry. The father, William H.B. Johnston, an English immigrant in his early 40s, served as a private. His son, 11-year-old Willie, had enlisted as a drummer.
They survived the ordeal and arrived at the Landing with the rest of the battered Army of the Potomac. Its commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, sensitive to the sacrifices and sagging morale of his soldiers, ordered a rousing martial review for the Fourth of July.
There was only one problem with the plan: music. In the desperate march to Harrison’s Landing, drums were left sinking in the ooze or lost to temporary storage in the wagon train. In the division to which the Vermont Brigade belonged, none of the estimated 130 drummers had instruments to play.
That is, except Willie Johnston.
Somehow Johnston managed to hold on to his drum and sticks. An unsourced letter attributed to an eyewitness told the rest of the story: “The review in the afternoon was quite a success. The men looked well, their clothes a little shabby, but altogether soldierly and businesslike.” The writer added, “Instead of the usual competing noise of the various drum corps, our little Willie made the music for our marching.”
The sound of that single, powerful drumbeat reverberated through the ranks. It carried all the way to the War Department in Washington, D.C., where Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton presented the young Johnston with the Medal of Honor for gallantry on Sept. 16, 1863. Thirteen at the time, he remains to this day the youngest U.S. soldier to receive the honor.
A few months later, on Feb. 3, 1864, Johnston visited the offices of his hometown newspaper, The Caledonian, in St. Johnsbury, Vt. “He proudly but modestly pointed to the medal on his breast.” The report added, “He is a smart, active boy, and would make a good soldier.”
In poor health, he spent rest of the war in Baltimore as a bandsman in the 20th Veteran Reserve Corps. Details of his remaining years are largely unknown. His death date and burial place is a mystery.
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