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Who is the youngest recipient of the U.S. Medal of Honor?

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William H. "Willie" Johnston (12 July 1850 – 16 September 1941) is one of 1,523 recipients who received the U.S. Medal of Honor during the American Civil War. Willie's story is unique not because of how many battles that he might have fought alongside generals and soldiers on the battlefield but in spite of his young age and his noteworthy service as a drummer boy during the Seven Days Battles in the Peninsula Campaign which apparently caught the attention of the President.

Willie Johnston was born to English immigrants who settled in New York state in the 1840s. His mother Eliza died shortly after his birth. His father, William B.H. Johnston, moved the family to Montreal, Canada, by 1853 where he remarried, and then moved to Salem (now Derby) in northern Vermont by 1859. Willie's father enlisted in the Union Army's 3rd Vermont Volunteer Infantry Regiment in June 1861 and Willie, at the age of 11 – not wanting to be left behind – pleaded with his father to join with him. It appears that he followed his father at Camp Griffin, outside Washington, and eventually received approval for formal enlistment as a drummer on 11 December 1861 in Company D of the same regiment as his father, who was serving as a corporal in the regimental color guard.

It was between 25 June and 1 July 1862 – dates known as the Seven Days Battles which featured six different battles along the Virginia Peninsula east of Richmond – that Willie earned his Medal of Honor. As reported in the Rutland Weekly Herald (Vermont) of 5 November 1863, "Willie Johnston, aged thirteen years, a drummer boy in Company D, 3d Vermont Regiment, has received a medal for his heroic conduct in the seven days fight before Richmond. On the retreat when strong men threw away their guns, knapsacks and blankets that might have less weight to carry, this little fellow kept his drum and brought it safely to Harrison's Landing, where he had the honor of drumming for division parade, he being the only drummer who brought his drum from the field. Upon these facts being reported to the War Department by the division commander, Willie was presented with the Star Medal of Honor, by Secretary Stanton in person." There is an unconfirmed story that says that when President Abraham Lincoln heard about his heroic conduct, he recommended the boy for the U.S. Army Medal of Honor which he created on 12 July 1862. Notwithstanding this story, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869) did indeed personally make the presentation to Willie on 16 September 1863.

While it is acknowledged that Willie Johnston died at the age of 91, the location of his burial place is unknown. There are however three commemorative monuments that have been erected in honor of America's youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor. The first is the 'Willie Johnston' bronze statue that was commissioned by the City of Santa Clarita in 2005 and designed by artist Mark Henn from Dayton, Ohio. The second monument is a flat 'memorial stone' placed at Harrison's Landing on Berkeley Plantation, Virginia where he was stationed after the Seven Days' Battles and the site where Taps was written by General Daniel Butterfield in 1862. This monument was dedicated on 24 June 2012 by the Vermont Civil War Hemlocks at 150th anniversary commemorations of the Seven Days Battles and the first playing of Taps.

The third monument is a three-foot-tall gray granite stele that includes engravings of Johnston with his drum, a depiction of the Medal of Honor and text recounting his story. After two years of fundraising by local residents, the 'Willy Johnston Monument' was unveiled on 28 September 2019 in the presence of more than seventy people at the Veteran's Memorial Park located in Derby, Vermont. The Johnston family lived at nearby Salem which was later annexed to Derby in 1881. Shown in the photograph are some of the Civil War re-enactors that were present at the dedication ceremony. Standing behind the Monument are three couples donning period clothing or uniform worn during the Civil War: on the left are Captain Jim Hunt of the 123rd New York State Volunteers and his wife Darlene; in the middle are Captain Pat Dolan of the New York State 3rd Light Artillery and his wife Deb; and on the right are 1st Sergeant Gary Eckert, also with the 123rd New York State Volunteers, and his wife Jeannette.

On this day, 16 September 2022, we commemorate the 161st anniversary of the presentation of the U.S. Medal of Honor to Willie Johnston – at age 13, the youngest person to have earned the nation's highest military honor – and mark the 3rd anniversary of the unveiling of a monument in his honor at his hometown of Derby, Vermont.

André M. Levesque

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