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Bittinger: Memorial Day

05/28/10 7:55AM By Cyndy Bittinger
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(HOST) This Memorial Day, commentator Cyndy Bittinger will be thinking about the Medal of Honor and a Civil War drummer from Vermont.

(BITTINGER) Last month, the Governor of Virginia declared Confederate History Month in his state with no mention of slavery in his proclamation. He also didn't mention the youngest Medal of Honor recipient ever who received his medal for bravery in Virginia.  Willie Johnston of Salem, Vermont was that ?-year-old boy and his history should not be forgotten.

William B. Johnston and his son, Willie, enlisted to serve in the Union Army.  They signed up in the winter of 1861 and the towns of Salem and Derby would contribute 166 men to the war effort.  Families were reluctant to give up their fathers and sons who were needed on the farm and probably had never traveled more than 20 miles from home, but the men would have agreed with what this Vermont soldier wrote to his brother, "When this great national crisis came - when I felt that I must go to my country's rescue, among my first thoughts were we would go together, side by side, and if needs be die in each other's defense.  Would it not be much easier to die in the arms of one we loved?  Would not the death struggle be mitigated if we felt a heart near our own that shared all our joy and sorrows?"

So Willie joined his father at Camp Griffin in Langley, Virginia across the river from the Union's capital.  Father and son drilled in the color guard with the Vermont 3rd brigade.  Willie mastered his drum instruction while steeped in mud, damp cold and dense fog. Disease, especially measles, ravaged the men and boys. In March, the brigade moved to Alexandria, then down the Potomac to Hampton, Virginia.  Their advance to Lee's Mill to attack the Confederates ended with retreat and injury to Willie's father.  Then they joined the 6th corps to fight in the Seven Days battle beginning on June 25th with a goal of reaching Richmond, the confederate capitol.  They again retreated, this time to Harrison's Landing.  As a soldier recalled, the march "was the saddest and weariest in the history of the Vermont brigade. The rain poured in torrents; the wagons and artillery had poached the roads into canals of mud; the stouter men could hardly drag one foot after another; the weaker fell out by the hundreds, some to die of exhaustion, and others to join the long caravan of stragglers."

Yet on July 4th, General McClellan wanted to rouse the men with marital music.  He looked at the 130 drummers in the field, but only one still had his drum intact.  Willie Johnston stood at the front of the entire division to play for the review since he was the only one to still have his drum. His beat set the march for the day.  Word of his tenacity was sent up the ranks and when Willie was in Baltimore in 1863, he was called to the War Department.  There, the Secretary of War, Edwin McMaster Stanton, pinned the 7th Medal of Honor on young Willie.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Cyndy Bittinger on-line at VPR-dot-net.
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