DERBY — On Saturday, Sept. 28, drummer boy Willie Johnston of Derby, at 13 years old the youngest to ever receive the Medal of Honor, will be honored with a permanent monument in Derby’s Veterans Memorial Park.
The monument will stand with others honoring the dead of other wars in a ring around Derby’s historic Civil War Monument. Raised in 1866, this monument is considered the first in the U.S. to be dedicated to those who fought and died in the Civil War.
The dedication of the Willie Johnston Memorial is 1:30 p.m. at the park on Route 5, north of Derby Center.
Johnston grew up in Salem, Vt. He followed his father to war with the Union army at age 11.
Johnston was the only drummer of 130 in his division of the 3rd Vermont infantry to keep his drum during the Seven Days Retreat in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862, when most of the troops dropped their weapons and other gear in the retreat. He was asked to play his drum to help the Union Army revive its spirits after that defeat.
As the story goes, President Lincoln recommended the boy for the Medal of Honor. Union War Secretary Edwin Stanton presented the medal to Johnston on Sept. 16, 1863, making him the youngest to earn it.
Vietnam War veteran Colin Carter of Derby Line has made it his mission to recognize Willie Johnston with a monument in his honor. It’s taken a few years and help from the town of Derby to make that happen.
Johnston and his story is told in detail in the book “Willie Went To War” by Marius B. Peladeau with research from well-known local Civil War historian and author Tony O’Connor.
One of the interesting side stories is that Willie and his family lived in a town that no longer exists. Salem town was originally located next to the town of Derby, and was annexed by Derby in March 1881.
Willie Johnston was born in Morristown, N.Y., in 1850 and moved to Salem by way of Montreal, Quebec, according to Carter.
His work in the war earned him a plaque at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia in June 2012 by the Vermont Civil War Hemlocks which 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 grave site is unknown. Dedicated June 2012 The Vermont Civil War Hemlocks.”
The Seven Days Battle in 1862 was the bloodiest week in American history with more than 34,000 casualties (19,000 Confederate and 15,000 Union).