SIDNEY — Through the person of 16-year-old Payton L. Seats, those attending Sidney, Ohio’s Civil War Living History Weekend will be introduced to Johnny Clem, an Ohio native who gained fame as a drummer boy for the Union Army during the Civil War. Seats, who will be a junior at Olentangy-Liberty High School this fall, has been active in historical reenactments since he was eight years old.
Seats began reenacting with a first person portrayal of Johnny Clem. When he grew older, Seats began doing third-person portrayals of the Ohioan who first became famous as Johnny Shiloh and later in the war as the Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.
John Joseph Klem was born in Newark, Ohio on Aug. 13, 1851. He ran away from home in 1861 when his mother was killed in a train accident. He first attempted to join the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, but was rejected because of his small stature and his age, and was sent home.
He then traveled to Cincinnati and attempted to join the 22nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry. They too, rejected him. Clem refused to leave camp, and eventually, he was “adopted” as a mascot and then as their drummer boy. The officers contributed to the $13 per month pay he would have received had he been old enough to enlist.
Clem had a number of close calls during the war, was wounded twice, and eventually became old enough to enlist. Clem eventually changed his name to John Lincoln Clem.
Clem remained in the Army, serving in the Spanish-American War. When he reached the mandatory retirement age of 64 in 1915, he was the last Civil War veteran still serving in the Army. On Aug. 13, 1915, he was promoted to brigadier general and retired. Just one year later, he was promoted to major general.
Seats was born and spent his early years in West Virginia, a state he is proud to point out, was “born during the Civil War.” He fell in love with history in part because of his grandfather’s influence.
“History has always been a major part of my life,” Seats said. “I used to sit with my grandfather and watch historical television shows and movies, and together we would read history books.
“When I speak, people ask me why it is important to learn about history,” Seats said. “History is a collection of stories and those stories help to guide us from the past to the present and on into the future. The stories are all interwoven – to know one it helps to know more of them. Without history and knowledge of the past, we can’t make change in the present and there’ll be no progress in the future.”
Seats enjoys rock climbing, cycling, mountain biking, and kayaking. In school, he participates in the Liberty Theatre Workshop, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Computer Aided Design Club. A member of the Sons of Union Veterans, he reenacts with Battery A, 1st Ohio Light Artillery and the 30th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
Seats was returning from a Civil War event some years ago when he saw a group of uniformed re-enactors at the library, and convinced his parents to stop so that he could talk with them. After he spoke with them for a few minutes, they invited him to join them. He first joined the Rosecrans Headquarters Unit as a drummer boy, then developed his Johnny Clem presentation.
After he “outgrew” the portrayal of Johnny Clem, he developed presentations on the use of the telegraph in the Civil War, the life of a Civil War soldier, how West Virginia became the 35th state, the Irish in the Civil War, and Civil War era toys. He still speaks frequently about Johnny Clem through a third person narrative.
“I’ve known Payton since he began portraying Johnny Clem in the first person,” Elizabeth Topping said.
Topping is a member of the committee planning Sidney, Ohio’s Civil War Living History Weekend. Topping recommended that Seats be included as one of the speakers for the event.
“I’ve had the opportunity to watch him on several occasions and in fact, we were in the same reenacting unit some years ago. He knows more about Johnny Clem than anybody else I know,” Topping stated, “and does an outstanding job talking about this larger than life historical figure.”
Seats’ presentation on Johnny Clem is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 17, at noon. His appearance and other educational programs offered during the event will be held in a tent located at Kaiser Dell in Tawawa Park.
Although no Civil War battles were fought anywhere near Sidney, a considerable number of local men served in the Union Army during the Civil War. In fact, the 1860 Census records that Shelby County had a population of 17,493. Of that number 8960 were male, and a staggering 14 percent of them served in the Army during the war. Of those, 25.58 percent (326) died in the service of their country.
The Civil War Living History Weekend is slated to be held in Tawawa Park Sept. 17-18. The two-day event will include skirmishing between Confederate and Union troops, major battles fought both days, a number of educational presentations, a band concert Saturday evening, and church services Sunday morning. The event is being co-sponsored by the Shelby County Historical Society and the city of Sidney.