Give Me A Beat: The Life and Legacy of George Johnson

Another interesting story from the files of Maple Grove Cemetery.  This is the story of George Johnson, sometimes called the “Drummer Boy of Shiloh.”

Not much is known about his early years.  He was born in 1844.

He was a member of the Garfield Post and served as a drummer boy at The Fort Pillow Massacre, which occurred on April 12, 1864, in Tennessee.  It took just a few minutes for the 1,500 confederate troops to lay waste to around 500 men including 200 African American soldiers and almost 300 Tennessee cavalrymen

Ft. Pillow Massacre
Courtesy: Library of Congress

After his service as a drummer, he became an artilleryman.  A long battle record is the result.

Ft. Pillow Massacre
Courtesy: Library of Congress

It’s important to note that the identity of the “Drummer of Shiloh” is in question.  According to legend, a brave young drummer is said to have fought alongside his general during the battle of Shiloh. It is believed that Ulysses S. Grant himself acknowledged the boy’s courage and urged others to follow his lead. Other versions of the story claim that the boy was wounded by an artillery shell that hit his drum. Over time, this legend gained popularity through a folk song and play.

Drummer Boy of Shiloh
Courtesy: Duke Library

Several men claimed to be the drummer. Historians at the Shiloh National Military Park identify the drummer boy as John Clem.

Fort Pillow State Park, 2006
Courtesy: Hal Jespersen

Wichita’s Drummer Johnson was originally from Kentucky, but came to Wichita from Watonga, OK.

He lived at 961 N. Mead for 7 years in Wichita.

On February 1, 1910, the Wichita Eagle ran a story about Mr. Johnson, who had been poisoned by his wife and lost all his teeth. Johnson said his troubles began when he married a woman he had never met before, whom he had selected through a mail-order service.

East Douglas 1910

According to Johnson, his wife soon grew tired of him and wanted to leave him for another man, but she couldn’t figure out how to get rid of him. In the end, she resorted to poisoning him with carbolic acid, which she mixed into a batch of corned beef hash. However, instead of killing him, the poison only affected Johnson’s gums, causing him to lose all his teeth.

Ice Wagon, 1910

Desperate for help, Johnson began circulating a petition at the Sedgwick County Courthouse, seeking donations to pay for a new set of false teeth. Eventually, he managed to raise enough money from his fellow veterans to pay for the dental work.

Frisco Depot , 1910

He told the Eagle, he would never marry sight unseen again, and he would insist on letters of recommendation from any prospective partners.

He died in October 1916.  According to The Wichita Beacon, he died early on the 16th when he was hit by a car on his way to church.  He was 75 years old.

Upon his death, Police Lieutenant W.A. Bettis told the Eagle, “He had all the patriotism of an old soldier twice over… Straight and courteous, he made a fine old figure, and his love for the Stars and Stripes was impressive.  He could not pass a flag without saluting.”

Mr. Johnson is buried at Maple Grove Cemetery.

To learn other interesting stories from Wichita’s history. Check out IC in the ICT.

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