b. 05/07/1850 Morristown, New York. d. 16/09/1941 (unconfirmed)
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 05/07/1862 Seven Day Battle & on the Peninsula Campaign, Virginia.
Johnston was born in Morristown, New York, in July 1850, a son of Eliza and William B. H. Johnston, both natives of England. His mother died while he was young and the family had moved to Montreal, Canada, by 1853 where his father, a civil engineer, married Thérèse E. Martin at Montreal’s St. George Anglican Church. The Johnston family moved to Salem, Vermont (now part of Derby) in 1858, where William Johnston either purchased or rented a farm. In the 1860 federal census, William Johnston gave his occupation as innkeeper, with the inn he operated probably being located in nearby Coventry.
Johnston’s father enlisted in the 3rd Vermont Infantry in June 1861 and the regiment mustered at St. Johnsbury on July 16. Willie Johnston was formally enlisted in Company D as a drummer on December 11, 1861, but was originally denied pay, because the regiment’s officers thought he was too young. In June 1862, he was approved to receive pay, which was backdated to his December 1861 enlistment. The regiment’s rolls at the time of his enlistment list him as 11 years old and five feet tall. His father was a member of Company B, attained the rank of corporal, and served in the regimental color guard.
The 3rd Vermont was assigned to Brooks’ 1st Vermont Brigade, Smith’s 2nd Division, Keyes’ IV Corps, for McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign.
The regiment served throughout the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia, including the Seven Days Battles of June 25 to July 1, 1862. These battles resulted in a victory for the Confederates, and on July 1, 1862, Smith’s division was posted to positions on Turkey Creek in Charles City County when it began its nighttime withdrawal. During the retreat, many men threw away all their equipment so they would have less weight to carry and could move more quickly, but Johnston kept his drum. The division arrived at Harrison’s Landing early on the morning of July 2, with Johnston having brought his drum the whole way. At Harrison’s Landing, he had the honor of drumming for the division parade on July 4, since he was the only drummer in the division who had brought his instrument off the battlefield.
After the Peninsula campaign, Johnston was reported as having been wounded, and was transferred to the Invalid Corps. He served as an attendant at West’s Buildings Hospital in Baltimore while assigned to Company 60, 1st Battalion, Invalid Corps, which was later reorganized as Company H, 20th Regiment, Veteran Reserve Corps. While assigned to the VRC, Johnston played in the hospital’s band and was appointed as a drum major. Despite some bureaucratic issues with his documentation, Johnston is known to have re-enlisted in the 3rd Vermont at Brandy Station, Virginia, on February 15, 1864. He was mustered out of the service on August 31, 1865.
It is believed he received his Medal from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on September 16, 1863. In 1916, the Department of War appointed a panel to review awards of the Medal of Honor and determine whether any should be revoked for failing to meet the eligibility criteria. The board reviewed the files on 2,625 awards, including 1,517 presented for action during the Civil War. 911 Medal of Honor awards were revoked, but Johnston’s was allowed to stand.
In July 1899, Johnston was listed as among the attendees at a Medal of Honor Legion reunion in Burlington, Vermont. His hometown was not noted in the magazine or newspaper articles about the event. He was also known to be alive in 1917 or after, because even though he never applied for the veteran’s pension to which he was entitled, or the monthly bonus he was eligible for as a Medal of Honor recipient, his War Department personnel file indicates that in 1917 or perhaps at a later date, he applied for award of the Civil War Campaign Medal, which in 1913 became available to Union Army veterans who applied to receive it. The exact date, his address, and other details are not included in the file.
Some sources indicate that Johnston died at an unknown location on September 16, 1941. However, a valid reference for this information has not been found. Johnston’s burial location is unknown, and attempts to locate it have proved unsuccessful. In June, 2012, a plaque honoring Johnston was placed at Berkeley Plantation, Virginia (Harrison’s Landing) by the Vermont Civil War Hemlocks living history organization.
Gallantry in Seven Day Battle and Peninsula campaign.
BURIAL LOCATION: UNKNOWN.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: UNKNOWN.