Olentangy Valley News

History today

Young soldier soaks in Civil War knowledge on battlefield

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Liberty Middle School student Payton Seats plays his fiddle as he portrays Civil War soldier Johnny Clem.
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Wednesday May 22, 2013 11:20 AM

An Olentangy Liberty Middle School student has an interesting story about how he became a Civil War re-enactor at many events in Ohio.

At age 8, Payton Seats began learning about his family history and the Civil War from his grandfather. By accident, a year later, Payton saw a group of men stopped along South Liberty Street near the Powell library, and he engaged in conversation with them. They were from the General Rosecrans Headquarters of the Army of Ohio, located in Sunbury. Payton learned then what a re-enactor is. They were impressed with this young man and invited him to join them.

The invitation inspired Payton to do research about Johnny Clem, a boy from Newark, Ohio, who joined the Union Army when he was 9 years old. Here was the perfect opportunity for Payton to portray a boy his own age. There is not much official military information about young Johnny Clem, so Payton had to sort out what is truth and what is legend. He found material from family, friends and neighbors and used primary-source articles to create his first-person presentation of Clem, who has been called the "Boy Soldier."

Clem became an influential figure in American history, Payton says. He is happy to talk about Clem's service in the Civil War with visitors at the events in which he participates. When Payton was younger, during down time at re-enactments, he occupied himself with toys he collected from the 1860s. Using his toy collection, he has prepared another presentation.

Planning for the future -- that is, in another year or so -- Payton will "retire" from his Johnny Clem role. This is appropriate, since Clem was discharged from the military at age 14. Knowing he would outgrow the role, Payton created a Civil War telegraph presentation. His dad helped him set up some telegraph poles to operate with equipment he purchased online so he can discuss how technology influenced the outcome of the Civil War. Payton's research shows Clem fought in many battles that were influenced by this invention.

Young Clem was a drummer. You can see a statue of him with his drums at Veterans Park in Newark. Payton not only plays the drums but also the catpaws (spoons) and the fiddle. He was thrilled when he was given the German-made fiddle that had belonged to his fifth great-grandfather from West Virginia, who lived during the time of the Civil War.

Payton was told several reasons why rattlesnake tails were inside the fiddle: to keep the devil away; to make the music sound sweeter; to make sure you don't play too hard; and to keep out the mice!

Our young Liberty Township resident is a member of the Sons of Union Veterans because he has lineage to ancestors from West Virginia and Missouri. He is also a member of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery Battery A, a unit formed at the Ohio Statehouse. They provide care and education for the 12-pound Napoleons and six-pounder cannon on the grounds of the Statehouse, and they promote the history of the Statehouse at events in Ohio and also at national Civil War events.

Payton has learned a lot during Civil War encampments. Imagine being with an older generation of folks where he can listen to informed discussions of battles. He absorbs a lot of history at these encampments. He enjoys this rare opportunity to step back in time to a significant period in America.

Payton was fortunate his grandfather was an avid reader. At a young age, Payton learned about Doris Kearns Goodwin's A Team of Rivals and watched Gettysburg and Gods and Generals with his grandfather. He was only 8 years old when his grandfather died.

You can meet "Johnny Clem" at 3:45 p.m. Saturday, May 25, at Ohio Village's Town Hall at the Ohio Historical Society, 800 E. 17th Ave., Columbus. Programs begin at 10:30 a.m.

At Payton's website, paytonseats.weebly.com, you can find Johnny Clem's other appearances before he retires.

Carole Wilhelm is a member of the Powell-Liberty Historical Society.

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