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How “The Little Drummer Boy from New York” earned the Medal of Honor

The Medal of Honor is the highest award for bravery and valor that can be bestowed upon a member of the United States military. Modern military medals have lengthy citations that often vividly portray the sacrifice and heroism displayed by the recipients. At the Medal of Honor's inception during the Civil War, however, the curt citation often belied the extraordinary circumstances behind the award. One such citation is that of the Medal of Honor for Johann Christoph Julius Langbein:

"A drummer boy, 15 years of age, he voluntarily and under a heavy fire went to the aid of a wounded officer, procured medical assistance for him, and aided in carrying him to a place of safety."

J.C. Julius Langbein was born in Germany in 1845 but immigrated to the United States as a small child. He spent his young life in Brooklyn, New York, before joining in the fight between the Union and the Confederacy. At the age of 15—and with his parent's permission—Langbein enlisted with the Union Army's 9th New York Volunteers, also known as Hawkins' Zouaves, where he served as a drummer boy. He was young and small, with feminine features that earned him the nickname "Jennie" by the soldiers in his regiment. In January 1862 Langbein and his regiment joined General Ambrose Burnside's North Carolina Expedition.

A faded photograph of a boy in dark pants and a jacket. He holds a drum at his side and a pair of drumsticks in his other hand


A chestnut-colored drum with a pair of drumsticks

On April 19, 1862, during action at the Battle of Camden in North Carolina, Lieutenant Thomas L. Bartholomew was hit in the head by shrapnel. The officer, delirious from his wound, wandered dangerously between the lines of fire and collapsed. Langbein ran to his aid despite continued heavy enemy shelling and rifle fire, and managed to guide the officer to relative safety. He then dashed off to find help, only to be told by the regimental surgeon that the officer was too far gone to save. Langbein, however, was determined that the lieutenant would not be left behind to die. With the help of another soldier he brought the officer to a nearby home and then snuck him into the wagon of other wounded headed to the federal hospital on Roanoke Island. Because of Langbein's actions, the officer received the medical care that enabled him to recover, and the drummer boy was subsequently recommended for the Medal of Honor.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, but perhaps due to Langbein lying about his age to enlist, his Medal of Honor wasn't approved until January 7, 1895. In 1905 he applied to the Record and Pension Office of the Adjutant General's Office and finally received his Medal of Honor based on his actions at the Battle of Camden more than 40 years before.

A medal with a light blue ribbon with stars, a golden eagle, and a five-point star with a woman in profile

Because of the delay, Langbein's medal is the 1904 army pattern, the third design of the army medal since its introduction in 1862. Each branch—army, navy and air force (after 1956)—has a distinct design for the Medal of Honor it bestows on recipients from their branch of service. Marines receive the navy medal, as does the coast guard. According to the Congressional resolution that created it, the medal was intended to recognize "such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other soldier-like qualities during the present insurrection."

The cover of a booklet or publication. There is a drawing of a medal in the middle and text above and below. There is a border with flourishes in the corners.

Langbein left the regiment in 1863 and returned to his home in New York City. He took up the uniform again in 1869, this time as an infantry officer with the New York National Guard, where he rose to the rank of captain. Returning to civilian life once again, Langbein became a lawyer and then judge in the state of New York. In 1905 he was elected commander of the Medal of Honor Legion. The Medal of Honor Legion was created on April 23, 1890, in Washington, D.C., and was composed of officers and enlisted men of the Union Army who were awarded Medals of Honor during the Civil War. Of the Medal of Honor Legion members, 1,500 were awarded Army Medals of Honor, and 600 were awarded Navy Medals of Honor. Sixty-nine of the 600 were awarded medals from their service in the Spanish-American War. The Medal of Honor Legion disbanded in 1918, eight years after the death of J.C. Julius Langbein, the 15-year-old drummer boy awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery and valor on a Civil War battlefield.

Kathleen Golden is an associate curator in the Division of Armed Forces History, whose collections hold approximately 24 Medals of Honor, from the Civil War to Vietnam. One of our newest acquisitions is the Medal of Honor of William Thomas Perkins Jr., a marine combat cameraman killed in action on October 12, 1967, during Operation Medina.