The Richmond Register

November 12, 2013

15-year-old Kentucky drummer won Medal of Honor during Civil War

By Paul Foote
Register Columnist

RICHMOND — William H. Horsfall won the Medal of Honor when he was just 15 years old. He is one of the youngest people ever given this honor.

Horsfall was born on March 3, 1847 in Newport. He ran away from home at age 14 and joined the Union army as a drummer.

From his personal account in the Campbell County Historical Society archives, Horsfall described how he “left home without money or a warning to (his) parents” and “stealthily boarded the steamer, Annie Laurie, moored at the Cincinnati Wharf at Newport (on) the 20th of December 1861.”

The stowaway remained hidden “until the boat was well under way.”

When Horsfall was discovered, he said he was an orphan and was allowed to remain on board. At the time of his enlistment, he stood 4-foot-3 and listed his occupation as “schoolboy.”

When he reached the age of 15, Horsfall joined Company G, First Regiment of Kentucky Volunteers. 

During the Siege of Corinth on May 21, 1862, Horsfall, who then described himself as “an independent sharpshooter,” recounted how a Union captain was wounded in “a desperate charge across (a) ravine,” and left between the battle lines.

He was told that Capt. Williamson needed to be rescued if at all possible.

As Horsfall described it, “So I placed my gun against a tree and, in a stooping run, gained his side and dragged him to the stretcher bearers, who took him to the rear.”

He saved the life of his wounded commanding officer and subsequently won the Medal of Honor for his actions that day.

The “schoolboy” continued to take part in marches with his regiment for the remainder of 1862.

During the charge at Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tenn., Horsfall was surrounded by hostile infantry, but the Confederates “took pity on his youth,” enabling him “to run for his life,” he later wrote.

In 1863, Horsfall became so ill he had to be hospitalized. During the next three years, he re-enlisted before receiving a $400 bounty upon his final discharge in 1866.

After the war, Horsfall tried to join a volunteer fire department in northern Kentucky, “but he was turned away because he was too young.”

Instead, he commanded the William Nelson Post, Grand Army of the Republic, in Newport and published several songs and war poems. By the age of 46, his rheumatism and heart disease had become so bad that he required a live-in caretaker.

For courage in the face of the enemy, Horsfall was awarded his first Medal of Honor on August 17, 1895. A second medal was presented for the same citation in 1904 when the design was changed.

He died at age 75 in 1922. Today, a rare historical marker stands near his grave in Evergreen Cemetery in Southgate.