Link to eXplorations Menu Link to Children and the Civil War Menu Link to Southern Homefront Link to Northern Homefront Link to Near the Battlefront Link to Conditions in Contraband Camps Link to Family Reunions Link to Lincoln's Assassination Link to the War's Legacy Link to Teacher Resources

Child Soldiers

Unlike later wars in American history, young people were involved in all aspects of the Civil War, including fighting on the battlefield. William Black, the youngest wounded soldier, was twelve when his left hand and arm were shattered by an exploding shell. An unknown number of soldiers—probably around five percent—were under eighteen, and some were as young as ten. Other boys and girls served as scouts or nurses for the wounded. Yet even those who did not participate in the war itself saw their lives altered by the conflict. During wartime, young people had to grow up quickly, assuming the responsibilities of absent relatives.


In 1861, President Lincoln announced that boys under eighteen could enlist only with their parents’ consent. The next year, he prohibited any enlistment of those under eighteen. But heavy casualties led recruiting officers to look the other way when underaged boys tried to enlist, and thousands participated in the conflict as drummers, messengers, hospital orderlies, and often as fully fledged soldiers. They carried canteens, bandages, and stretchers, and assisted surgeons and nurses. Many young soldiers signed up as drummers, who relayed officers’ commands, signaling reveille, roll call, company drill, and taps. In the heat of battle, many carried orders or assisted with the wounded; at least a few picked up rifles and participated in the fighting.

Their motives for enlisting varied, including patriotism and a desire to escape the boring routine of farm life or an abusive family. A few were jealous of older brothers, and some young Northerners were eager to rid the country of slavery. For some young Confederates, there was a desire to repel northern invaders from their soil. One southern boy made his feelings clear with words colored by irony: “I reather die then be com a Slave to the North.”

Elisha Stockwell of Alma, Wisconsin, was fifteen years old when he enlisted.

We heard there was going to be a war meeting at our little log school house. I went to the meeting when they called for volunteers, Harrison Maxon (21), Edgar Houghton (16), and myself, put our names down…. My father was there and objected to my going, so they scratched my name out, which humiliated me somewhat. My sister gave me a severe calling down…for exposing my ignorance before the public, and called me a little snotty boy, which raised my anger. I told her, ‘Never mind, I’ll go and show you that am not the little boy you think I am.’

The Captain got me in by lying a little, as I told the recruiting officer I didn’t know just how old I was but thought I was eighteen. He didn’t measure my height, but called me five feet five inches high. I wasn’t that tall two years later when I re-enlisted, but they let it go, so the records show that as my height.

I told her [his sister] I had to go down town. She said, “Hurry back, for dinner will soon be ready.” But I didn’t get back for two years.

Elisha Stockwell, quoted in Jim Murphy, The Boys’ War, 13, 14


The Union Army was unprepared for a major war, as some young soldiers quickly discovered.

There was considerable delay in issuing us clothing and equipment. It was not until the second week of [1861] that we were issued wooden guns, wooden swords and cornstalks with which to drill and mount guard. We went to parade in our shirts, still not being fully uniformed.

Thomas Galwey of the Eighth Ohio Regiment, quoted in Emmy E. Werner, Reluctant Witnesses, 12


Excitement over enlistment swiftly gave way to the boring routines of camp life and marches.

Day after day and night after night did we tramp along the rough and dusty roads ‘neath the most broiling sun with which the month of August ever afflicted a soldier; thro’ rivers and their rocky valleys, over mountains—on, on, scarcely stopping to gather the green corn from the fields to serve us for rations…. During these marches the men are sometimes unrecognizable on account of the thick coverings of dust which settle upon their hair, eye-brows and beard, filling likewise the mouth, nose, eyes, and ears.

Sixteen-year-old Confederate soldier John Delhaney, quoted in Murphy, The Boys’ War, 27


Young soldiers’ romantic illusions about military glory evaporated under the harsh realities of combat. They suffered hunger, fatigue, and discomfort, and gradually lost their innocence in combat. Every aspect of soldiering comes alive in their letters and diaries: the stench of spoiled meat, the deafening sound of cannons, the sight of maimed bodies, and the randomness and anonymity of death.

As we lay there and the shells were flying over us, my thoughts went back to my home, and I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away to get into such a mess I was in. I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me.

Elisha Stockwell after the battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in 1862. Quoted in Murphy, The Boys’ War, 33

The rains have uncovered many of the shallow graves. Bony knees, long toes, and grinning skulls are to be seen in all directions. In one place I saw a man’s boot protruding from the grave…leaving the skeleton’s toes pointing to a land where there is no war.

Thomas Galwey, quoted in Werner, Reluctant Witnesses, 17

I passed . . . the corpse of a beautiful boy in gray who lay with his blond curls scattered about his face and his hand folded peacefully across his breast. He was clad in a bright and neat uniform, well garnished with gold, which seemed to tell the story of a loving mother and sisters who had sent their household pet to the field of war. His neat little hat lying beside him bore the number of a Georgia regiment .... He was about my age .... At the sight of the poor boy's corpse, I burst into a regular boo hoo and started on.

John A. Cockerill, 16, Union regimental musician, at Pittsburg Landing, Mississippi, April 1862,
quoted in Emmy E. Werner, Reluctant Witnesses, 25

. . . I was certainly scared. One shell had exploded near enough so that I could realize its effects, and the one thing I wanted was to get where no more shells could burst around me. This patriotic hero who had declared in front of campfires how he had longed for gore
would have liked to be tucked up once more in his lit¬tle trundle bed. Bomb ague is a real disease and I had caught it.

There was no question of getting back to the reg¬iment .... I could see that my division was preparing to march, and while I did not actually run I certainly walked fast to get to it. It is curious how little annoy¬ances will keep themselves prominent even in time of danger. I had on thick woolen drawers which had somehow broken from the fastening that held them up. It was a warm day and as I hurried up the hill those drawers kept slipping down till they drove me almost distracted, disturbing my equanimity more than the danger did.

Charles W. Bardeen, a fifteen year old drummer boy with the First Massachusetts Regiment,
at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December, 1862, A Little Fifer's War Diary, 107

Dear Mother,
My first battle is over and I saw nearly all of it…. Saturday the hardest fighting was done. I saw the Irish Brigade make three charges. They started with full ranks, and I saw them, in less time than it takes to write this, exposed to a galling fire of shot and shell and almost decimated…. I saw wounded men brought in by the hundred and dead men lying stark on the field, and then I saw our army retreat to the very place they started from, a loss incalculable in men, horses, cannon, small arms, knapsacks, and all the implements of war, and I am discouraged. I came out here sanguine as any one, but I have seen enough, and I am satisfied that we never can whip the South…. Let any one go into the Hospital where I was and see the scenes that I saw….

Charles W. Bardeen, quoted in Werner, Reluctant Witnesses, 36

The sight of hundreds of prostrate men with serious wounds of every description was appaling. Many to relieve their suffering were impatient for their turn upon the amputation tables, around which were pyramids of severed legs and arms…. Many prayed alound, while others shrieked in the agony and throes of death.

Edward W. Spangler, a sixteen year old with the 130 Pennsylvania Regiment,
at the battle of Antietam in 1862. Quoted in Werner, Reluctant Witnesses, 32

The horrors of the battlefield were brought vividly before me. I joined a detachment which was collecting the dead for burial. Sickening at the sights, I made my way with another detachment, which was gathering the wounded, to a log house which had been appropriated for a hospital. Here the scenes were so terrible that I became faint, and making my way to a tree, sat down, the most woebegone twelve year old in America.

Fred Grant, son of then Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant,
describing the scene at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Quoted in Murphy, The Boys’ War, 78


Life as a Soldier

Young soldiers frequently complained about a lack of equipment, inadequate clothing, and the quality of the food.

After we had been in the field a year or two the call, ‘Fall in for your hard-tack!’ was leisurely responded to by only about a dozen men…. Hard-tack was very hard. This I attributed to its great age, for there was a common belief among the boys that our hard-tack had been baked long before the beginning of the Christian era. This opinion was based upon the fact that the letters “B.C.”were stamped on many, if not, indeed, all the cracker-boxes.

Fifteen year old William Bircher of St. Paul, Minnesota, A Drummer-boy's Diary:
Comprising Four Years of Service with the Second Regiment Minnesota

Again we sat down beside [the campfire] for supper. It consisted of hard pilot-bread, raw pork and coffee. The coffee you probably would not recognize in New York. Boiled in an open kettle, and about the color of a brownstone front, it was nevertheless…the only warm thing we had. The pork was frozen, and the water in the canteens solid ice, so we had to hold them over the fire when we wanted a drink. No one had plates or spoons, knives or forks, cups or saucers. We cut off the frozen pork with our pocket knives, and one tin cup from which each took a drink in turn, served the coffee.

Sixteen-year-old Charles Nott of New York, quoted in Murphy, The Boys’ War, 48-49

We managed to find four blankets, two of them wet and frozen, and a buffalo skin. The now was scraped away from the windward side of the fire, and the frozen blankets were laid on the ground –a log was rolled up for a wind-break, and the buffalo [skin] spread over the blankets. On this four of us were stretched, and very close and straight we had to lie.

Charles Nott, quoted in Murphy, The Boys’ War, 55

We marched through Corinth [Mississippi] in a cold, drizzly rain, and as I didn’t have my blankets, I was wet through. I suffered that night as we had only green wood to make a fire. It stopped raining so I got my clothes partly dried. I lay down on the wet ground to sleep, but would get so cold that I would have to get up and hover over the smoky fire. I put in about the most disagreeable night in my life.

Elisha Stockwell, quoted in Murphy, The Boys’ War, 56


Confinement in a Confederate Prison Camp

The accounts of young Union prisoners at Confederate prison camps are especially harrowing. Sixteen-year-old Michael Dougherty was shocked by the sight of “different instruments of torture: stocks, thumb screws, barbed iron collars, shackles, ball and chain. Our prison keepers seemed to handle them with familiarity.” William Smith, a fifteen-year-old soldier in the 14th Illinois Infantry, was shaken by the physical appearance of prisoners at Andersonville in Georgia, a “great mass of gaunt, unnatural-looking beings, soot-begrimes, and clad in filthy trousers.

Michael Dougherty was the only member of his company to survive imprisonment at Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

No one, except he was there in the prison can form anything like a correct idea of our appearance about this time. We had been in prison nearly five months and our clothing was worn out. A number were entire naked; some would have a ragged shirt and no pants; some had pants and no shirt; another would have shoes and a cap and nothing else. Their flesh was wasted away, leaving the chaffy, weather beaten skin drawn tight over the bones, the hip bones and shoulders standing out. Their faces and exposed parts of their bodies were covered with smoky black soot, from the dense smoke of pitch pine we had hovered over, and our long matted hair was stiff and black with the same substance, which water would have no effect on, and soap was not to be had. I would not attempt to describe the sick and dying, who could now be seen on every side.

Michael Dougherty, who was 16 when he joined the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry,
Diary of a Civil War Hero, p. 43.

Copyright Digital History 2021