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.
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
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.’
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.
quoted in Jim Murphy, The Boys’ War, 13, 14
Union Army was unprepared for a major war, as some young soldiers
There was considerable delay in issuing us clothing and equipment.
It was not until the second week of  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
Galwey of the Eighth Ohio Regiment, quoted in Emmy E. Werner,
Reluctant Witnesses, 12
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.
Confederate soldier John Delhaney, quoted in Murphy, Boys’
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.
Stockwell after the battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in 1862. Quoted
in Murphy, 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
Galwey, quoted in Werner, Reluctant Witnesses, 17
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 num¬ber
of a Georgia regiment .... He was about my age .... At the sight
of the poor boy's corpse, I burst into a reg¬ular boo hoo
and started on.
A. Cockerill, 16, Union regimental musician, at Pittsburg Landing,
Mississippi, April 1862, quoted in Emmy E. Werner, Reluctant Witnesses,
. . 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
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.
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
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
W. Bardeen, quoted in Werner, Reluctant Witnesses, 36
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.
W. Spangler, a sixteen year old with the 130 Pennsylvania Regiment,
at the battle of Antietam in 1862. Quoted in Werner, Reluctant
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.
Grant, son of then Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, describing
the scene at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Quoted in Murphy, Boys’
as a Soldier
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.
year old William Bircher of St. Paul, Minnesota, A Drummer-boy's
Diary: Comprising Four Years of Service with the Second Regiment
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
Charles Nott of New York, quoted in Murphy, 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.
Nott, quoted in Murphy, 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.
Stockwell, quoted in Murphy, Boys’ War, 56
in a Confederate Prison Camp
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.
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
Dougherty, who was 16 when he joined the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry,
Diary of a Civil War Hero, p. 43.