Friday, December 16, 2011

Child Soldiers in the Civil War

Although most Civil War soldiers were between 18 and 39 years old, many young children also served. It is estimated that at least 100,000 Union soldiers were boys under 15 years old. Many of these boys lied about their age in order to join the army. Other times, especially as the casualties climbed and more soldiers were needed, recruiters looked the other way when under age boys signed up for the army.

Johnny Clem
These boy soldiers usually served as drummer boys, musicians, messengers, nurses and scouts for the troops. During the heat of battle, many of these boys put these duties aside and joined the troops in combat. One such soldier was Johnny Clem, an 11 year-old drummer boy for the Union army. Johnny became a celebrity during the battle of Chickamauga when he shot a Confederate officer after he demanded Johnny to surrender. The army later promoted Johnny to sergeant and awarded him a silver medal. Johnny eventually earned the nickname “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” or “Johnny Shiloh.” He was also commissioned by President Ulysses S. Grant as a second-lieutenant in 1871. Johnny was the last Civil War soldier still actively serving in the army when he retired, as Brigadier-General, in 1915.

The youngest Union soldier and the youngest soldier to fight in the Civil War was a boy named Edward Black. Edward was born on May 30 in 1853, making him just 8 years old when he joined the Union army on July 24, 1861 as a drummer boy for the 21st Indiana volunteers. He is also considered one of the youngest soldiers ever to serve in the history of the U.S. Army. Black was captured at the Battle of Baton Rouge in August of 1862 but was freed when the Union army won the battle. After the army discharged him in September of 1862, Edward reenlisted with 1st Indiana Volunteer Heavy Artillery in February 1863. He continued fighting until the end of the war and was honorable discharged in Feb of 1866.

 The youngest Confederate soldier was a boy named Charles C. Hay who joined the Alabama regiment when he was eleven years old and the youngest soldier injured during the war was a boy named William Black. Black was just 12 years old when his left hand and arm were shattered by an exploding shell.

Private Edwin Frances Jemison
As the youngest recruits, these boys often served as musicians and drummers, such as Willie Johnston, an 11 year-old drummer during the Peninsula campaign, Orion Howe, a 14 year-old drummer who was severely wounded during the battle of Vicksburg and John Cook, a young bugle player who volunteered to operate a cannon during the battle of Antietam.

Many of these children joined the army because they were either runaways, orphans or they wanted to fight alongside their brothers and fathers. Although they held romantic and heroic notions of war, it wasn't long until they experienced the full horrors of war. One boy from Wisconsin, Elisha Stockwell, described his experience during the battle of Shiloh in 1862:

I want to say, 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 and get into such a mess as I was in. I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me.”

Another boy, 16-year-old John A. Cockerhill, also described his experience at Shiloh:

"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."

Although young children, these boys served their country with as much bravery and dedication as any of the full grown men they fought alongside. About 48 young boys under age 18 won the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery during battle and many continued to serve in the army long after the war ended.


Fighting Men of the Civil War”; William C. Davis; Russ A. Pritchard; 1989

Soldiers Blue and Gray”; James I. Robertson; 1998 

Boy Soldiers of the Confederacy”; Susan R. Hull; 1905

Children of the Civil War”; Candice F. Ransom; 1998 

New York Times; The Boys of War; Cate Lineberry, October 2011

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