It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, you know. You’re reading a book, and you sense that what you have in your hands is a game-changer.
This happened as I read the authors’ introduction to Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era. Co-authors Frances Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant studied what many had long believed to be an exaggeration at best and mythical propaganda at worst – the number of underaged boys who fought in the Civil War – and discovered something startingly different. The result is a work that changes our understanding of the Civil War, arguably the most powerful event in the history of the United States.
During the war itself, the myth of the “drummer boy” almost propagated itself, especially in the Union states. On both sides, the official minimum enlistment or conscription age was 18. With a parent’s consent, it could be less than that. In practice, and again especially on the Union side, the minimum age was widely disregarded.
For evidence, Clarke and Plant turn to memoirs, histories, periodicals, and especially both pension records and legal proceedings, whereby parents sought to have their underaged sons discharged. The military tended to be in the driver’s seat, however, and particularly so with the suspension of habeus corpus by President Lincoln (in 1863, Congress codified what Lincoln had done by executive order in 1861).
Clarke and Plant carefully sift through the data and conclude that about 10 percent of the soldiers in both the Union and Confederate armies were under the age of 18 – teenaged boys, and sometimes younger. Numerically, that’s about 180,000 on the Union side and 20,000 on the Confederate side. Parents discovered their rights over their children seriously eroded by the demands of war and found themselves more often than not on the losing side in courtroom battles. Confederate parents appear to have had an easier time of reclaiming their underaged sons.
The authors tell the stories of some of the more famous children and teens fighting in the war, many as musicians in drum and bugle corps. The stories, of course, are what capture our attention and what captured the attention of readers during the war (see “Young Fred Grant Takes the Mississippi Capital, Almost” at Emerging Civil War). But they spend most of their tome looking at records, data, reports, and court records. It’s no surprise that the book was 10 years in the making.
The authors examine the history of underaged enlistment, going back to the War of 1812 and some of the legal disputes prior to the Civil War. They describe the social and cultural background that supported underaged enlistment, including the belief that war inspired courage in young minds and the propaganda benefits of depicting young boys fighting for their country. They show the various paths to enlistment included work, politics, and schools.
The subject of underaged soldiers was widely debated. While it tended to be more of a one-way outcome on the Union side, Confederate authorities (and parents) were concerned about what was called “preserving the seed corn” – making sure that the war didn’t devastate the region demographically. This was much less of a concern in the Union, with its much higher population. And one of the most moving chapters in the book is the account of enslaved and free youth who were forced into military and supporting service on both sides.
Clarke is an associate professor of history at the University of Sydney in Australia and the author of War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North. Plant is a professor of history at the University of California at San Diego and the author of Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America.
Of Age is more than a significant contribution to our understanding of the Civil War. It changes our perception and understanding of the war itself, through the lens of how both the Union and the Confederacy used some of the most vulnerable members of society to fight. These children, and that’s what they were, children – were more than musicians and helpers. They picked up rifles and fought alongside men of legal age. Clarke and Plant make sure their rightful story is told and their contribution recognized.
Top photograph: Johnny Clem, one of the most famous child soldiers of the Civil War. He joined a Michigan regiment at age 9 and was officially enrolled at age 12. Photo: Library of Congress.