Young Adults and Children of the Civil War: What if we were living then?

We hear the horror stories of the Civil War, the men whose lives were suddenly ended by enemy gun shots and terrible diseases, the many women who selflessly served their country by providing supplies and aid to sick, wounded, and hungry soldiers as a part of Ladies’ aid societies, but how often is it that we hear of those our own age living through the Civil War?

Just the same year that the battle against Ft. Sumter began, Union President Abraham Lincoln announced that young men under the age of eighteen might only enlist with their parent’s consent. A year, later, surely after realizing the horror of allowing premature deaths of youths, did Lincoln prohibit any enlistment of boys under eighteen.

Desperate recruiting officers neglected Lincoln’s warnings and enlisted the young men wanting to serve their country, as 20% of all troops were under the age of eighteen. The military, of both the Union and Confederate sides, needed more men to supplement all of the recent casualties; by January of 1862 there had already been 8,708 casualties (the Union had lost 4,608 and the Confederacy 4100 men). Officers were not always to blame for early enlistment. Often times young men would lie about their ages and run away from home in order to fulfill the rumored glories of the battle field. These young men saw it as their duty to express patriotism through sacrifice of military enlistment while others fled boring farm life or abusive home lives. Young and passionate Northerners almost always found abolishing slavery to be their own personal duty, while Southerners were born and bred to fight and defend their own soil.

Youths of the war enlisted in anything from drummers to fully fledged soldiers, grasping at any and all opportunities to fulfill their aspirations. Cruelly, many would come to the realizations that they were naïve and stupid to flee their safe and virtually carefree lives for the gut wrenching day to day living of flying bullets and shattered souls. Those who were enlisted as drummers, usually thirteen years in age, had the very important duty of relaying commands from their officers; signaling the time for troops to wake, announcing daily roll call, calling for drills, and broadcasting lights out, these drummers were often first killed as they travelled in the front lines. Other positions that supported the war effort were those of messengers, hospital orderlies, and soldiers. As messengers they would relay commands and messages to other squads; as hospital orderlies they would carry canteens, bandages and stretchers, and they would assist surgeons and nurses; as soldiers they would fight and fear for their safety, justify their cause, and honor their country.

If our Civil War counterparts were not at war then they spent their days at school and helping at the family business. These children, both girls and boys, were taught war propaganda aimed at instilling patriotism towards their respective sides. Especially in the South were children prepared for the battlefield. Women and children left at home would hold fairs and fundraisers in order to support troops and they would prepare care packages for the soldiers they knew. Schools were breeding kids ready to fight for their respective country’s cause, be it the Union or Confederacy.


Text Sources:

Image Source:

(Massachusetts Commanders Military Order of the Loyal Legion and the U.S. Army Military History Institute; Johnny Clem, perhaps the most famous drummer boy of the war, shot a Confederate officer who had ordered him to surrender.)

3 thoughts on “Young Adults and Children of the Civil War: What if we were living then?

  1. I knew the conscription was a sign of how desperate both sides were in the war, but I think illegally enlisting children into the war went too far. Considering they made up 1/5 of the Union forces and since the North had a larger population and military, it was extremely unnecessary to admit these young boys into the forces. I feel connected to this since my grandfather fought for the Vietnam War, my father could have been picked any moment, and my brother’s birth certificate is incorrect so he could be safe from the draft for several extra years. Certainly no one would not want their father or brother in the draft unless it was absolutely necessary.

  2. I didn’t have any idea that 20% of troops were under 18 years old. That is demented. It would have been terrible to have had to fight in the war. That would have been terrible if you could have been picked to fight at any moment. I would have died pretty quickly. Great research and stats. Very interesting.

  3. First of all, great job on knowing all these statistics about the men (or in this case, young boys) who were enlisted in the armies. It’s shocking to know how these boys, some who were our age and some who were even younger, were so brave enough to try to join the fighting. However, I agree that it is very saddening to think of all the young lives that were lost. I really don’t like the fact that there were all these “brain-washing” and propaganda going on at the time in order to get the people to support the war. This was really well-written, good job!

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