Edwin Jemison has a famous face. If you've taken a history class in the United States, you've almost certainly seen him in your textbook; if not there, then in a photo montage in any documentary. There's something about the look in his eyes that seems to have captivated historians, textbook authors, and the general public.
We see his fictional counterparts portrayed in the media, as well, for that same emotional effect. In Cold Mountain, for example, the first character we follow across the screen is a young, beardless, enthusiastic Confederate soldier, of whom Jude Law's character observes, "He can't be old enough to fight, can he?" Predictably, the young soldier is wounded and dies within the first fifteen minutes of the film.
In media for adults, these young characters serve to further the goals or emotional growth of the older main characters, not to tell their own stories. Similarly, Edwin Jemison never appears in textbooks as more than a poorly-spelled sidebar (his name is often given as "Jennison") and what little we do know of his story is rarely included.
But it is unfair to the many boys who served to present their stories merely as a sidenote, used to provoke emotion, rather than delving more deeply into the lives of the soldiers themselves and their experiences during the Civil War. Underage soldiers made up a significant proportion of both armies, and their sacrifices should not be undervalued. The hardships endured by soldiers who enlisted at young ages were no less than that of older soldiers; their service no easier, their deaths no less final.
Despite the "one kid" rule that movies tend to follow (books are more flexible), young soldiers were no rare sight in camp. Regimental histories, written by veterans in the years after the war, often speak of the exploits of their units' youngest members, and many young soldiers themselves grew up to write of their experiences, invariably telling stories of their similar-aged friends.
What is difficult to determine is the precise number of underage soldiers who served. In this case, while some studies have been done over the years, I remain convinced that they are only a starting point; any numbers we may glean from combing through official records will probably never give us a truly accurate picture of the number of underage soldiers who saw service during the Civil War.
In 1864, the United States Sanitary Commission launched what was probably the first attempt to figure out how many teenagers were on the Union Army payroll. After studying roughly 1,050,000 records, they found that only 1.5% of Union soldiers had enlisted or received a commission while below the age of 18 or above the age of 45. Of those, 1% of the total number of soldiers studied were underage enlistees and the Sanitary Commission noted that this category consisted chiefly of field musicians.
While 1% is hardly an impressive number, the Sanitary Commission's clerks failed to take into account one major factor: the huge number of young soldiers who would later turn out to have lied on their enlistment forms. Taking the ages given on enlistment forms at face value is guaranteed to produce skewed results and, given that someone somewhere in this process must have gotten a good look at the Volunteer regiments, was a little naive.
It was that same year that Delavan Miller, who had followed his father to the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery, finally adjusted the details on his Official Muster Roll. In 1862, he had convinced a family friend to take him to the camp of the 2nd NYHA, where his father, Sgt. Loten Miller, resigned himself to allowing his son to stay. Delavan had signed his Declaration of Recruit forms swearing that he was eighteen; this statement was backed up, curiously, on the "Consent in Case of Minor" form signed by his guardian, who also stated that he was eighteen.
In 1864, when Delavan re-enlisted, his papers state his age in one case as "seventeen years old" and in another case as "16". When, as an adult, he published his memoirs, Drum Taps in Dixie, he recalls being only two months past his thirteenth birthday when he left for the front in March, 1862. Regardless of this five year discrepancy between Delvan's actual age and the age written on his enlistment forms, he would have been one of those counted as "over eighteen" in the Sanitary Commission study.
Four decades later, in 1905, George L. Kilmer published an article entitled "Boys in the Union Army", in which he addressed the issues inherent in the Sanitary Commission study. He imagined that, "perhaps during the whole war over one hundred thousand recruits gave their ages as eighteen when they were not seventeen, many not even sixteen." Kilmer studied fewer records than the Sanitary Commission had, focusing on only 12 individual regiments, but concluded that 16% of his sample was 18 years old or younger at the time of enlistment. In including those who gave their ages as 18 on their enlistment forms, Kilmer included those who had inflated their ages to meet the minimum requirement, although he undoubtedly also counts plenty of young men who were genuinely 18 years of age in that statistic.
Still more difficult to determine is the number of boys who served, in any capacity, in the Confederate army. This is due in large part to the fact that Confederate records simply did not survive the war; those we have today are simply less complete than the records kept by the United States government during that time.
But there are other challenges as well. When I think of the difficulty in trying to calculate the number of underage boys who took up arms for the Confederacy, I think first of the boy sixteen-year-old Theodore Upson met after the Battle of Griswoldville, in Georgia, where Union veterans clashed with what historian Emmy Werner calls "a pick-up force of boys and old men". When the fighting was over, Theodore recalled later, "Some one was groaning. We moved a few bodies, and there was a boy with a broken arm and leg- just a boy 14 years old; and beside him, cold in death, lay his father, two brothers, and an uncle. It was a harvest of death. We brought the poor fellow up to the fire. Our surgeons made him as coumfortable as they could. Then we marched away, leaving him with his own wounded who we could no longer care for."
Neither that boy, nor the other members of his family who were killed at Griswoldville would have been listed on any official records, and yet they had fought and sacrificed for their cause as surely as any Confederate soldier who had recieved proper training, equipment, and the promise of pay.
Historians today have more to go on than either Kilmer or the Sanitary Commission had. We have access to pension records and first-had accounts that the Sanitary Commission did not, and which Kilmer apparently felt was outside his scope, and slowly but surely, over the years, the stories of more and more young soldiers came to light. Delavan Miller published Drum Taps in Dixie in 1905, speaking frankly of the years that he added to his service, and other young soldiers, as they became old men, would tell more and more freely of how they had padded their ages so that they, too, could go to war.
We also have access to census records that, especially with modern technology, allow us to quickly and easily double check the birth dates of soldiers. However, even here, there is some potential for difficulty. In researching a young soldier named Owen Bradford, I found that his entry on the 1860 census reads as follows: "Age: 11 Birth Year: Abt. 1849". Family sources give his birthdate confidently as July 10th, 1849. So far, so good.
And yet, on the family monument in Carmel Cemetary, near Owen's home in Maine, he is memorialized as having been "16yrs 8mos" when he was killed in a skirmish near Petersburg, in October 1864.
Whether the uncertainty lay with the Bradford family's difficulty in recording their children's birth years or the census taker's having guessed at Owen's birthday, the confusion remains. The source may be Owen himself, of whom we will hear more in a later blog post. If the person who commissioned the monument resorted to Army records to determine Owen's age at his death, as we have seen, they did not have accurate information. Without knowing more about the Bradford family, we can only speculate.
In the end, educated speculation is the closest we, as historians, are going to get to an accurate statistical understanding of the part played by the Civil War's underage soldiers. In those enlistment records which survive, we find that the boys were often untruthful, and in many cases records do not exist to serve as a testament to their service. Even the ability to search census records is only helpful to a point, containing as they do a certain amount of guessing and human error. Any numbers we may arrive at will probably underrepresent the efforts of underage soldiers.
But from these rough estimates and the testimonies of soldiers of all ages, we can conclude that young soldiers were not rarities in either army. It is this very fact which seems to strange to us today. If there were really so many kids fighting in both armies during the Civil War, we very naturally ask- where were their parents? Check out part two of this series for an answer to that question.
Rebecca Welker is a graduate of the University of Mary Washington, where her American Studies thesis focused on the depiction of young Civil War soldiers in literature. Today, she works at Historic Ships in Baltimore as a museum educator and as a shipkeeper on the USCGC Taney.
Bibliography and Suggested Reading:
Delavan Miller Enlistment papers (national archives)
Delavan Miller, Drum Taps in Dixie, 1905.
1860 US Census, Peleg Bradford Sr. Family
Melissa MacCrae and Maureen Bradford, ed., No Place for Little Boys: Civil War Letters of a Union Soldier (Civil War letters of Peleg Bradford), 1997.
Emmy E. Werner, Reluctant Witnesses: Children's Voices from the Civil War, 1999.
Dennis Keesee, Too Young to Die: Boy Soldiers of the Union Army, 1861-1865, 2001.
Oscar Osburn, ed., With Sherman to the Sea: The Civil War Letters Diaries & Reminiscences of Theodore F. Upson, 1958.