"A Comrade Worth Having": Young Soldiers in the Civil War, Part III

Harry and Andy invest in Bonaparte the horse

Harry and Andy invest in Bonaparte the horse

Guest author Rebecca Welker continues her series on the Civil War's youngest soldiers.  You can read part Ipart II, and part IV here.

Like every volunteer soldier, 16-year-old Harry Kieffer began his army career by being outfitted with a uniform. The shirt, he recalled in his memoirs, Recollections of a Drummer Boy, was "...well, a revelation to most of us... It was so rough, that no living mortal, probably, could wear it..."

His friend Andy had problems with his own uniform, and "waddled forth into the company street amid shouts of laughter, having his pantaloons turned up some six inches or more." Andy suggested that "Uncle Sam must have got the patterns...somewhere in France; for he seems to have cut them after the style of the two French towns, Toulon and Toulouse."

The experience of figuring out how to wear such awful uniforms was the first of many experiences Harry and Andy would share, not only as lifelong friends, but as comrades in arms. They went into battle side by side, tented together, and supported each other through the loss of friends and family.

Like many boy soldiers, the close friendships he formed were one of the hallmarks of army life for Harry Kieffer. He is far from alone in this; although their experiences in the army differed wildly, all of those who recorded their experiences later remembered their friends fondly and those who were lucky enough to survive their service often worked hard to stay in touch.

Harry and Andy, whose full name was actually Fisher Gutelius, enlisted in the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1862. Harry, at only 16, took a while to secure permission from his parents to leave school and enlist. Andy made his decision the morning that he saw the 150th marching to the train station. At that sight, Andy ran, "across the street to an undertaker's shop, cram[med] his schoolbooks through the broken wondow, [took] his place in line and march[ed] off without so much as saying good by to the folks at home!" At 18, Andy was legally free to make such a decision.

Harry and Andy riding Pete

Harry and Andy riding Pete

Harry's memoirs seem to suggest that they spent a lot of their time getting into trouble. It was Andy who got the boys into horse trading, buying an animal so unfortunate looking that Harry wrote, it "would have made an admirable sign for a feed store as a substitute for "Oats wanted; inquire within". Luckily it was Andy who had given ten dollars for Bonaparte the horse, who was promptly stolen while the boys slept.

Harry and Andy were apprently both fond of animals, because in addition to the purchase of Bonaparte they committed very temporary theft of a mule. They named it Bucephalus and were riding it through a corn field when the mule's real owner found them and stopped the animal in it's tracks by using it's real name- Pete- and the mule chose to throw them off.

On another occasion, Harry suggested that they catch a squirrel as a pet. The boys tried to tie bags over holes where they had observed squirrels entering and exiting trees, but found, as Harry put it later, that, "Alas! Squirrels sometimes have two doors to their houses." They ended up content with three baby mice that they found in a box of blankets and were able to keep all through their time in winter quarters in the winter of 1863-64.

Rev. Fisher Gutelius

Rev. Fisher Gutelius

Harry's book is full of stories like this, and Andy is present in most of the stories he tells. After the war, although Andy moved to western New York, the two kept in touch. Both became Presbyterian ministers and when Andy passed away in 1906, it was Harry who was called on to conduct his funeral.

Delavan Miller remembered another remarkable friendship between two members of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery. Despite being in different regiments, he knew Jimmy Tabor from the drum corps and described him as, "a slender, palefaced youth, mild of manner and gentle of speech as a girl." Jimmy was devoutly religious, and earned the nickname "parson" by performing the burial service for the first man in his regiment to die in camp. He used the Bible given to him by his mother, which he read each night.

In addition, Jimmy kept a small box of flowers by his tent when his regiment was stationary long enough, and it was this small garden that was the unlikely source of his friendship with hard-fighting, quick-talking, whiskey-drinking Dennis Garrity.

Another soldier, "who had been drinking just enough of the sutler's beer to make him think he was smart", kicked over Jimmy Tabor's flower garden. Garrity "shook him as a terrior would a rat" and announced to anyone within earshot that he'd had enough of the soldiers' making fun of Jimmy's piety and giving him a hard time.

From that day forward, the two were fast friends; Jimmy referred to his tentmate as "Mr. Garrity" and Garrity became the only man in the regiment to call Jimmy "James". Jimmy paid back the kindness he had been shown by keeping his friend out of trouble, once wading into a wrestling match between Garrity and some new recruits from the Onandaga reservation. Most of the participants were drunk, but Garrity's "little guardian angel slid into the ring, and, taking Garrity by the arm, led him away..."

Jimmy Tabor had the unfortunate luck to be wounded at Appomattox and lost in the fighting, but the excellent luck to have made a friend of Dennis Garrity long before. When he discovered that the boy was missing, Garrity said he would, "bring that poor boy in or... lay out there on the field with him." Sure enough, Garrity found Jimmy and brought him half a mile, "with bullets and shells flying" to a field hospital. Although he was not able to be present at the Grand Review, Jimmy Tabor survived thanks to the determination of his friend.

George Coleman

George Coleman

Another pair who were lucky enough to get themselves out of a tight situation were George Coleman and John Catlin, drummers from the 28th Wisconsin. In 1865, when Johnny was 15 and George 17 years old, both were already veterans nearing the end of three-year enlistments. The 28th was on its way down the Mississippi on a transport ship and when they passed Vicksburg, the boys decided to go AWOL to do a little sightseeing.

As luck would have it, once they had finished touring the famous city, they found that the 28th had already continued on without them. At first, this didn't seem like much of an obstacle; the boys believed their regiment to be headed for New Orleans and simply caught the next steamboat headed that way. But in fact, the transport ship had taken the 28th out into the Gulf and Johnny and George found themselves detained on Dauphin Island as a result of their absence from their regiment.

John Catlin

John Catlin

In no mood to stay there, they slipped away and swam down the island, despite being under fire, and made their way to Fort Morgan. As an adult, Johnny Catlin recalled, "We were locked up in a cell and kept on bread and water for a few days. There was a large underground passage, it was very dark in there. Coming out of the fort one day, I thought I heard a voice that sounded like Col. Gray's, and on reaching the outside of the fort, whom did I find but our gallant Colonel. [sic] The first question he asked was, "Where is Coleman?" He always expected to find Coleman with me. I said, "He will be out soon."...The Colonel says, "Do you see that large steamer there at the wharf? I says, "Yes, sir." "On that is the 28th Wisconsin... When you get time come up and see us. Good day."

In the 1st Massachussetts, Charlie Bardeen and his friends always seemed to be up to something. Early in the war, he and his friend Joe Phillips took fencing lessons, using the swords that had been given to the 1st's drum corps and Charlie remembered "[standing] before the fire and [telling] what gore I should shed as soon as I got to my first welcome battle." But the swords were a source of conflict in camp, as well.

"I used to practise with the other drummers... and one day I was fencing with Phillips down by a little brook. It was all good-natured enough, till of a sudden he turned his back upon me and returned to camp alone." Wondering what had happened, Charlie returned as well, a few minutes later, to find that Joe Phillips had taken all his belongings out of their shared tent and moved in with another friend.

Neither boy could humble himself to discuss whatever the issue was and for over a year, "never exchanged one unnecessary word."

In December of 1863, towards the end of a long retreat, as rations were wearing thin, Joe Phillips caught up with Charlie and, apropos of nothing, offered to share the hard tack and coffee he had managed to save in his haversack. The excess of good will finally prompted Charlie to ask, "What made you desert me so suddenly, down by the brook?"

He was surprised to hear Joe reply as if it had been perfectly obvious, "It wasn't fair of you to pink me," and even more surprised when his friend "pulled open his shirt and showed me a scar in his breast not a great way from his heart. It seems my clumsy toadsticker made it, and he really thought I did it on purpose."

Of the swords themselves, Charlie added, "I do not think we carried [them] far on our first march...their absurdity had become manifest."

The winter that Charlie and Joe finally worked out their differences, 1st went into winter quarters and their officers loaned the men some space to hold a ball. In order to have someone to dance the "ladies part", some men sent home for hoops and skirts. These men, Charlie explained, "were by no means the most feminine men in the regiment, but the effect upon the rest of us [of seeing them in feminine attire] was to produce the impulse of protection."

It was a party for the 1st Massachussetts, but not for everyone; they had not invited the neighboring "Excelsior Brigade", who took it upon themselves to try to crash the party with a battering ram against the door.

"As they pushed in and the fight began, Jim McCrae happened to be walking on my arm and I put myself in front of him as inevitably as if he had been a girl fifteen years old," Charlie recalled years later. The sight of 16-year-old Charlie throwing himself in front of 30-year-old Jim was probably hilarious, but what stuck with Charlie was what happened next. Jim "swished his skirts out of the way, pulled up [his] sleeves... and sailed into that Excelsior crowd with both fists."

The invaders were successfully repelled and Charlie said, "I think Jim and I finished the promenade, but the rest of the night I had a sort of sub-consciousness that in spite of his skirts he was quite able to take care of himself."

Charlie's willingness to put himself in a very harmless line of fire for Jim McCrae, who certainly did not need it, is a humorous example of the lengths to which boys were willing to go to help a friend in need. As we will see in the fourth and final section of this series, there were many boys who performed really amazing feats in service to their comrades and their country.  

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.


Recollections of a Drummer Boy, by Harry Kieffer

Drum Taps in Dixie by Delavan Miller

A Little Fifer's War Diary by Charles Bardeen

When Johnny Went Marching by G. Clifton Wisler

Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Meeting of the Livingston Co. Historical Society (available on Google Books)