"Gallant Conduct": Young Soldiers in the Civil War, Part IV

Billy and Dick crossing a swamp after escaping from Andersonville

Billy and Dick crossing a swamp after escaping from Andersonville

Guest author Rebecca Welker continues her series on the Civil War's youngest soldiers.  Read part I, part II, and part III here.

The riot began when Dick King punched a Confederate guard named Lieutenant Donnelly. It was hardly a prudent move, but it was nonetheless an understandable one; Donnelly had taken from him a rosette containing a picture of Dick's mother and sister and stomped on it. Dick's friend, 17-year-old Ralph Bates, whom Dick had nicknamed Billy (for no apparent reason; they had become friends after their capture and known each other casually for a couple of days before Dick bothered to ask his new friend's real name) seemed support his actions, even though both boys were beaten unconscious and chained together in the hold of a ship as they were sent farther and farther south, on a journey that would end at the gates of Andersonville Prison.

The friendship that came out of the fight with Confederate guards was in many ways a typical army friendship; the boys tented together, cooked together, fought together, and took care of each other when the need arose. But unlike the boys we met in post three of this series, Dick and Billy were thrown together by much more dire circumstances. Through it all, they were each other's constant source of support, managing to keep each other alive through months in Andersonville prison and a harrowing escape.

In fact, though Billy and Dick's story represents some of the most dramatic circumstances faced by the Civil War's young soldiers, the lengths to which they were willing to go for each other are hardly unusual. In time of need, boys frequently proved themselves willing to do whatever needed to be done, often at great personal risk. No history of the participation of underage soldiers in the Civil War, however brief, should skip the chance to tell at least a few of these fantastic, dramatic tales.

Dick King and Billy Bates were sent to Andersonville in early 1864, making them some of the prison's first arrivals. There, they suffered the same hardships and privations that have been chronicled so extensively elsewhere. Like many prisoners, they probably talked idly of escape, but did not begin to make serious plans until an incident in which Billy's inability to hold his tongue nearly cost him his life.

Billy wrote, years later, "A southern woman who was permitted to distribute "tracts" in the stockade, took offense at some expression in [Chaplain Saul] Hathaway's prayers and deliberately spit in his face... I led her to the gate and turned her over to the guard, informing him of her conduct... she turned around and spit in my face, and I knocked her down."

Henry Wirz was famously tried and hanged after the war for crimes at Andersonville

Henry Wirz was famously tried and hanged after the war for crimes at Andersonville

For this, Billy was tied up by his thumbs and left hanging over a beam in full view of the other soldiers. This was bad enough, but when another soldier offered him water, this friend drew the ire of camp commandant Henry Wirz, who instantly shot him.

Billy called out, "For God's sake, if you shoot anyone, shoot me and end this torture." Wirz was happy enough to oblige and shot Billy twice, breaking his left leg. ("I will say in extenuation of his... attempt on my life, if it be extenuation," Billy wrote later, "that he was furiously drunk...") A mob gathered and, while Wirz's subordinates hustled him off to safety, fellow Union soldiers cut Billy down and carried him back to the stockade.

There, Dick took care of him and drew rations for them both, but Billy still had not learned the prudence of keeping his mouth shut. A few days later, Wirz came into the stockade to see the results of the punishment. "Well, you little Yank, I thought I had killed you," Wirz said, when he found Billy alive. Billy then, "yelled back as loud as I could that I... should never die until I had seen him hung." Wirz shot Billy one last time, through the chest, but the irrepressible boy continued to argue with the Confederates. Dick's advice in this trying time was, "That's the stuff, Billy; stay by him!"

It was during Billy's recovery that he and Dick began to plan the tunnel through which they would escape Andersonville prison. "We decided to take no one into our confidence," Billy recalled. "We had seen too much of that." They dug under the piece of sheet iron in front of their dugout, where they cooked, and carried any loose soil down to the creek in a shirtsleeve, to dump it well away from their own campsite. The resulting hole was just big enough to fit one person at a time. "It took us seven months and eight nights to complete this work."

In the end, they discovered that the tunnel surfaced directly under the wall of the stockade, and had to go back and re-dig the end of it. At last, they were ready to leave. "We resolved to keep together, trust in God, to never be taken alive; to strike for the swamps to the north and get into the water as soon as possible to evade the bloodhounds; to pursue our flight northward toward Union lines;... and to trust no white man or woman till we were inside the Union lines."

Billy gave the date of their escape as March 2nd. They made it quickly to the swamps and the relative safety of a water crossing, and all was quiet for (in Billy's memory) five days. The sixth night, they began to hear dogs baying, and believed that the Confederates were on their trail. He recalled seeing 25 dogs and 5 horsemen in pursuit. By throwing themselves into a swamp and hiding among the debris there, the boys managed to evade their pursuers.

Later that night, they were lucky enough to find the home of a free Black couple named Liza and Noah who had kept, they said, "over forty of you." The boys stayed with them for about a week before moving on to the final leg of their journey.

This was to be the most dramatic; it was while they were crawling northward through a cornfield that all of a sudden a voice yelled, "Halt!" "We were nearly stunned with fright, and lay still as death for some minutes... Was it friend or foe?"

Luck had finally come through for the boys; the sentry belonged to the Union army under Sherman. In short order, they were taken to a campfire, given bread and coffee, and sent up the chain of command to General Sherman himself.

Their adventure was hardly over, however; General Sherman felt it was important that the authorities in Washington know exactly what was going on in Andersonville and who better to tell them than Billy and Dick, who had first-hand knowledge of the situation? So he arranged for their transportation by train to Washington and the White House.

The story is remarkable enough that the book Ralph Bates eventually published, Billy and Dick: From Andersonville to the White House begins with a list of character references for Ralph "Billy" Bates from those who knew him. The memoir is available in the public domain, on sites like Google books, and makes a great read. It definitely qualifies as one of the most remarkable experiences to be recounted by a young Civil War soldier.


Self Portrait of Julian Scott

Self Portrait of Julian Scott

16-year-old Julian Scott likewise gained from his time in the army an extraordinary story to tell, alongside national recognition. Julian enlisted as a fifer in the 3rd Vermont in 1861, but it was art which was his true passion. During his time in the army he filled sketchbooks with his impressions of camp life and in later years completed many beautiful paintings on the same subject.

At Lee's Mills in 1862, four companies of the 3rd Vermont were ordered across the Warwick river twards a Confederate artillery position which officers believed to be weakening. As the river was between two and four feet deep, this was accomplished with relative ease- until the soldiers took the apparently abandoned artillery emplacements only to find Confederate infantry waiting for them.

Worse, some of their cartridges had, indeed, gotten soaked in the crossing; then, instead of displaying a white flag as the agreed-upon signal for reinforcements, the Union officers sent a runner back instead. He never arrived to deliver his message.

While the Vermonters were pinned down, the Confederates somehow managed to flood the Warwick behind them, with the result that when orders finally came to retreat they found that the river had risen two feet.

The order had to be repeated before the Vermonters could be persuaded to leave the relative safety of the captured rifle pits they occupied, but at last they began making their way back across the river. The Confederate forces continued to lay down heavy fire, killing and wounding men as they retreated.

From his relatively safe position on the opposite bank, Julian could not stand watching the men being picked off as they attempted to regain the Union lines. Without regard for the danger, the 5-foot, 4-inch tall musician ran to the river, into water deeper than he was tall, and began grabbing wounded men to haul them to safety.

Drummer Boys Playing Cards, by Julian Scott

Drummer Boys Playing Cards, by Julian Scott

Several times he crossed the flooded Warwick; on one occasion, Ephraim Brown of Co. E plunged in alongside Julian to assist in the rescue of 19-year-old John Backum, who had been shot in the chest. Exposed as they were, Brown was wounded before they could get back to the bank and so after betting Backum to shore, Julian went back for Ephraim Brown as well. Both men survived.

When his officers were asked to submit names for official recognition, Julian's was among them. He earned a Medal of Honor for "Gallant conduct at Lee's Mills... displayed in crossing the creek under a terrific fire of musketry several times to assist in bringing off the wounded."

Julian himself was wounded at White Oak Swamp in June of 1862 and discharged in April 1863. Within a month, however, he was back in camp- this time as an illustrator.


Delavan Miller

Delavan Miller

Most acts of heroism did not earn those who performed them fame or noteriety, however. At Cold Harbor, the drum corps of the 2nd New York Heavy Artilery performed an act of heroism which was entirely typical of the lengths to which boys would go to help a fellow soldier in need. It began with a tragic, but common enough, occurrence: "A drummer boy of our regiment who was carrying a musket was wounded and left between the lines," wrote Delavan Miller, chronicler of the adventures of the 4th's drummer boys. In his book, Drum Taps in Dixie, Delavan does not name the boy in question, but according to my own reserach it was probably Israel Hallick (or Hallock). It was the end of May in Virginia (Israel was wounded on May 31st, just as the action at Cold Harbor was beginning) and Delavan wrote, "...somehow to us drummer boys... the thought that one of our number was lying out there in the blazing sun suffering not only pain but the terrible agony of thirst, stirred our sympathies to the utmost."

Something had to be done, and it was drummer Pete Boyle who hatched the daring plan; he cut several scrub trees, of a type common in that area, and suggested that he and a few others hide behind them and crawl out towards the lines after their friend. So they put the bushes over the breastworks, to make them look natural, and waited for dusk. In the meantime, they filled a few canteens, "for they knew that there would be many to whom a mouthful would be so very acceptable."

At last, dusk fell and they boys felt they had the best chance of effecting a rescue. They climbed over the breastworks behind the trees and "crawled and wriggled themselves toward the rebel lines." Moving slowly and carefully, they found Israel at last and waited with him until dark when it was safe to bring him back to the Union lines and safety. Ultimately, he survived to muster out with the company in 1865.


Cover of George Ulmer's memoirs

Cover of George Ulmer's memoirs

Boys often proved themselves willing to assist even total strangers in need; the bond between them simply by virtue of having served was that strong. Back in part two of this series, I recounted the story of Delavan Miller and his friends in the 2nd NYHA's drum corps comforting a dying Confederate, willing to spend time and energy they did not have to take care of him, simply because they felt a kinship with another drummer.

George Ulmer of the 8th Maine was another drummer with compassion and common sense, as he proved during the battle of Chafin's Farm in 1864. As the fighting grew more and more intense, George's brother, also serving with the 8th, yelled for him to go to the rear. George resisted at first, but finally gave in and made a solo retreat to a field about a mile back. It was a former artillery position, littered with refuse left behind by the advancing army, and as he took stock of his surroundings, George realized how lucky he was to be unhurt, despite the fact that his drum had several holes.

He was shortly joined by a boy from a Pennsylvania regiment; George declined to name either the boy or the regiment, probably because he was so unimpressed with the boy's behavior. George recalled, "I thought he was the most profane lad I ever met. Most every other word he uttered was an oath."

The boy was not posessed of a great deal of common sense, either, and treated the military cast-offs around them as toys. As he and George talked, he was trying to drive a tent stake into the ground with his boot. When that failed, the boy picked up an unexploded shell and began using it as a hammer.

"You better look out, or it might go off," George cautioned him. "Off be damned," the boy replied. "Their shells were never worth the powder to blow 'em to hell." And then he got another bright idea. "See the hole in the butt of it? It would make a goddamned good mawl, wouldn't it? I'll make a mawl of it and drive that damn rebel stake into the ground with one of their own shells, be damned if I don't."

With that, he found a broom, stripped off the bristles, and jammed the handle into the shell. "Damned tight fit!" he told George, thumping it against a tree stump. The resulting explosion knocked both boys unconscious.

When George awoke a moment later, he ran to where the experiment had taken place to find "...the poor fellow lay unconscious and completely covered with blood, there was hardly a shred of clothes on him, his hair was all burned and both hands taken completely off, as if done by a surgeon's saw." [sic]

It was George's cool head and prompt action which kept the other boy from bleeding to death right there. He fashioned tourniquets from the snares on his drum and tied them tightly around the boy's wrists to stop the bleeding, then flagged down an ambulance coming back from the front to have the boy taken to a hospital.

And that might have been the last record of the drummer from Pennsylvania, had not George also been wounded by an exploding shell a few weeks later. He was sent to a hospital in Portsmouth, VA, where he found himself lying next to none other than his unlucky acquaintance. There was to be no happy ending for the Pennsylvanian, however. George reported that, understanding his impending death, the boy had cleaned up his language somewhat, but that a few days after their reunion the boy died as George read to him from the Bible.


Throughout this series, we have met just a few of the many boys who served during the Civil War—defying legal restrictions, the possibility of danger, and sometimes their parents in order to do their part for the causes they believed in. While we will never know with a high degree of certainty what percentage of each army consisted of underage boys, we do know, both through statistical studies and anecdotal evidence, that they represented a significant portion of the population of both the Union and Confederate forces. In many ways their experiences were typical of their circumstances but by virtue of the unique challenges presented by their age, their stories and achievements are made that much more remarkable. When duty called and they felt that their causes needed them, these boys were, without question, willing to play the part of men. 

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.


Too Young to Die, by Dennis Keesee

Adventures and Reminiscences of a Volunteer, or, A Drummer Boy from Maine by George Ulmer

Billy and Dick: From Andersonville to the White House by Ralph O. Bates

Drum Taps in Dixie, by Delavan Miller

2nd New York Heavy Artillery Regiment During the Civil War (roster and soldier information) Compiled by NY Military Museum and Veterans Research Center