The changing attitudes of Boys during the American Civil War

Prepared by J. Arthur Moore Introduction


James Marten, in his collection of essays about Children and Youth During the Civil War Era, wrote that the question had been raised, “Have social historians lost the Civil War?”1 Civil War historians and historians of children and youth had generally ignored the children and youth who participated in the war. Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, 1850-1950, edited by Elliot West and Paula Petrik, referred to the war on page 93 in reference to toys of the era. Growing Up in America, Children in Historical Perspective, edited by N. Ray Hiner and Joseph M. Hawes, never mentioned the Civil War. Some have begun to explore the topic in recent years. Emmy Werner shared the insights of Civil War children, civilians and combatants, as she wrote about the physical and psychological casualties who were the hundreds of thousands of children, the Reluctant Witnesses to the greatest bloodshed ever on American soil. Historians Jay S. Hoar, Callow, Brave, and True, a Gospel of Civil War Youth, Dennis M. Keesee, Too Young to Die, Boy Soldiers of the Union Army 1861-1865, G. Clifton Wisler, When Johnny Went Marching, have explored the experiences of young participants within the armies of the war. They placed the histories of these children within the context of the conflict and the social environment of the times. Within their works these historians explored how these boys entered the war, the evolution of attitudes and opinions both external and internal, and the impact and conditions of war. Death was a foremost impact of the war. One of the essays in Marten’s work, “Good Children Die Happy, Confronting Death During the Civil War” by Sean A. Scott, argued that death impacted the religious and the patriotic influences of the time. Drew Gilpin Faust focused on the significance of death in her work, This Republic of Suffering, Death and the American Civil War. James Marten argued that death affected civilian children as well in The Children’s Civil War. Death was also prevalent in the diaries, letters, and journals of the boys as well as in newspapers, children’s periodicals, and religious tracts.

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In her work, Reluctant Witnesses, Emmy Werner argued that the Civil War was unlike any previous war. It was the largest and bloodiest conflict ever fought on American soil with millions of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of boys within the two armies.2 The large number of boys and youth age seventeen and under was significant to this war. Many historians have estimated their number to be 250,000 or more.3 How could this happen? How were they recruited?

At the time of the war, the presence of young boys was taken pretty much for granted.4 Dennis M. Keesee examined the rules at the time. Many of the youngest boys were musicians.5 Between the two armies, there was need for 60,000 musicians.6 Keesee, Hoar, and G.Clifton Wisler went on to explore how recruitment worked.7 North or South, these boys were looking for adventure and a break from the boring life of farm or school.8 For a few, like fourteen-year-old John Wise, the coming of war created mixed emotions. Though excited about war, as he watched the national flag lowered from the custom house in his home town and the stars and bars raised in its place, he suddenly realized that friends in the nearby Gasport Navy Yard who had always been welcome in their house, had suddenly become the enemy.9

Boys attitudes changed dramatically from their initial sense and want of adventure, excitement, and glory as the reality of war set in.10 A number of boys, found themselves homesick, unable to cope with the rigors of military life, sick from related health problems, or simply unfit and incapable of carrying out the duties for which they had volunteered.11 Many either had a change of heart or were too sick, and were mustered out.12 Others, like John Delhaney and Elisha Stockwell noted their feelings in their journals and soldiered on.13

Who were these soldiers? In a war often referred to as brother against brother and American against American, that wasn’t truly the case. Glances through the anthologies chronicling so many of these boys, made it obvious that many were foreign born. Wiley presented an in-depth study of the nature of the southern soldier versus that of the northern soldier in his companion researches, The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank.

In researching the manner of men who fought for the Confederacy, Wiley found thousands that were foreign born, and not yet able to speak or understand English. He also argued that social class had a significant effect in the Confederacy. Plantation born soldiers were used to giving orders, not taking them. Many were unruly and when commanded by officers beneath them in class, were outright rebellious.14 Young boys and youth were not always the most disciplined soldiers. They had romantic expectations of the war and weren’t accustomed to taking orders from superiors. While they wanted to fight, they wanted to fight on their own terms.15

Wiley wrote of the great diversity of the Union army in nationality, race, creed, occupation, dress, habits, temperament, education, wealth, and social status. Most of the youngest boys were musicians, but they supplemented their position in a variety of ways – with barbering, carrying water for soldiers, sharpening surgical instruments, helping wounded, burying the dead, drawing maps, selling food delicacies, and gambling. They were the pets and favorites of their units, some slept with their captains, and on a long march, when tired, rode a horse provided by an officer. As with the southern boys, a few left after their first experiences in battle, but most acquitted themselves very well. Many took up a rifle in combat and were gallant and effective on the front line. Some took their place with the artillery. Some were recognized with the Medal of Honor. And some gave their lives in the service of their country.16

Amidst the excitement of preparing for war, before the first significant battles were fought, the reality of death hit the headlines. Brooklyn Eagle, June 13, 1861, War Intelligence, “The Death of Young McKenzie.” Twelve-year-old Clarence McKenzie was Brooklyn’s first casualty of the Civil War.17 Death, especially the death of children, became an ever increasing tragedy. Sixteen-year-old Alonzo Roush, stricken with typhoid fever and sent home to recuperate, died, less than two months after his enlistment.18 Fifteen-year-old William Waldron died of disease before his regiment got to the war.19 Twelve-year-old Clarence McKenzie was accidentally killed by his best friend drilling with a gun he didn’t know was loaded.20 Death came quickly before these boys ever got to the war. No one had any idea of the magnitude of death that was about to befall the country.21

Sean A. Scott shared his theories about death during the American Civil War, its impact on the social conscience of the nation, the impact of the death of boy soldiers, and the impact of prevailing custom on those dying boys, in his essay, “Good Children Die Happy, Confronting Death During the Civil War” in James Marten’s collection of essays, Children and Youth During the Civil War Era. Scott opened his argument with the obituary for President Lincoln’s son. Willie’s obituary spoke of a child of unusual promise, excellent at drawing and writing in school, faithful in attendance at Sabbath school, and expectant of a bright future. Typhoid brought an abrupt end to such a promising life. Family and friends should rest assured that he has gone to a better place in the court of the King of Heaven.22 This obituary was to prove the point that it was much the same for many northern children who died between 1861 and 1865. Dead children were said to have exceptional dispositions, exemplary skills, love for God and Country, and admission into heaven. Scott believed that writers of obituaries created idealized descriptions of final moments to provide models of the good death for others to follow.23

The deaths of boy soldiers were particularly memorialized. Many died of disease or accident before ever getting to the war. Fourteen-year-old William Havens sent for a minister and was happily converted on his deathbed before disease took him.24 Sixteen-year-old John Ball reportedly declared, “I die for my country” as he died on the battlefield.25 The writers of the stories of boys’ deaths constantly emphasized dying for God and Country. A glorious death was good. All children should be prepared to die, prepared to go to Heaven. New York’s Methodist weekly Christian Advocate and Journal published one of the most popular stories about the ideal death of a child, “The Drummer Boy: a Fact.”26

Obituaries, religious weeklies, youth publications, newspapers, and churches all extolled the ideal death and the child’s going to heaven. The deaths of drummer boys were particularly prevalent, whether actual events or literature for youth. Examples published by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine were “The Drummer Boy’s Burial” and “The Dead Drummer Boy.” 27 These poems of drummer boys dying in the line of duty were part of a new image of children’s deaths published in children’s magazines to show that dying for one’s country was a noble sacrifice.28 Scott summarized that these stories and obituaries of children and youth attempted to reduce the terrors of dying for a nation consumed with death, conveying the perfect picture of eternal life in heaven, where many children awaited the future arrival of their parents. His final obituary for thirteen-year-old Benjamin Delenbaugh reported that the boy’s final words to his mother were, “Mother, don’t take it so hard. I’m going to heaven, and expect to see Peter and James.” His two brothers had died as soldiers.29

Stories of death about drummer boys or young soldiers emphasized devotion to family, country, and God.30 Thirteen-year-old Charlie King’s death was listed in a home town obituary.31 This certainly  was  true in Charley  King’s obituary  with  phrasing like “a sacrifice on their country’s altar,” “true little hero,” and “done his duty and died nobly.”32 Clarence McKenzie’s death was in the local paper 33 as well as a hundred and fifty page religious tract.34



1 James Marten, ed. Children and Youth during the Civil War (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 3.

2 Emmy E. Werner, Reluctant Witnesses, Children’s Voices from the Civil War (Boulder Colorado: Westview Press, 1998), 2.

3 Werner, Witnesses, 2.

4 Jay Hoar, Callow, Brave, and True, a Gospel of Civil War Youth (Getttysburg, Pennsylvania: Thomas Publications, 1999), xvii, xix. Hoar traced the history of boys in war from 17th century Europe through all the wars in United States history from colonial times through the Mexican war with examples of individual boys in each era by name, age, and event.

5 Dennis Keesee, Too Young to Die, Boy Soldiers of the Union Army 1861-1865 (Huntington, West Virginia: Blue Acorn Press, 2001), 7-11. Keesee explained the regulations over the years required soldiers to be at least eighteen years old, no younger than seventeen with written parental permission, must pass a physical examination, and be at least five foot three inches tall. Musicians could be as young as twelve, were to pass a physical examination, but were excused from the height requirement.

6 Jim Murphy, The Boys’ War (New York: Clarion Books, 1990), 10.

7 Kessee, Too Young, 25. Keesee wrote of his view of recruiting by local businessmen and politicians as well as by educators and religious leaders suggesting that community trust enabled them to recruit boys and youth without significant question on the parts of parents; Hoar, Callow, 221-223. Hoar offered several explanations as to how many underage boys entered the armies of the war; G. Clifton Wisler, When Johnny Went Marching, (New York: Harper-Collins, 2001), viii. Wisler added his suggestion that many underage boys simply concealed their identity by not signing muster rolls or receiving pay; Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1943), 333. Finally, Wiley observed that young military academy cadets who had been assigned to train new recruits stayed on with their units.

8 Werner, Witnesses, 9

9 Werner, Witnesses, 8

10 Werner, Witnesses, 8-9. For some, as described in the diary of fifteen-year-old William Bircher, the war experience began with weeks of drill, camp, marching and camping in fair weather and torrential rain, suffering boredom with sickness and poor food, and involvement in raids and small fights.The first encounter in battle was the arrival just after the battle, in time to see the wreckage and carnage that littered the field. For the first time the boy’s excitement for adventure, having been passed to boredom, was changed to retched sickness and the sudden reality of the dreadful destruction, suffering, sorrow, and tears that were the real face of war. For another, described in the memoir of fourteen-year-old Johnnie Wickersham, war exploded around him before his unit had left home. He described his first battle, “having come on like a flash of lightning,” wherein he shot his first enemy and was so excited as to be oblivious to his surroundings.

11 Murphy, Boys’, 29.

12 Keesee, Too Young, 11-12.

13 Murphy, Boys’, 27-28.

14 Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1943), 322-339.

15 Brian Alligood, “Boys in gray: the role of Confederate youth in the American Civil War” (Honors essay: Dept. of History, University of North Carolina, 1989), 13-15.

16 Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1952), 296-302.

17 “The Death of Young McKenzie” Brooklyn Eagle, War Intelligence, June 13, 1861.

18 Keesee, Too Young, 65.

19 Keesee, Too Young, 66.

20 Keesee, Too Young, 71.

21 Drew Gilpin Foust, This Republic of Suffering, Death and the American Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 3.

22 Marten, Children, 92-93.

23 Sean A Scott,“Good Children Die Happy, Confronting Death During the Civil War”. In James Marten, ed. Children and Youth during the Civil War (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 92-93.

24 Scott, Good Children, 104-105.

25 Scott, Good Children, 106.

26 Scott, Good Children, 107. The story told of a girl in a New York tenement praying for her brother who, unbeknownst to her lay wounded with another soldier on a distant battlefield. The soldier witnessed the miracle of providential arrival of medical supplies by which they both survived and later showed up at the tenement to assure the sister that her brother had died nobly in a southern prison and his Christian testimony led to the soldier’s conversion. Thus the sister could accept her brother’s death and place his life into God’s keeping.

27 Scott, Good Children, 96-97.

28 Scott, Good Children, 94.

29 Scott, Good Children, 107.

30 Marten, 93

31 Obituary, Charles K Village Record, October 2, 1862




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