It is estimated that at least 100,000 Union soldiers were boys under 15 years old and about 20 percent of all Civil War soldiers were under 18.
Since soldiers had to be at least 18 years old to enlist in the military, many of these boys lied about their age in order to join.
Other times, especially as the casualties climbed and more soldiers were needed, recruiters looked the other way when underage boys signed up.
Coincidentally, it was this abundance of young, boyish-looking men in the ranks that made it easier for young women to disguise themselves as men and also sign up as soldiers.
These boy soldiers usually served as drummer boys, musicians, messengers, nurses and scouts for the troops. Yet, during the heat of battle, many of these boys put these duties aside and joined the troops in combat.
One such soldier was Johnny Clem, an 11 year-old drummer boy for the Union army. Johnny became a celebrity during the battle of Chickamauga when he picked up a gun and shot a Confederate officer after he demanded Johnny to surrender. The army later promoted Johnny to sergeant and awarded him a silver medal.
Johnny eventually earned the nickname “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” or “Johnny Shiloh.” He was also commissioned by President Ulysses S. Grant as a second-lieutenant in 1871. Johnny was the last Civil War soldier still actively serving in the army when he retired, as Brigadier-General, in 1915.
Another such soldier was John Cook, a 15-year-old Union bugle player, who put down his instrument and volunteered to operate a cannon during the famous battle of Antietam. Cook later received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the battle.
The youngest Union soldier and the youngest soldier to fight in the Civil War was a boy named Edward Black. Edward was born on May 30 in 1853, making him just 8 years old when he joined the Union army on July 24, 1861 as a drummer boy for the 21st Indiana volunteers. He is also considered one of the youngest soldiers ever to serve in the history of the U.S. Army.
Black was captured at the Battle of Baton Rouge in August of 1862 but was freed when the Union army won the battle. After the army discharged him in September of 1862, Edward reenlisted with 1st Indiana Volunteer Heavy Artillery in February 1863. He continued fighting until the end of the war and was honorable discharged in February of 1866.
According to the book, The Fighting Men of the Civil War, the youngest Confederate soldier was probably a boy named Charles C. Hay who joined the Alabama regiment when he was eleven years old.
The youngest soldier injured during the war was a boy named William Black, who was just 12 years old when his left hand and arm were shattered by an exploding shell.
The youngest recruits often served as musicians and drummers, yet this did not prevent them from being wounded or injured like Orion Howe, a 14 year-old drummer who was severely wounded when he volunteered to retrieve some much-needed ammunition for Colonel Malmborg from General Sherman during the battle of Vicksburg.
His regiment’s historian wrote an account of Howe’s deed, which was published in the book Sherman: Fighting Prophet:
“We could see him nearly all the way…he ran through what seemed a hailstorm of canister and musket-balls, each throwing up its little puff of dust when it struck the dry hillside. Suddenly he dropped and hearts sank, but he had only tripped. Often he stumbled, sometimes he fell prostrate, but was quickly up again and he finally disappeared from us, limping over the summit and the 55th saw him no more for several months.”
Howe later received the Medal of Honor for his actions and Abraham Lincoln appointed him to the United States Naval Academy in July of 1865.
Many of these children joined the army because they were either runaways, orphans or they wanted to fight alongside their brothers and fathers.
Although they held romantic and heroic notions of war, it wasn’t long until they experienced the full horrors of war. One boy from Wisconsin, Elisha Stockwell, described his experience during the battle of Shiloh in 1862:
“I want to say, as we lay there and the shells were flying over us, my thoughts went back to my home, and I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away and get into such a mess as I was in. I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me.”
Another boy, 16-year-old John A. Cockerhill, also described his experience at Shiloh:
“I passed… the corpse of a beautiful boy in gray who lay with his blond curls scattered about his face and his hand folded peacefully across his breast. He was clad in a bright and neat uniform, well garnished with gold, which seemed to tell the story of a loving mother and sisters who had sent their household pet to the field of war. His neat little hat lying beside him bore the number of a Georgia regiment… He was about my age… At the sight of the poor boy’s corpse, I burst into a regular boo hoo and started on.”
Although young children, these boys served their country with as much bravery and dedication as any of the full grown men they fought alongside.
About 48 young boys under age 18 won the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery during battle and many continued to serve in the army long after the war ended.
Fighting Men of the Civil War; William C. Davis; Russ A. Pritchard; 1989
Soldiers Blue and Gray; James I. Robertson; 1998
Boy Soldiers of the Confederacy; Susan R. Hull; 1905
Children of the Civil War; Candice F. Ransom; 1998
Sherman: Fighting Prophet; Lloyd Lewis; 1993
PBS: Kids in the Civil War: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/grant-kids/
New York Times; The Boys of War; Cate Lineberry, October 2011: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/04/the-boys-of-war/