Children On The Battlefield? Part I
By Bill Christen
August 2009 Civil War News Bookmark and Share




Editor’s Note: This article is a revised version of one that appeared in the spring 2003 issue of The Watchdog. It was followed by a related article by Meg Galante-DeAngelis, which will run as Part II next issue.

“If minors present themselves, they are to be treated with great candor.” So states the regulations of both armies during the Civil War.

Instructions for recruiting officers go to state: “The names and residences of their parents or guardians, if they have any, must be ascertained, and these will be informed of the minor’s wish to enlist, that they may make their objections or give their consent.”

We have all seen it — the precocious band of 9, 10 and 11-year- old boys, dressed in perfect and imperfect, miniature military uniforms. They tag along at the end of many company formations.

They are seen struggling to stay in step and keep up while lugging (and very rarely properly playing) a drum that is almost as large as themselves.

How about the “junior” hospital steward or the color bearer positions, which we know were adult positions of responsibility or honor? The boys are seen there too.

The most frightening scene is the little “powder monkey” scampering to the muzzle of an artillery piece delivering a dangerous, half pound or more of black powder. Isn’t it cute — and isn’t it inaccurate and dangerous!

The typical participating parent’s response is that there is no one to watch out for little “Ned” or there are no activities for the young boys at events. And, by the way, “they are just doing what Johnny Clem did.”

Clem was the famous “exception to the rule” who ran away from home at age 10 or 11 and hung around the camp of the 22nd Michigan Infantry. According to family lore, he was adopted as a “pet” by some officers and just stayed with the regiment throughout its service.

He was with the regiment at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, in April 1862, but he became famous in September 1863 after newspaper publicity of his exploits at the battle of Chickamauga. There is no evidence that he was actually enlisted. He did enlist in the U.S. Army after the war and served until 1915 retiring with the rank of major.

The wise reaction is to hopefully clear up the misconception that most drummers in the Civil War were cute little pre-adolescents and that it was normal for very young boys to march into battle. Was it?

My study of enlistment ages in the 17th Michigan Infantry provides one sample database. This regiment was mustered into Federal service in August 1862. The following is an age breakdown of soldiers who were under 21 years old at enlistment:

One 13-year-old enlisted in August 1862. He was a drummer who was sent home one month later. One 14-year-old and one 15-year-old enlisted in August 1862. They were discharged “on account of youth” by December 1862.

Three of four 16-year-olds (three enlisting in August 1862 and one in 1864) were mustered out well before June 1865. The remaining boy, a fifer who enlisted in August 1862, returned with the regiment to Michigan June 1865.

Of 15 17-year-olds (12 enlisting in 1862, two in 1863 and one in 1865), seven mustered out in 1865 and two deserted. The other six were casualties or were discharged on account of wounds or disease.

The 18-year-olds numbered 232 (188 enlisting in 1862, seven in 1863, 31 in 1864 and six in 1865). Ninety-seven mustered out in 1865 and 24 deserted. The others were casualties or were discharged on account of wounds or disease.

Nineteen year-olds numbered 120 (99 enlisted in 1862, five in 1863, 14 in 1864 and two in 1865). Thirty-seven mustered out in 1865 and seven deserted. The others were casualties or were discharged on account of wounds or disease.

Twenty-year-olds numbered 91 (72 enlisted in 1862, four in 1863, 12 in 1864 and three in 1865). Forty-one mustered out in 1865 and six deserted. The others were casualties or were discharged on account of wounds or disease.

Assuming for a moment that this was a typical regiment, there were no “children” in the ranks under the age of 13 and within four months after the initial muster of the regiment there were no youth under the age of 16.

For this regiment with a total enlistment of 1,304, the mode (largest group) was the 18-year olds. The average age of all enlistees was 24. The midpoint age was 31. The oldest enlistees were both 49 in 1862.

There was a small spike of ages in the early 40s range. The oldest musician (a drummer) was 46. Most of the drummers and fifer were adults over the age of 21.

By the end of 1862 the U.S. Army tried to discharge the majority of underage (less than 16 years old). General Orders to that effect were passed along from the War Department with the expectation that regimental and company officers would comply. In most cases this did happen.

Of course, the Confederate Army, with a smaller manpower base, may not have been so concerned, particularly in the later years of the war.

Guidelines for Minors
Based on over 30 years in the Civil War role-playing community it seems to me that for safety and historical accuracy the following is a reasonable place to start on a set of military impression guidelines for minors:

Age 16 to 18: May serve in the ranks, and/or be on a gun crew, only with a parent or guardian’s permission and at least one adult in his set of comrades in arms. May carry and fire a rifle or musket loaded with blanks, but may not carry or discharge a handgun.

Age 14 to 16: May serve in the ranks, and/or be on a gun crew, with a parent or guardian’s permission and at least one adult (a parent preferably) in his set of comrades in arms. May carry, but not fire a rifle loaded with blanks (can fire a percussion-capped, but unloaded rifle), but may not carry or discharge a handgun.

He cannot serve in any position on the gun crew involved with handling the blank black powder charges. An evaluation of the minor’s physical and mental maturity by the parent and unit commander is required.

Age 13 and 14: May, if physically and musically capable serve as a musician (drummer or fifer) with a parent or guardian’s permission (and preferably a parent’s presence in uniform or costume at the event).

No weapon of any type may be carried or discharged by anyone under the age of 14. There is no general historical basis to participate in any other military impression of any type. This also precludes being on the field in a battle scenario as a “water” or “ice” carrier.

Age 12 and under: There is no general historical basis to participate in a military impression of any type. This also precludes being on the field in a battle scenario as a “water” or “ice” carrier.

Uniforms typical of young boys “playing soldier” in the period can be worn, but only as a novelty. These boys should follow along a group of marching soldiers, as all children do, not be in the ranks.

Of course, for purposes of historical pageantry, a tableaux or a specific depiction of a documented minor-aged soldier not done on the battlefield, a child under age 14 could participate, but not carry or discharge a reproduction weapon of any type.

I have seen small groups of young boys attending events, who have spontaneously formed squads armed with toy wooden rifles and even just sticks to do what kids do — imitate adults in the form of copycat play. I think that this is the best impression and most natural impression for little “Ned” and his comrades.