Children On The Battlefield? Part II
By Meg Galante-DeAngelis
September 2009 Civil War News Bookmark and Share

The image of the virtuous young drummer boy is one that can be found abundantly served in the morality-rich, cautionary literature for children almost from the time of the invention of children’s books.

In the Civil War, we see in stories, songs, books, newspapers and magazines (those for adults and those for children) and these images of the drummer boy as tool of moralism in a variety of permutations:
-The boy as virtue and an example of purity to men.
-The bad boy turned virtuous by service.
-The good boy sustained in virtue by service.

In many of these representations, the boy dies, showing in his death his purity as a lesson to others.

The actual drummer boys in the war drew such attention because it was an image well known and much admired, but also because occasionally, just occasionally, these boys actually lived. The number of the boys who lived these lives and often the actualities of their existence as soldiers were, I am afraid, greatly exaggerated.

There were drummer “boys,” but we today often use the word “boys” to mean something different. In how many instances when reading primary source battle accounts do we read that someone said, “Pour the lead into them, boys!” or “The boys fought bravely”?

We all know that these were not all regiments of prepubescents and adolescents. The context of “boys” as a word to define only children is a present-day understanding/use of the word. We do not take it literally to mean children in the above examples, just as we cannot take it to mean children when used in the term “drummer boys.”

In 1869 Benjamin A. Gould, Actuary to the United States Sanitary Commission, published his Investigations in the Military and Anthropological Statistics of American Soldiers. It is a statistical analysis of men in the Union Army that looks at 1,049,457 sets of anthropological records and contains the following statistics on “boy soldiers.”

Of the over one million records, 10,413 of the soldiers were 17 and under. The breakdown by age is: 17 - 6,425; 16 - 2,758; 15 – 773; 14 – 330; 13 – 127.

There are no statistics for boys under 13, but the trend is clear and statistically sound. Significant to the discussion is that the number of boys listed as being 18 years of age is 133,475 — the age that many said they were to enlist and then years later revealed that they were younger.

The circumstances of enlistment of most regiments, the fact that those who enlisted from a community knew how old others from the community were when they enlisted, and other social restraints and conventions of the time support that the number of very young boys was quite small. Gould’s statistics say that the 13-to17-year-year-olds account for 1 percent of the soldiers’ records they analyzed.

[Editor’s Note: I will hazard a comment here that the number of actual female soldiers in both armies (estimated to be between 250 and 500) may be equal to or slightly greater than the number of those boys 14 and under who enlisted. These underage drummer “boys” appear to be another impression group that is over-represented in today’s ranks of Civil War role-players.—Bill Christen]

Of course this does not disprove the existence of young boys serving, but it does give us a clue to the rarity of the service. Add to this that for a boy to serve, he had to have a legitimate purpose to serve i.e. he was a functioning musician or had some other military purpose.

That said, I believe that it is a disservice both to the modern-day reenacting child and the ancestral child of the Civil War era to have a child serve in a military capacity at a reenactment.

A truly functional musician is an asset to any unit, but those of us who study the lives of children during the war know that the musicians were often left off the field of battle by the commander and given the duty of caring for the wounded and acting as stretcher bearers.

In fact, one of the last living veterans who served at the battle of Gettysburg as a young (teenage) musician recounted this very experience.

Multiple issues of liability also come into play here. A reenacting unit that cares for its members should carry insurance, which may have policy provisions that do not allow boys under 16 to shoulder a musket. Event sponsors may likely have their own insurance with similar restrictions and also have event rules limiting who can carry a musket. Despite these efforts the child on the battlefield, in any role, can be at risk and can cause risk for others.

If a child is hurt on the battlefield, or hurts someone else, and that child is younger than the minimum age that can be covered by the event’s insurance policy, the chain of liability can become quite difficult to discern.

Your unit (and even members as individuals), other units and the hosting unit can be in big trouble. I can list several events that no longer exist because of children and liability issues not covered in the event insurance policy. So, in effect, being loose with the rules eventually and irrevocably hurts us all.

But what I am most worried about is the idea of teaching children history by teaching them something that isn’t true. It is disrespectful to the ancestors who lived and died, fighting for what they thought was right and true, ancestors on both sides of the battle.