Children and the Civil War

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The Civil War lent excitement to the lives of Northern children, imposed hardships and limitations on Southern white children, and changed the lives of African-American children forever. Although there were, of course, numerous large and small exceptions to such vast generalizations, these broad outlines accurately capture the experiences of children and youth on the Civil War home front.

Although the differences in the experiences of Northern white, Southern white, and Southern black children are most notable, there were, of course, similarities. Children of both races and in both sections eagerly gathered to watch newly formed local companies drill on village and town squares and to watch regiments march off to the front. Many formed their own "boys' companies." Newspapers and parents' letters commented on youngsters' martial enthusiasm, and children's magazines like The Student and Schoolmate encouraged it. Few memoirs by Civil War children fail to mention this combination of war and play, and a number of female memoirists recalled their girlhood fascination with military affairs. Many children in both sections also mentioned "picking" or "scraping" lint (which would be used to bandage wounds) and participating in other aspects of the home front war effort. Teenage boys (and, in the South, girls) found work in ammunition factories and government offices; younger children raised money, collected food and supplies, and in many other ways supported local regiments and hospitals. In the North, many children and youth took part as performers, volunteers, and consumers in fairs sponsored by the United States Sanitary Commission. In addition, throughout the country, but especially in the South, youth managed farms and plantations, cared for younger siblings, and provided for their families in the absence of fathers and brothers.

But even the similarities created differences, as the degree to which children suffered, or enjoyed, or participated in the war varied greatly. Northern children who did not suffer the loss of a father or brother could enjoy the excitement of the war culture that gripped the country. Children's magazines were filled with articles, stories, and games about the war, while authors such as Oliver Optic and J. W. Trowbridge produced novels and histories of the war. Panoramas with names such as "The Grand Panopticon Magicale of the War and Automaton Dramatique" presented series of giant paintings accompanied by special effects and dramatic narratives depicting the military highpoints of the war.

Southern children could also attend panoramas and plays, but their lives were more likely to be directly affected by the war. Many became refugees, while others had to quit school because of family finances or a shortage of teachers. Families who lived in the path of invading armies often went hungry. At least a few children were hurt or killed during the sieges of cities such as Vicksburg, Atlanta, and Petersburg. In addition, white children were forced to adjust both to the presence of Yankee military occupation (these soldiers often formed warm friendships with the youngest Rebels) and to the destruction of pre-war relationships with their slaves.

As it did for their elders, the war affected the lives of slave children in sometimes confusing ways. All Southerners, and especially slaves, went without adequate food and clothing as Confederate resources dwindled, while the absence of white men from Southern plantations sometimes loosened discipline. Children were among the tens of thousands of slaves relocated to isolated parts of the Confederacy, especially Texas. But the most dramatic experiences of slave children came when they were brought under the protection of Union troops, either by escaping with their parents or when Union troops occupied their plantations. Freedom brought wildly varied experiences. Some African-American youngsters could attend schools in occupied areas, often taught by Northern men and women working for the American Missionary Association and other religious organizations, and could live without the threat of being sold away from their families. But many also had to endure the brutal conditions of the "contraband camps" formed near towns or Union army garrisons, where the death rate often rose as high as 30 percent.

Finally, the experiences of one group of Civil War children became living monuments to the sacrifices of the men who fought to save the Union. For decades after the war, the orphans of Northern soldiers killed in the war or of veterans who died later were housed in soldiers' orphans' homes established by most Northern states, where they represented the nation's efforts to repay the debt owed to Union soldiers.


King, Wilma. Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Marten, James. The Children's Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Marten, James, ed. Lessons of War: The Civil War in Children's Magazines. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999.

Werner, Emmy E. Reluctant Witnesses: Children's Voices from the Civil War. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.

James Marten

See also:Education; Family Life.

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Children and the Civil War

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