The majority of Civil War soldiers who participated in the conflict were eighteen or older. But a sizable number of Yankee and Rebel troops were minors. This was especially true in the opening months of the war, when motivations such as family honor, duty to country, the prospect of adventure, and proving one's manhood prompted thousands of boys to join older siblings and neighbors and descend on recruiting stations. The percentage of minors in the armed services of the Union and Confederates armies, however, dwindled in the latter stages of the war, when military drafts became the primary means of replenishing depleted regiments and underage soldiers already in the ranks reached their eighteenth birthdays.
A Union Drummer Boy Writes Home
Felix Voltz was a boy from Buffalo, New York, who had been apprenticed to a trade he did not like. In February 1865, he decided to enlist as a drummer boy with the 187th New York Volunteer Regiment. Felix's father was upset by his son's impulsive decision, which he described in a letter written to the boy's uncle:
[Felix] went and looked for some Recruting [sic] Offices[;]… the last one of all he found at the Arcade Buildings and there the Bounty Brockers [broker] by the name of Weaver took him to the Provost Marchalls [sic] Office where he was sworn in U.S. Service for one Years [sic] in the 187th Reg[imen]t N.Y. Vol[unteer]s…. Felix left the house Monday morning and we did not know what had become of him untill [sic] the letter carrier brought us a letter Wednesday Evening from Felix.
Felix was at first happy to serve as a drummer boy, because doing so relieved him of picket duty and other more dangerous assignments. On March 3, 1865, he wrote to his family:
Dear Parents Br[o]th[er]s & Sisters: I take the Pen in Hand this Evening to write you a few lines…. The first thing I will let you know about Me being in the Drum Chor [Corps]…. I had to go on Picket Duty the other day and when I came back I got sick for two or three days but I got over that and then I went to Tony the Orderly and ask him if they had A Drummer for our Company Says he No sir then he told me to wait A day or two…. Please tell Mother not to wearry [sic] herself about Me for I am all right yet and I hope will be so for the next year and tell here [her] I am in no danger what so ever all I have to do is to take care of Me and my Drum and learn how to Drum as soon as possible I must not do no more guard or Picket Duty nor I must not take care of no Musket at all…. So no more this time give my best Respects to all inquiring Friends.
By May 1865, Felix was openly expressing homesickness. After telling his brothers about falling sick the day the army marched through Richmond after the fall of the Confederacy, Felix wrote the following:
D[ea]r Br[o]th[ers] I wish you would Answer soon and send me some Post[age]. St[amps]. and some paper and Envelops I know no more news at Present. I will close my writing with sending my best Regards and love to you all in the Family tell Mother not weary herself about me because I am as healthy as ever I was and tell Father that I beg him to forgive me for being so Ugly and Headstrong tell him that I have found out what A home is and that there is nobody on this world thank Father & Mother and A Home and tell him if God safe my Health and lets me get Home Safe again that I will try and behafe [sic] and mind my Parents better than I have.
rebecca j. frey
SOURCE: "The Letters of Felix Voltz, MS 93–021." Special Collections Department of the University Libraries of Virginia Tech, Digital Library and Archives. Available from http://spec.lib.vt.edu/voltz/.
Lying to Get into the Fray
In both the North and South, the minimum age for enlistment was eighteen. Over the life of the war, about 80 percent of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War were between eighteen and twenty-nine. Older men dotted the ranks of both armies, but both sides also featured a fair number of boy soldiers who boldly misrepresented their age in order to join the war effort. It became a common practice, for example, for earnest teens to write the number "18" on a scrap of paper, which they then placed in one of their shoes. This little ceremony enabled them to "truthfully" respond that they were "over eighteen" when the recruiting officer asked them their age.
Civil War historians believe that, all told, tens of thousands of boys under the age of eighteen served in both militaries during the conflict, while thousands of others were active participants in the guerrilla warfare that erupted in the border states and some sections of the South during the course of the war. Writing in A People's History of the Civil War (2005), historian David Williams asserted that as many as 76,000 children under the age of eighteen served in Civil War regiments—and that this figure probably underestimates the number of soldiers who lied about their age in order to enlist. Historian Bell Irvin Wiley reported similar findings in his classic The Life of Johnny Reb (1943), which shows that fully 5 percent of Confederate infantry privates in a sampling of ninety-four regiments were under age eighteen at their time of enlistment, compared to the only 1.6 percent of Union soldiers who were under eighteen.
Musicians and Drummer Boys
When it came to military band membership, neither the Confederate nor the Union army instituted any age limitations. Boys barely into their teens could routinely be found in music groups or serving as buglers or drummer boys. Some children were even younger; Private Edward Black, for example, joined the 21st Indiana as a musician at the tender age of nine. Another group of underage soldiers that nonetheless had a consequential impact on the war were cadet drillmasters who helped train raw recruits. The Confederate army made particularly extensive use of this resource, borrowing youthful instructors from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and other Southern military schools. These cadets were usually held in reserve, but there were several occasions on which they were assigned to frontline positions on the field of battle.
Minors who managed to insinuate themselves into the military ranks of the Union and Confederate armies lost their innocence quickly. Daily exposure to the myriad vices practiced by older soldiers stripped them of whatever naiveté they may have had upon enlistment, and the grueling regimen of Civil War soldiering hardened them. Though this hardening made them better soldiers, their plight filled many observers with deep sympathy and sorrow. The writer Walt Whitman (1819–1892), who served as a hospital nurse in Washington, recalled an encounter with a fifteen-year-old child soldier from Tennessee whose father was dead, and whose mother had been chased from her home by the ravages of war. Whitman watched the boy march out of the city with the rest of his regiment the next day. "My boy was stepping along with the rest," Whitman said. "There were many boys no older. There did not appear to be a man over thirty years of age, and a large proportion were from 15 to 22 or 23. They all had the look of veterans, stain'd, impassive, and a certain unbent, lounging gait" (Whitman, p. 778).
Smith, Page. Trial by Fire: A People's History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.
Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Indianapolis, IN, and New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1943. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Whitman, Walt. Whitman: Poetry and Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1996.
Williams, David. A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom. New York: New Press, 2005.