The Civil War impacted the lives of everyone in the United States and this was no different for the children at the time. Some children actually served in the army as soldiers, while others witnessed the horror of war from afar. Many children had to grow up quickly, taking on new responsibilities at home or on the warfront.
Boys in the Army
Although soldiers were officially supposed to be at least 18 years old, both sides needed soldiers and were willing to look the other way when it came to age. As a result thousands of young boys between the ages of 13 and 17 fought in the Civil War. Many of these boys were killed or wounded in battle.
Drummer Boys and Messengers
The youngest of the boy soldiers usually ended up being drummers or messengers. Boys as young as 10 years old are on record as serving as drummers during the Civil War. Drummers were used for communication on the battlefield. Different drum rolls signaled different commands like "retreat" or "attack." Other boys were used as messengers. They were usually fast runners who would bravely run important battle messages from one commander to another.
Child soldier in the US Civil War by Unknown
The most famous of the boy soldiers during the Civil War was Johnny Clem. Johnny first tried to join the Union Army at the age of 9, but was rejected because of his age and size. However, he didn't give up. He followed along with the 22nd Michigan regiment until they adopted him as their drummer. He officially joined the Union Army two years later at the age of 13. He became famous when he shot a Confederate officer and escaped during a battle at Chickamauga, GA. Throughout the war Johnny's adventures and exploits became legendary. He continued on as a soldier after the war rising to the rank of Brigadier General.
Children in the Army Camps
Some children served in the army camps. They would help wash dishes, fix meals, and set up the camp when it moved. These children were in less danger than the soldiers doing the fighting, but were often near the front lines.
Children at Home
War wasn't easy for the children at home, either. Most children had a relative who was off fighting the war such as a father, brother, or uncle. They had to work extra hard and sometimes take on the jobs of adults to help make ends meet. They also lived in fear that their father or brother may never return.
Children in the South
Children living in the South had an added fear because much of the fighting took place in the South. If their home was near a battle, they would hear gunfire and cannon through the night. They may also see soldiers marching by on their way to fight or returning from a battle. They hoped the enemy soldiers wouldn't destroy their crops or their home.
Interesting Facts about Children in the Civil War
Some boys would put a note with the number 18 in their shoes when applying for the army. This way they could say "I'm over 18" without really lying.
Johnny Clem was the last veteran of the Civil War to retire from the U.S. Armed Forces in 1915.
The Civil War is sometimes called "The Boys' War" because so many young men fought as soldiers.
Some historians estimate that as many as 20% of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War were under the age of 18.