“Put the boys in…and may God forgive me for the order.” – Confederate General John C. Breckenridge at the battle of New Market.
Certainly, in the Revolutionary War, and in the War of 1812, boys of fourteen, fifteen and sixteen took up arms for their country. Most served in infantry units but some boarded naval vessels. There may have even been a few young boys who traveled away from home with forces during the Mexican War in 1847. But during the Civil War, the documented cases of boys as young as ten, eleven and twelve, who found themselves in battle situations is astonishingly high. They fought for the Union and the Confederacy, but unlike many of the senior officers whose choice was made on philosophical grounds based on their convictions about slavery, state’s rights and secession, most of these boys joined to fight with other soldiers based simply on where they lived or to follow a father, brother, or friend. Some were either runaways or orphans who, in the mid-nineteenth century, could only expect a harsh existence anyway.
And in one instance, boys joined their fellow cadets from a military school in battle.
Both the Union and Confederate military began the war insisting that a soldier be at least eighteen years of age, or have a parent’s permission to enlist. However, since personal identification records were not very precise, most of the underage youngsters who wanted to enlist, simply lied about their age. An oft told story from the Civil War was that an enterprising boy, who evidently preferred to not lie, wrote the number “18” on a piece of paper and put it his shoe; then, when the recruiter asked if he was “over eighteen” the boy could honestly reply, “Yes sir!”
Confederate enlistment records were never very thorough, but became even worse during the last two years of the War. As the attrition rate for Southern soldiers continued to climb, more boys were allowed to join the army by recruiters who needed every new soldier they could get, and they would often simply disregarded the age of the enlistee. As a result, more underage boys probably fought for the Confederacy than for the Union.
Most of the child soldiers were drummers or other musicians, flag bearers, messengers, and aides, who served behind the battle lines. But there were those who raised their weapons, followed orders to engage the enemy, and, in too many cases, fell on the killing fields.
There were children, however, who survived their ordeal. Some emerged from battle as inspirational figures, while others simply lived to tell of their experiences. But all, whether casualties or survivors, deserve to be remembered.
John Clem entered the Union Army as a drummer at only ten years old. He was well behind the clashing armies at the battle of Shiloh in April 1862, when a Confederate artillery shell exploded nearby and a metal shrapnel fragment hit his drum and shattered it. Slightly injured but still able to play, Johnny picked up another drum, and stayed at his position. As word spread of his calm behavior and dedication to his task, he became somewhat famous, as “Johnny Shiloh.”
Then, when he was the ripe old age of twelve, during the battle of Chickamauga, in September, 1863, John Clem made history again. A Confederate Officer encountered young Johnny sitting with his drum on a mobile artillery piece and ordered him to surrender. Obviously surprising the officer, the boy retrieved a discarded gun and shot his unsuspecting captor. As time went on there was some dispute over whether the Confederate officer was killed or wounded, but, in any event, Johnny was not captured. When the episode was reported in Union newspapers, “Johnny Shiloh” became even more famous as the “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” and, seizing on the growing publicity and public adoration, the Union Army quickly awarded him a medal for “Heroism under fire.” For the next two years, young Clem continued to serve his unit, although not in direct combat. Then, after the end of the War, he remained in the Army and was later commissioned as a Second Lieutenant; and served until his retirement in 1915 as a Brigadier General. He never personally described his actions at Shiloh or Chickamauga as “heroic” but instead as “impulsive” and “his duty” and usually added that he was very lucky.
Other than musicians and aides, the youngest Confederate soldier was probably Charles C. Hay, who joined an Alabama regiment when he was eleven years old; but his enlistment records showed him to be sixteen. His true age was not determined after the Civil War, so we do not know if the recruiter or the leaders of his unit suspected that Charlie was so young.
There were also other boys who were assigned “safer” positions who, when presented with a challenge, ran toward battle. Orion Howe, a fourteen year-old Union drummer was severely wounded during a volunteer mission to deliver a message to another unit during the battle of Vicksburg. An observer wrote; “We could see him nearly all the way. He ran through what seemed a hailstorm of canister and musket-balls, each throwing up its little puff of dust when it struck the dry hillside. Suddenly he dropped and our hearts sank, but he had only tripped. Often, he stumbled, sometimes he fell prostrate, but was quickly up again and he finally disappeared from us, limping over the summit.” Howe later received the Medal of Honor for his actions and was appointed to the United States Naval Academy in 1865.
Then there were the “Boys of VMI.”
The Virginia Military Institute (VMI) was founded as a state university in Lexington in 1837, with their first class starting in 1839. The stated purpose for the new school was to prepare young men for potential service, if needed, in the Virginia Militia; although many graduates accepted a commission in the United States Army. The Lexington location was chosen because significant weaponry had been gradually accumulated there for use, again only if needed, by the state’s militia.
Within a week after the start of the Civil War, the first Union troops moved onto Virginia soil, and the administration of VMI volunteered their cadets to the Virginia Militia, which was affiliated with, but not yet officially part of, the Confederate army. About fifty of the older Cadets, and several faculty members, were quickly assigned to Richmond where they trained new (raw) recruits in battle formations. The other younger Cadets remained at VMI to guard the arsenal of weapons; and, when the Richmond based Cadets returned in January 1862, for many of the boys, life as a student in a military school resumed. While the Confederate government exempted VMI Cadets from the draft calls, many of the older Cadets voluntarily left school to join the Southern Army. Those Cadets who were in their final year, and who chose to join the Confederate Army, were granted early graduation. Interestingly, about thirty of the VMI Cadets left the school and returned to Northern states, with a few joining the Union Army.
Although, the full corps of VMI Cadets had been assembled as a military unit on two earlier occasions, they were not assigned duties near any battle lines. But then on May 11, 1864, the Cadets were ordered to march about seventy-five miles to join the Confederate forces under General John C. Breckenridge near Harpers Ferry, Virginia. (Breckenridge, a former Vice President of the United States, was a candidate of the Southern Democratic Party for President in 1860 against Abraham Lincoln.)
A few of the VMI Cadets were only fifteen years old and many others were only sixteen. The 247 Cadets were positioned as a rear guard and, at first, General Breckenridge had no intention of putting them in harm’s way. In fact, the General addressed the Cadet Corps and said, “Gentlemen from VMI, I trust I will not need your services today; but if I do, I know you will do your duty!” Then Breckenridge told an aide, “They are only children, and I cannot expose them to such fire.”
However, as is often the case, once the shooting started, the battle did not follow the carefully laid plans, and when a large Union force swept deep into the Confederate lines, the young Cadets were ordered into the battle. General Breckenridge reportedly said, “Put the boys in (the battle) and may God forgive me for issuing this order.”
So, on May 15, 1864, the 247 members of the VMI Corps of Cadets fought for the Confederacy as an independent unit at the battle of New Market, near Harpers Ferry, Virginia. And, as the General predicted, the VMI boys did their duty and preserved the Confederate line. But there was an awful price to be paid. Ten boys lay dead, and another forty-five were wounded. One Cadet proudly wrote later, “The line went forward in the best of order.” After the VMI Cadet Corps fought at New Market, Union Generals determined that the VMI campus, and its arsenal, comprised a military threat and, on June 12, 1864, the campus buildings were burned by Northern forces and the weapons cache was seized.
However, the heroism of the 247 cadets has not been forgotten. To this day, the names of the ten boys lost at New Market are read at a solemn annual VMI ceremony.
Many of the boys of the Civil War, at first, must have had hopes of a glorious experience, wrapped in romantic and heroic ideals. But, as with almost every soldier, of every age, and of every era, they soon realized the truth. War is horrific!
One boy wrote; “I want to say, as we lay there and the shells were flying over us, my thoughts went back to my home, and I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away and get into such a mess as I was in. I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me.”
And a 16-year-old wrote; “I passed the corpse of a beautiful boy who lay with his blond curls scattered about his face and his hand folded peacefully across his breast. He was clad in a bright and neat uniform, garnished with gold, which seemed to tell the story of a loving mother and sisters who had sent their household pet to the field of war. His neat little hat lying beside him …He was about my age… At the sight of the poor boy’s corpse, I burst into a regular boo hoo.”
After the Civil War, the public, politicians, and military leaders became aware of the large numbers of children who had fought and the many (really too many) who were wounded or killed. As a result, the prohibition of recruitment, enlistment, and use of children in the United States military became a stated policy.
However, in every war since, especially in World Wars I and II, there are examples of a few who found a way to become a child at war. We can only hope it does not happen again on our watch.