For 150 years the military service of boys has provided iconic images of Civil War memory. Stories in wartime newspapers and magazines celebrated young—and often unnamed—patriots who served their country. During the postwar period people could hear concerts of war songs by an adult “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” Three of the four groups of statuary placed on the tomb of Abraham Lincoln (designed in 1868) include figures of very young men. The Civil War centennial period gave birth to the 1959 novel Johnny Shiloh and its 1963 adaptation for television by Walt Disney. Boys, these images would tell us, were everywhere on the battlefield.
Boys and young men certainly played a role in fighting on both sides during the war. Was it as large a role as the iconic images would lead us to think? Statistics based on military records kept during the war are notoriously slippery. Scholars over the years have estimated that boys under 18 made up anywhere from 1.0 to 1.5% of the U.S. army that fought the war. Those numbers are based on enlistment records and take at face value the statements of enlistee ages. However, many minors lied about their age in order to enter the service, though just how many cannot be known.
During the war years most states conferred legal adulthood on males when they reached their twenty-first birthday. A federal statute enacted in 1850 provided that young men between the ages of 18 and 21 could enlist in the army, but only with the written consent of “his parent, guardian, or master,” and that “recruiting officers must be very particular in ascertaining the true age of the recruit.” The act also provided for the discharge of minors who had somehow managed to enlist without parental consent.
In the early days of the war a number of males under 21 years enlisted in the army. Many of them obeyed the law, sometimes serving in the same units as their fathers or adult brothers. Others entered the service fraudulently, lying about their age and the need for a parent’s consent.
Problems developed as the excitement of the war’s early days passed and soldiers learned the drudgery and danger of army life. By late 1861 discharges from the service were being sought by many under-age soldiers and their parents. In Chicago federal judge Thomas Drummond ruled that under the law “if a minor has enlisted in the regular army, or the volunteer service, who is under the age of eighteen years, and who has been enlisted without the consent of his parents or guardian, such enlistment is illegal.”
Congress in February 1862 passed a new statue, that rescinded both the rule allowing young men under 18 to enter the service and the one requiring recruiting officers to “be very particular in ascertaining the true age of the recruit.” The new law declared that “the oath of enlistment taken by the recruit shall be conclusive as to his age,” and youngsters who lied about their age were stuck with the consequences.
Judge Drummond, despite finding the new statute “a harsh, unjust and oppressive law, ignoring the authority of the father over the son, and discreditable to the Legislature,” was now forced to rule differently in cases of minors seeking to leave the service. The Chicago Tribune approved of the change, commenting, “It may be thought harsh… as under the rendering of the late law a youth of ten years, if once enlisted, could not be discharged… by the usual application… It will have a good general effect upon all future enlistments. Recruiting officers will not be troubled with boys, and if boys enlist they will not be able to play soldier a few months and then beg off by pleading the baby act.”
Illinois sent an unknown number of minor boys to the field during the Civil War. Some entered the service with the consent and even encouragement of their families, others apparently by lying about their age. Here are short sketches of just a few.
Lyston D. Howe
Lyston D. Howe of Waukegan joined the 15th Illinois Infantry with his father, William, in June 1861, both serving as musicians. Lyston was 10 years and 9 months old at the time of enlistment. The boy, who stood 4′ 2″ tall, was discharged “for youthfulness” in October 1861 after five months of service. Four months later Lyston joined the 55th Illinois Infantry, his father’s new outfit, in which he served a full three-year enlistment.
Orion P. Howe
Orion, Lyston’s older brother, entered the service as a member of the 55th Illinois Infantry—his father’s and brother Lyston’s unit- in September 1862, at the age of 13. During an assault on Vicksburg, Mississippi, in May 1863 Howe was one of several soldiers sent for supplies of badly needed ammunition. The others were killed and Howe was badly wounded in his successful attempt to reach Gen. William T. Sherman. The exploit won him a postwar appointment to the naval academy at Annapolis (he was too short for West Point), and, in 1896, the Medal of Honor.
George R. Yost
Fourteen-year-old George R. Yost joined the U. S. Navy in January 1862 and served as “first class boy” aboard the river gunboat USS Cairo. George was on duty manning a gun on the morning of December 12, 1862, when a mine ignited by an electrical charge tore into the Cairo, sinking the vessel in about fifteen minutes. Yost survived the attack and saved the journal he kept during his service, which provides wonderful insight into life on the war vessels that steamed the great rivers.
Ransom P. Stowe
Ransom P. Stowe joined the 33rd Illinois Infantry in May 1861 at the age of 14. He served with the regiment through the war, only to be badly hurt by an accident in March 1865. The injury led to his discharge from the service in June 1865 and the award of an invalid pension in the 1870s. Ransom committed suicide in 1908, which friends and family attributed to the years of suffering due to his wartime injury.