previous next

Boys of the war days

Charles King, Brigadier-General, United States Volunteers

‘Jimmy’ Dugan. ‘Jimmy’ Dugan was a bugler-boy in the band at Carlisle barracks, the cavalry depot in Pennsylvania, as the Civil War opened. One who knew him writes: ‘He was about three feet six high, could ride anything on four legs, sound all the calls, and marched behind the band at guard-mounting at the regulation twenty-eight-inch step at the risk of splitting himself in two.’ ‘Jimmy’ was heard of later when the serious work began, and, like many another daring youngster in the field-music contingent, did his duty under fire.


Time and again of late years Grand Army men have made this criticism of the organized militia, ‘They look like mere boys.’ But it is a singular fact that, man for man, the militia of to-day are older than were the ‘old boys’ when they entered service for the Civil War. In point of fact, the war was fought to a finish by a grand army of boys. Of 2,778,304 Union soldiers enlisted, over two million were not twenty-two years of age—1,151,438 were not even nineteen.1

So long as the recruit appeared to be eighteen years old and could pass a not very rigid physical examination, he was accepted without question; but it happened, in the early days of the war, that young lads came eagerly forward, begging to be taken—lads who looked less than eighteen and could be accepted only on bringing proof, or swearing that they were eighteen. It has since been shown that over eight hundred thousand lads of seventeen or less were found in the ranks of the Union army, that over two hundred thousand were no more than sixteen, that there were even one hundred thousand on the Union rolls who were no more than fifteen.

Boys of sixteen or less could be enlisted as ‘musicians.’ Every company was entitled to two field musicians; that made twenty to the average war-time regiment. There were 1981 regiments—infantry, cavalry, and artillery—organized during the war, and in addition there were separate companies sufficient in number to make nearly seventy more, or two thousand and fifty regiments. This would account for over forty thousand [191]

A young officer of the ConfederacyWilliam H. Stewart The subject of this war-time portrait, William H. Stewart, might well have been a college lad from his looks, but he was actually in command of Confederate troops throughout the entire war. His case is typical. He was born in Norfolk County, Virginia, of fighting stock; his grandfather, Alexander Stewart, had been a soldier of 1812, and his great-grandfather, Charles Stewart, member of a Virginia regiment (the Eleventh) during the Revolution. It was no uncommon thing to find regularly enlisted men of eighteen, seventeen, or even sixteen. And numerous officers won distinction, though even younger than Stewart. His first command, at the age of twenty-one, was the lieutenancy of the Wise Light Dragoons, two years before the war. After hostilities began, he soon won the confidence of his superiors in spite of his boyish face. During the Antietam advance, September, 1862, he was left in command of the force at Bristoe's Station. In the Wilderness campaign he commanded a regiment in General R. H. Anderson's division. In the battle of the Wilderness, May 6th, he took part in the flank movement which General Longstreet planned to precede his own assault on the Federal lines. Colonel Stewart served also at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, and helped to repel the assaults on the Petersburg entrenchments. On the evacuation of Petersburg the next April, he marched with the advance guard to Amelia Court House, and took part in the battle of Sailor's Creek on April 6th. Thus, like many another youth of the South, Colonel Stewart did not give up as long as there was any army with which to fight.

[192] boy musicians. Here, at least, the supply far exceeded the demand; there were mere lads of twelve to fourteen all over the land vainly seeking means of enlistment. There were three hundred boys of thirteen or under who actually succeeded in being mustered into the Federal military service.

Many of the fine regiments that took the field early in 1861 had famous drum-and-fife corps made up entirely of boys. In those days, too, each regiment had two or more ‘markers,’ who, with the adjutant and sergeant-major, established the alignment on battalion drill or parade, and these were generally mere lads who carried a light staff and fluttering guidon instead of the rifle. There were little scamps of buglers in some of the old regular cavalry regiments and field-batteries, who sometimes had to be hoisted into the saddle, but once there could stick to the pigskin like monkeys, and with reckless daring followed at the heels of the squadron leader in many a wild saber charge.

There were others, too, that were so short-legged they could not take the service stride of twenty-eight inches and were put to other duties. One of the most famous of these was little Johnny Clem, who at the age of eleven went out as drummer in the Twenty-second Michigan, and before long was made a mounted orderly with the staff of Major-General George H. Thomas and decorated with a pair of chevrons and the title of lance-sergeant.

Another Western boy who saw stirring service, though never formally enlisted, was the eldest son of General Grant, a year older than little Clem, when he rode with his father through the Jackson campaign and the siege of Vicksburg. There were other sons who rode with commanding generals, as did young George Meade at Gettysburg, as did the sons of Generals Humphreys, Abercrombie, and Heintzelman, as did ‘Win’ and Sam Sumner, both generals in their own right to-day, as did Francis Vinton Greene, who had to be locked up to keep him from following his gallant father into the [193]

‘The first of the boy generals’

Surrounded by his staff, some of whom are older than he, sits Adelbert Ames (third from the left), a brigadiergen-eral at twenty-eight. He graduated fifth in his class at West Point on May 6, 1861, and was assigned to the artillery service. It was while serving as first-lieutenant in the Fifth Artillery that he distinguished himself at Bull Run and was brevetted major for gallant and meritorious service. He remained upon the field in command of a section of Griffin's battery, directing its fire after being severely wounded, and refusing to leave the field until too weak to sit upon the caisson, where he had been placed by the men of this command. For this he was awarded a medal of honor. About a year later he again distinguished himself, at the battle of Malvern Hill. He then became colonel of the Twentieth Maine Infantry, from his native State, and on the twentieth of May, 1863, was made brigadier-general of volunteers. He had a distinguished part in the first day's battle at Gettysburg, July 1, 1863, and in the capture of Fort Fisher, North Carolina, January 15, 1865. For this he was promoted to major-general of volunteers. In the class of 1861 with Ames at West Point was Judson Kilpatrick, who stood seventeenth, and who became a general at twenty-seven. He, too, was assigned to the artillery, but after a short transfer to the infantry, in the fall of 1861, was made lieutenant-colonel of the Second New York Cavalry, rising to the rank of brigadier-general of volunteers on June 18, 1865. It was in the cavalry service that he became a picturesque figure, distinguishing himself at the battle of Aldie, in the third day's battle at Gettysburg, and in the engagement at Resaca, Georgia. In June, 1865, he was made major-general of volunteers and later brevetted major-general in the United States Army.

The third of these youthful leaders, a general at twenty-seven, was Wesley Merritt. He graduated from West Point the year before Kilpatrick and Ames. He was made brigadier-general of volunteers on June 29, 1863, distinguished himself two days later at Gettysburg, but won his chief fame as one of Sheridan's leaders of cavalry. He was conspicuous at Yellow Tavern and at Hawe's Shop, was made major-general of volunteers for gallant service in the battles of Winchester and Fisher's Hill, and brigadier-general in the United States Army for Five Forks. The boy generals won more than their share of glory on the grim ‘foughten field.’

Adelbert Ames as Brigadier-General with his staff

Judson Kilpatrick as Brigadier–General

MajorGeneral Wesley Merritt and staff

[194] thick of the fray at Gettysburg, but ‘lived to fight another day’ and win his own double stars at Manila.

And while the regulations forbade carrying the musket before reaching one's eighteenth birthday, they were oddly silent as to the age at which one might wield the sword, and so it resulted that boys of sixteen and seventeen were found at the front wearing the shoulder-straps of lieutenants, and some of them becoming famous in an army of famous men.

Two instances were those of two of the foremost majorgenerals of later years—Henry W. Lawton, of Indiana, and Arthur MacArthur, of Wisconsin. Lawton, tall, sinewy, and strong, was chosen first sergeant, promoted lieutenant, and was commanding a regiment as lieutenant-colonel at the close of the war and when barely twenty. MacArthur's case was even more remarkable. Too young to enlist, and crowded out of the chance of entering West Point in 1861, he received the appointment of adjutant of the Twenty-fourth Wisconsin when barely seventeen, was promoted major and lieutenant-colonel while still eighteen, and commanded his regiment, though thrice wounded, in the bloody battles of Resaca and Franklin. The ‘gallant boy colonel,’ as he was styled by General Stanley in his report, entered the regular army after the war, and in 1909, full of honors, reached the retiring age (sixty-four) as the last of its lieutenant-generals.

The East, too, had boy colonels, but not so young as Mac-Arthur. The first, probably, was brave, soldierly little Ellsworth, who went out at the head of the Fire Zouaves in the spring of 1861, and was shot dead at Alexandria, after tearing down the Confederate flag. As a rule, however, the regiments, East and West, came to the front headed by grave, earnest men over forty years of age. Barlow, Sixty-first New York, looked like a beardless boy even in 1864 when he was commanding a division. The McCooks, coming from a famous family, were colonels almost from the start—Alexander, of the First Ohio, later major-general and corps commander; [195]

Boys who fought and played with men.

The boys in the lower photograph have qualified as men; they are playing cards with the grown — up soldiers in the quiet of Camp life, during the winter of 1862-3. They are the two drummers or ‘field musicians,’ to which each company was entitled. Many stories were told of drummer-boys' bravery. A poem popular during the war centered around an incident at Vicksburg. A general assault was made on the town on May 19, 1863, but repulsed with severe loss. During its progress a boy came limping back from the front and stopped in front of General Sherman, while the blood formed a little pool by his foot. Unmindful of his own condition, he shouted, ‘Let our soldiers have some more cartridges, sir—caliber fifty-four,’ and trudged off to the rear. Another poem is based on an incident in the first year of the war. A drummer-boy had beat his rat-tat-too for the soldiers until he had been struck on the ankle by a flying bullet. He would not fall out, but, mounted on the shoulders of a grown comrade, he continued to beat his drum as the company charged to victory, and at the end of the day's fighting he rode to Camp sitting in front on the general's horse, sound asleep. The drummer-boy was the inspiration of many a soldierly deed and ballad both North and South. The little chaps in the photograph are not as long as the guns of their comrades.

A drummer in ‘full dress’

Drummer–boys off duty—playing cards in camp, winter of 1862

[196] Dan, of the Fifty-second Ohio; Edward, of the Second Indiana Cavalry; and gallant ‘Bob,’ of the Ninth Ohio, named brigadier-general before he was killed in August, 1862.

With the close of the second twelve months of the war came the first of the little crop of ‘boy generals,’ as they were called, nearly all of them young graduates of West Point. The first of the ‘boy generals’ was Adelbert Ames, of the class of 1861, colonel of the Twentieth Maine, closely followed by Judson Kilpatrick, colonel of the Second New York Cavalry, and by Wesley Merritt, whose star was given him just before Gettysburg, when only twenty-seven.

With Merritt, too, came Custer, only twenty-three when he donned the silver stars, and first charged at the head of the Wolverine Brigade on Stuart's gray squadrons at the far right flank at Gettysburg. A few months later and James H. Wilson, Emory Upton, and Ranald Mackenzie, all young, gifted, and most soldierly West Pointers, were also promoted to the stars, as surely would have been gallant Patrick O'Rorke, but for the bullet that laid him low at Gettysburg. That battle was the only one missed by another boy colonel, who proved so fine a soldier that New York captured him from his company in the Twenty-second Massachusetts and made him lieutenant-colonel of their own Sixty-first. Severe wounds kept him out of Gettysburg, but May, 1864, found him among the new brigadiers. Major-general when only twenty-six, he gave thirty-eight years more to the service of his country, and then, as lieutenant-general, Nelson A. Miles passed to the retired list when apparently in the prime of life.

The South chose her greatest generals from men who were beyond middle life—Lee, Jackson, Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, Bragg, Beauregard, and Hardee. Longstreet and A. P. Hill were younger. Hood and Stuart were barely thirty. The North found its most successful leaders, save Sherman and Thomas, among those who were about forty or younger.


Marching and foraging East and West

A western band—field–music of the first Indiana heavy artillery at Baton Rouge


Grant's soldiers digging potatoes—on the march to Cold Harbor, May 28, 1864: foraging a week before the bloodiest assault of the war. These boys of the Sixth Corps have cast aside their heavy accouterments, blankets, pieces of shelter-tent, and rubber blankets, and set cheerfully to digging potatoes from a roadside ‘garden patch.’ One week later their corps will form part of the blue line that will rush toward the Confederate works—then stagger to cover, with ten thousand men killed, wounded, or missing in a period computed less than fifteen minutes. When Grant found that he had been out-generated by Lee on the North Anna River, he immediately executed a flank movement past Lee's right, his weakest point. The Sixth Corps and the Second Corps, together with Sheridan's cavalry, were used in the flank movement and secured a more favorable position thirty-five miles nearer Richmond. It was while Sedgwick's [199] Sixth Corps was passing over the canvas pontoon-bridges across the Pamunkey at Hanovertown, May 28, 1864, that this photograph was taken. When the foragers in the foreground have exhausted this particular potato-field, one of the wagons of the quartermaster's train now crossing on the pontoon will halt and take aboard the prize, carrying it forward to the next regular halt, when the potatoes will be duly distributed. Not alone potatoes, but wheat and melons and turnips, or any other class of eatables apparent to the soldiers' eye above ground, were thus ruthlessly appropriated. This incongruous episode formed one of the many anomalies of the life of the soldier on the march. Especially when he was approaching an enemy, he relaxed and endeavored to secure as much comfort as possible.


Camp of an Engineer or pontonier company.

This is the Camp of an engineer or pontonier company. The pontoons resting on their wagon bases are ready to be launched. But before work comes a pause for an important ceremony—dinner. In the eyes of the rank and file the company cook was more important than most officers. The soldiers in the upper photograph are located near the headquarters' wagons, while the cook himself is standing proudly near the center, ‘monarch of all he surveys.’ To his left is seen one of the beeves that is soon to be sacrificed to the soldiers' appetites. Of the two lower photographs on the left-hand page, one shows cooks of the Army of the Potomac in the winter of 1864, snug in their winter-quarters, and the next illustrates cooking in progress outdoors. The two lower photographs on the right-hand page draw a contrast between dining in a permanent Camp and on the march. On the left is a mess of some of the officers of the Ninety-third New York Infantry, dining very much at ease, with their folding tables and their colored servants, at Bealton, Virginia, the month after Gettysburg. But in the last photograph a soldier is cowering apprehensively over the fire at Culpeper, Virginia, in August, 1862, while the baffled Army of Virginia under Pope was retreating before Lee's victorious northward sweep.

The busy engineers stop to eat

Preparing a meal in winter-quarters: the company cook with his outfit ‘in action’—beef on the hoof at hand

Cooking out-of-doors


Officers' luxury at Bealton—August, 1863

A mouthful during Pope's retreat

1 Abercrombie, Paper before Military Order of the Loyal Legion, Illinois Commandery.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: