Soldiers at 15

September 10, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

There is a popular tale, so old it is difficult to verify, that underage children itching to see action during the Civil War would insert slips of paper with the number 18 scrawled on them into their shoes.

When recruiters would then ask if they were "over 18," the enterprising youths could answer in all honesty, "Yes."

Boys will be boys, but when Union and Confederate troops squared off between 1861 and 65, many boys were forced to become men far too soon.

"Most children stayed home, got on with their lives, which was pretty different" from childhood today, according to Larry Keener-Farley, director of education at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pa.


"The role of children was on the home front, and not the battle front," he says. "There wasn't the same childhood we have today, and teenagers were definitely considered part of the workforce."

With many growing up on farms, tilling the fields was a large part of life. Many, Keener-Farley says, also spent time in factories to create munitions and other supplies for the troops. Long, 12-hour shifts making cartridges for weapons would be followed by more work on the farm.

Still, by age 18, teens were allowed to join the war effort. Given parental consent, 16-year-olds could enlist as well. In "The Boys' War" (Clarion Books, 1990), author Jim Murphy writes that by some estimates, 10 percent to 20 percent of all soldiers were underage when they enlisted.

Underage or not, the statistical breakdown of soldiers is staggering. According to some estimates, listed on

1 million Federal soldiers were 18 or younger;

800,000 17 or younger;

200,000 16 or younger; and

100,000 15 or younger.

Keener-Farley, however, says these are volatile estimations; many, for instance, place the actual number of 15-year-old fighters at closer to 10,000.

"You had a lot of kids who lied about (their age)," he says; boys were eager to assist the war effort but unwilling to wait.

Among the most famous underage participants is Johnny Clem, a drummer boy at age 11 who graduated to mounted orderly later in the war.

Often, boys entered the military through music, playing fife or drum and seeing some battle action. But Keener-Farley says there is a myth about the drummer boys; they were usually much older than their label suggested.

Girls also pulled their weight during the war, though they often remained at home tending to household chores or joining their mothers in munitions factories.

Despite a roaming battlefield that migrated through several farms and towns in the Tri-State, Keener-Farley says children were often safeguarded from the war, not that they didn't try to enter the fray.

Pulling stunts like the slip of paper in the shoe trick, many dodged the age issue only to be retrieved from training camps by parents in search of truant children.

"It certainly happened," Keener-Farley says of trying to dodge age limits. "And certainly some of them would slip through the cracks."

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