We typically think of war as the work of adults. Adults make the policies that lead to war. Children should not be exposed to the death, destruction and moral ambiguity that results from armed conflicts. Today, all branches of the American military require enlistees to be at least 17 years of age (with parental consent). But war hasn’t always been something that society has tried to shield children from.
The Civil War has often been called The Boys’ War because of the young ages of the combatants. The average age of the Union soldier was 25.8 years (records for the Confederate armies are incomplete making it difficult to figure an average age). Both armies had policies that required a minimum age of 18 to enlist*, but that was policy, not necessarily practice. A determined young man or an unscrupulous recruiting officer could find ways to circumvent these rules, and they did so with alarming frequency. Many of these children were initially enlisted as musicians, but when the fighting started, either by choice or circumstances they found themselves carrying a musket or picking up a ramrod. The deadly hail of lead made no distinction of age when it found its target.
*The Union Army’s minimum enlistment age was 18, and 17 for musicians. Younger children could enlist with parental permission. For the majority of the Confederacy’s existence, the minimum enlistment age was 18, but in 1864 that was lowered to 17.
Sources and Further Reading
Child Soldiers in the Civil War
Children in the Civil War
The Boy's War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk About the Civil War by Jim Murphy
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.