Between 250,000 and 420,000 males under 18 were involved in the American Civil War, for the Union and the Confederacy combined. It is estimated that 100,000 Union soldiers were 15 years or younger.
Given the large number of boys and young men in the American Civil War, compared to the number of older men, one author stated that it “might have been called The Boys’ War.”
When the surrender of Fort Sumter was announced, men and boys of all ages on both sides of the conflict were eager to enlist. Abraham Lincoln initially only called for 90-day enlistments. However, after the Union army was driven out of Richmond in the disastrous Peninsula campaign, and the Rebel Army began to march on to Washington, Lincoln issued a call for three hundred thousand three-year volunteers.
Boys had many of the same motives for joining the military as their adult counterparts did. In the North, boys felt a desire to set the South straight. In the South, boys wanted to repel the North, whom they viewed as a hostile invader.
A key difference between boys and adults was their attitude towards slavery: in general, boys on both sides had neutral feelings towards slavery. Thus, few were motivated to fight for it or against it.
By and large, the most popular reason boys joined the military was to escape what they viewed as a dull life on the farm. (In 1860 the population of the United States was more than 80% rural.) Nearly all dreamed of coming home as heroes. Almost none imagined the conflict would drag on as long as it did.
Boys were not spared from the horrors of war that their adult counterparts faced, including violent deaths, injuries (and poor medical treatment), and appalling living conditions when captured.
Young soldiers’ romantic illusions about military glory evaporated under the harsh realities of combat. They suffered hunger, fatigue, and discomfort, and gradually lost their innocence in combat. Every aspect of soldiering comes alive in their letters and diaries: the stench of spoiled meat, the deafening sound of cannons, the sight of maimed bodies, and the randomness and anonymity of death.
The accounts of young Union prisoners at Confederate prison camps are especially harrowing. Sixteen-year-old Michael Dougherty was shocked by the sight of “different instruments of torture: stocks, thumb screws, barbed iron collars, shackles, ball and chain. Our prison keepers seemed to handle them with familiarity.” William Smith, a fifteen-year-old soldier in the 14th Illinois Infantry, was shaken by the physical appearance of prisoners at Andersonville in Georgia, a “great mass of gaunt, unnatural-looking beings, soot-begrimes, and clad in filthy trousers.”
Michael Dougherty was the only member of his company to survive imprisonment at Andersonville Prison in Georgia.
“No one, except he was there in the prison can form anything like a correct idea of our appearance about this time. We had been in prison nearly five months and our clothing was worn out. A number were entire naked; some would have a ragged shirt and no pants; some had pants and no shirt; another would have shoes and a cap and nothing else. Their flesh was wasted away, leaving the chaffy, weather beaten skin drawn tight over the bones, the hip bones and shoulders standing out. Their faces and exposed parts of their bodies were covered with smoky black soot, from the dense smoke of pitch pine we had hovered over, and our long matted hair was stiff and black with the same substance, which water would have no effect on, and soap was not to be had. I would not attempt to describe the sick and dying, who could now be seen on every side.”