41 Amazing Vintage Photos of Child Soldiers from the American Civil War

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.”

A “powder monkey” aboard the U.S.S. New Hampshire. Charleston, South Carolina. 1864
Little Johnny Clem became the youngest soldier in the Union Army to kill a man when he put down his drum, grabbed a rifle, and shot a Confederate officer.
Circa 1863-1865.
Three drummer boys in the Confederate army. By the time this picture had been taken, these boys were veterans of nine battles. Circa 1861-1865.
This photo, labelled “Captain Goodrich’s Jack” on the back, appears to show the African-American servant of an army officer. Circa 1861-1865.
A 15-year-old Confederate child soldier lies dead in the trenches at Fort Mahone. Petersburg, Virginia. 1865.
A group of Generals in the Union Army pose for a photo with an African-American servant boy. Cumberland Landing, Virginia. 1862.
Major Luzerne Todd poses for a photograph with his African-American child servant. Arlington Grounds, Virginia. 1861.
The crew of a frigate poses in front of a cannon. The boy sitting on top serves as a powder monkey, gathering gunpowder and bringing it to the cannons. Circa 1861-1865.
A young African-American boy stands next to a Union Officer. He is most likely working as the officer’s servant. Circa 1861-1865
A young Union drummer. Circa 1861-1865.
A Union drummer boy in uniform. Circa 1861-1865.
Johnny Clem in uniform, with the stripes showing off his officer’s rank. Circa 1863-1865.
A portrait of a young boy in a Confederate uniform. Circa 1861-1865.
William Black, the youngest soldier to injured in active duty, was 12 years old when his arm was hit by an exploding shell. Circa 1861-1865.
An African-American child poses in front of a painted backdrop in the clothing of an army servant. Circa 1861-1865.
Soldiers at Camp Cameron, including a young African-American servant boy.
Washington, D.C. 1861-1865.
Drummer boy Johnny Jacobs in his Union Army uniform. Circa 1861-1865.
A child at a military camp leans against a wooden barrel with spikes.
Circa 1862-1863.
A young drummer boy, his cheeks made rosy to emphasize his youth, poses with his drum. Circa 1861-1865.
Nathan Jones, an African-American servant boy, serving at Camp Metcalf.
Virginia. Circa 1861-1865.
Johnny Clem, the youngest soldier in the Union Army. At the time of this photo, he was 12 years old. 1863.
Jimmy Doyle, a drummer boy who was wounded in combat. New Haven, Connecticut. 1863.
A child in the uniform of the Washington Rifles. Circa 1861-1865.
A Union drummer boy in uniform, holding his drum. Circa 1861-1865.
Johnny Clem would survive the war, despite being captured and held prisoner by Confederate soldiers. He would even stay in the American Army after the war. When he left the service in 1915, he was a General and the last Civil War soldier still in the army. 1865.
A Union child soldier poses with his rifle. Circa 1861-1865.
A drummer boy named Jackson poses for a portrait during the Civil War. Jackson is believed to be a freed or escaped slave who joined the 79th Infantry Regiment – U.S. Colored Troops, an all-black unit assigned to Kansas and Arkansas during the war that incurred heavy casualties. As a drummer, Jackson would have used up to 40 different beats to convey his commanders orders to assemble for formation, head to chow, line up for pay or charge into battle. Many drummer boys also served as stretcher bearers.
Edwin Jemison of Monroe, Louisiana enlisted in the Confederate Army at the age of 16 in 1861. He served in the 2nd Louisiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment and participated in the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battles in 1862. Jemison would die during the Battle of Malvern Hill.
John Cook enlisted in the Union Army in Cincinnati, Ohio as a bugler for the 4th U.S Artillery at the age of 14. He would fight at Antietam and Gettysburg and would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism.
Charlie King was enlisted into the 49th Pennsylvania at age 12 after a company captain heard him practicing his drum near the military camp. During the Battle of Antietam on September 17th, 1862 King would die becoming the youngest known casualty of the Civil War on either side of the conflict.
Orion P. Howe enlisted at the age of 12 in the 55th Illinois Volunteer Infantry as a musician along with his brother, Lyston. During the Battle of Vicksburg on May 19th, 1863, Howe, severely wounded & would eventually be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Vicksburg.
At age 14 Susie King Taylor married Edward King, a black officer in the 33rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment, and served as a nurse, laundress, and taught reading and writing to soldiers in his regiment until the end of the war.
Edward (William) Black (1853–1872) was a drummer boy for the Union during the American Civil War. At twelve years old, his left hand and arm were shattered by an exploding shell. He is considered to be the youngest wounded soldier of the war.
Rashio Crane was a 15-year-old drummer with Company D 7th Wisconsin. He was captured May 5, 1864 at the Wilderness while helping a wounded comrade. Sent to Andersonville Prison, he took sick and died July 23, 1864.
Benjamin Knox was a 15-year-old private in Company H 20th Ohio, from Vicksburg to the Atlanta Campaign. He was shot in the trenches at Atlanta and died a short time later in the company quarters.
Ten-year-old Willie Lawn was wounded near Suffolk, Virginia, April 23, 1863. He lost part of his right arm.
Robert Henry Hendershot, known as the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock, was an American Civil War drummer boy known for his reputed heroics at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862.
Drummers of the 61st New York Infantry, March 1863.
This young Virginian, William Nelson Boswell entered the Confederate service at eleven years of age as a drummer in the 56th Virginia. His soldierly bearing on drill so attracted the attention of President Davis that with his own hands presented the little drummer with a sword.
Gustav Schurmann, Twelve-year-old who served in the Civil War as bugler and orderly to Generals Philip Kearny and Daniel Sickles. He served with the “Mozart Regiment,” which was made up of New York men. He also met and befriended Tad Lincoln.
Detail from a photograph of scouts and guides of the Army of the Potomac, Brandy Station, Virginia, March 1864.
Henry Monroe, a member of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first black regiment from the North during the Civil War.

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