Of Age

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From The Wall Street Journal:

Before her abolitionist novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” appeared as a serial in 1851, Harriet Beecher Stowe made her young children sob by reading aloud the passage that describes Uncle Tom being beaten to death. Today we might be shocked that a mother would risk traumatizing her tots with such upsetting stuff, but Stowe was a woman of the early 19th century, and back then people believed that children benefited from exposure to grisly material. The realm between childhood and adulthood was hazier: Children were expected to pull their weight, boys worked alongside men, and though parents were concerned for their children’s physical well-being, they seem not to have worried overmuch about emotional harm.

Thus in the antebellum years parents didn’t think it wrong for juvenile books and school primers to juxtapose wholesome moral messages with depictions of graphic violence. Once the Civil War broke out, books for even very small readers might show gory details. An abecedary titled “The Union ABC,” for instance, featured bloody battle scenes and a hanged man (T is for Traitor), while the letter Y stood for a Youth bound for soldiering. Preparing boys for battle, such material “steeped them in martial exploits,” Frances M. Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant write in “Of Age,” a book that explores the phenomenon of mass youth enlistment during the Civil War.

Ms. Clarke, who teaches history at the University of Sydney in Australia, and Ms. Plant, a history professor at the University of California, San Diego, make important claims in this excellent account, which is refreshingly clear of agonized caution and formulaic wokishness. According to their research, historians have been wrong to think that boys and youths constituted a mere 1.6% of the Union army. “When soldiers’ reported ages can be checked against census records and other sources,” the authors explain, “it becomes clear that military records mask an epidemic of lying.” By their reckoning, the proportion is more like 10%, amounting to some 200,000 minors. Most were 16- or 17-year-olds, but a substantial subset of roughly 40,000 boys joined at 15 or younger. Young men served in the Confederacy as well, but there was intense resistance in the rebel states to the enlistment of boys under 18, lest the “seed corn” of the next generation of white males be depleted.

Youngsters who ran off to join the army without permission often became drummers or musicians, freeing adult men for active service while fulfilling valuable functions. In those days, the authors remind us, “almost all actions that soldiers performed took place to the sound of a drum, fife, or bugle, and every regiment was accompanied by musicians.” Musicians buoyed morale and conveyed battle commands. More important, they “led armies on the march, determining the speed and, therefore, the distance that a regiment could travel.”

The Civil War drummer boy was a trope even in his time, the winsome hero of lithographs and ballads, but he was not, Ms. Clarke and Ms. Plant reveal, a figure equally lionized on either side of the conflict. The valiant boy-soldier was primarily a figure of the North. “Pure of heart and ardently committed to the Union war effort, he led troops into battle and died without regret, exhibiting the kind of stalwart patriotism that adults were supposed to emulate.” The symbol of a martyred child, borrowed from the republican iconography of the French Revolution, didn’t suit the purposes of the Confederacy. “At the core of Confederate nationalism were notions of tradition, bloodline, and vertical order,” the authors write. “Confederate leaders emphasized a vision of family life and social order in which slaves, wives, and children existed in an organic hierarchy overseen by benevolent patriarchs.“ The authors dryly add: “Celebrating the agency of the young undermined this agenda.”

Parents in the North didn’t necessarily celebrate the agency of the young either, but for different reasons. Mothers and fathers loved their boys, of course, but also relied on their labor, which by law they owned until a boy turned 21. While young males had done militia duty since Revolutionary times, antebellum Americans were still largely hostile to the notion of a standing army and were aggrieved to have their sons in it. Worst of all, once a boy lied his way into the service, parents found it hard to get him out again.

The army was supposed to release minors but often wouldn’t: They were too numerous and too useful. Agitated parents clogged state and local court dockets with their appeals, consuming so much official attention that, according to Ms. Clarke and Ms. Plant, “they were one of the main grounds for the nationwide suspension of habeas corpus.” For the armchair historian, this last claim is perhaps the book’s most startling. Most of us associate the suspension of this ancient legal right with President Lincoln’s desire to suppress both rebellious speech and his political enemies. But, we learn, “most habeas petitioners in the loyal states were actually parents seeking the discharge of underage enlistees.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

If you search in the Library of Congress photo collection, you’ll find lots of photos and other images of Civil War drummer boys.

Taylor, young drummer boy for 78th Colored Troops (USCT) Infantry

2 thoughts on “Of Age”

  1. I’m not altogether sure about some of the authors’ claims RE: the Confederacy’s attitude towards youngsters fighting, mostly because of the Battle of New Market and the lionization of the VMI cadets, all of whom were minors, who fought there.

  2. I once read a novel focused on Johnny Shiloh, or John Clem/Klem, a Union drummer boy at the battle of Shiloh. He survived through the Civil War and stayed in the army eventually becoming Quartermaster General for WWI, IIRC. Interesting story. the novelist showed the adults trying to take care of him, some, but it was a very bloody war.

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