Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Civil War Reenacting: Children Soldiers

By Matthew Pizzolato

A civil war reenactment is always a family affair, so there are usually children of various ages present. Some of the youngest have to remain in camp during a battle, or join a group of spectators to watch. There are a few tasks for some youngsters who aren't quite old enough to carry a rifle on the battlefield, such as flag-bearers and drummer boys. Some are used as couriers behind the lines to carry messages from one body of troops to another.

However, during the Civil War, the term Children Soldiers had an entirely different meaning. The official age to join the military was eighteen, but a lot of young men lied about their ages and recruiters weren't very strict when the boys looked old enough. Ironically, it was the abundance of boyish-looking men that made it easier for women to disguise themselves as men and join the ranks.

Johnny Clem
Still, a lot of underage soldiers succeeded in enlisting, on both sides of the conflict. A lot of them were assigned as regimental musicians but still managed to see action. Johnny Clem was twelve years old when he joined the Second Michigan regiment as a drummer boy. During the battle of Chicamauga, he was ordered to surrender by a Confederate officer. Clem shot the man and ran back to the Union lines. He was celebrated as a hero throughout the Union and became famous as the "Drummer Boy of Chicamauga."

It is estimated that as many as 20% of the soldiers who fought during the War were under eighteen. Most of them were assigned as musicians and in theory didn't fight. But once a battle started, many of them picked up weapons to defend themselves and their friends. A lot of the boys who joined were runaways who wanted to fight alongside family members and some were orphans.

Private Edwin Francis Jemison
Elisha Stockwell, a soldier from Wisconsin, described his experience during the battle of Shiloh as follows. 
“I want to say, as we lay there and the shells were flying over us, my thoughts went back to my home, and I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away and get into such a mess as I was in. I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me.”
Private Edwin Francis Jemison, a private in the Confederate Army, was killed at the age of seventeen when fighting at the Battle of Malvern Hill. 
According to U.S. Military records, there were 127 soldiers who were thirteen, 320 who were fourteen, about 800 who were fifteen, 2,758 who were sixteen, and around 6,500 were seventeen. Of course, that is just the numbers for the Union Army. Total figures for the Confederate Army are unknown, but is believed to have been even higher. 

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He is a member of Western Fictioneers and his work can be found in the Wolf Creek series as well as his own publications, THE WANTED MAN, OUTLAW and TWO OF A KIND. 

He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western. He can be contacted through Twitter @mattpizzolato or via his website: 


  1. There was a gentleman here in Colorado who was just such a 'soldier'. Fortunately for us, his family kept is story and with additional research now have a book of his exploits. We talk about children soldiers and how horrid it it, but as you so ably pointed out, it isn't new. Thank you for adding this part of the story. Doris

  2. Gosh, that is horrifying to think of kids fighting. And you can imagine that the Confederate officer wanted him to surrender, yet would have had no wish to shoot a boy.