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It seems like forever since I last did a tidbit and it probably is. This has been a troublesome summer for my family and things still aren't completely fixed yet but I really feel the need to start the tidbits again. I truly miss writing them.

I've begun reading the book "Reluctant Witnesses Children's Voices from the Civil War" and that combined with the fact that I played grandma this weekend made me think heavily about children.

When we think of the Civil War we most times think of the adult soldiers and the women who suffered but the children were deeply affected and often in their childlike way expressed things as no adult could.

Over the next several weeks or however long it takes I'd like to share this book with you.

The book opens by citing a letter from fifteen year old Elizabeth Horton in Alabama to her seventeen year old cousin, Emma Barbour, in Massachusetts. She said "Times are indeed troubulous (sic), when our city is so flooded with soldiers, thirsting for the blood of those whom they consider their enemies. My fervent prayer is that not a drop of blood may be shed on either side." (Werner, 7)

Ten days later, on April 12, Fort Sumter fell and the Civil War began. Over a period of four years, over three million Americans fought and over six hundred thousand died. Cousin Emma and Cousin Elizabeth never corresponded again. And sadly, this was probably the case with all too many families during that horrible time.

Children everywhere heard the news along with their parents. John S. Wise, son of the ex-governor of Virginia, was fourteen when the war broke out. He watched as the Stars and Stripes was lowered and replaced with the state flag and reacted by saying:

I had become rampant for war, but never until then had I fully realized that this step involved making the old flag under which I was born "henceforth the flag of the enemy"Across the harbor at the Gasport Navy Yard, the United States flag still floated from the garrison flagstaff, and from the ships"Upon those ships, lying there, were many men, who, but a short time before, were welcome visitors at our home. It was almost incredible that they were now, and were to be henceforth, enemies, or that they might at any time open fire upon the town which they had originally come to protect. (Werner, 8)

John attended Virginia Military Institute and was wounded in the Battle at New Market. If you remember we did a tidbit about that battle a while ago. It's also interesting to note that he was the nephew of Union General George G. Meade, commander of the Union forces at the battle of Gettysburg.

On the other hand, students at a school in South Carolina were jubilant at the news of the fall of Fort Sumter. When the headmaster announced the news, the boys stood and cheered loudly.

I hadn't thought about this before but there were twenty million people in the North and only nine million in the Confederacy of which three and a half million were slaves. Enlistees had to be eighteen years in order to serve, but between ten and twenty percent of new recruits in both armies were underage. Children went to war eager for a fight, each side thinking the other would collapse after a few months of fighting. Little did they know what lay ahead.

Some boys from the North thought of the war as an adventure and often opted to join the army as an escape from the routine of farm life behind. Others wanted to teach the South a lesson and a few, mostly from the Midwest and New England wanted to rid the country of slavery.

Southern boys were also looking for adventure and for glory in the Confederate Army. They thought of it as a frolicking good time but they also wanted to defend their homes against the invading army.

Many of the under-aged boys became buglers or drummers. The rationale was that they were noncombatants so recruiters would overlook their age. One fifteen year old Minnesotan, after being turned down because of his age, convinced his father to enlist with him, the father became a wagoner and the boy a drummer. Likewise, a sixteen-year old Texan was allowed to join the Third Texas Cavalry as a bugler. There were about twenty thousand boy musicians in the Confederate Army and over forty thousand drummer boys in the Union Army.

Private Harvey Reid, in a letter home, described twelve-year old Johnnie Walker, drummer boy in the Twenty second Wisconsin Regiment:

Johnnie is a drummer in the band and when they play at dress parades"the ladies see the little soldier-boy [and] always give him apples, cakes or something".When we are marching Johnnie always keeps up with the big men and is always singing and laughing."Everybody in the regiment likes Johnnie because he is a good little boy, is always pleasant and polite and not saucy".his mother sent him a suit of clothes made exactly like officer's clothes, and Lieutenant Bauman says he will get him a pair of shoulder straps with silver drum sticks upon them. (Werner, 9, 10)

The most famous of all Union drummer boys was ten-year old Johnnie Clem, who ran away from home to join the army in May 1861. The Third Ohio Volunteer Regiment turned him down, the captain laughing and saying, "he wasn't enlisting infants." (Werner, 10) Not to be deterred, Johnnie went to the Twenty second Michigan Regiment and followed them as a drummer. Even though he wasn't on the muster roll, the members of the regiment contributed to pay his salary of thirteen dollars a month and made sure he had a uniform that fit him.

What do you think a drummer's duties were? If you're like me, it will probably surprise and sadden you to know what their duties really were. Drummer boys sounded the reveille, breakfast, assembly, and taps calls and provided the beat for marching drills during the day. In addition they carried water, rubbed down horses, dug trenches, gathered wood, cooked and acted as guards, barbers or chaplain's assistants. And this was in camp.

On the battlefield, they communicated the order to charge and to retreat. They often helped remove the wounded from the battlefield and worse yet to assist the doctors by sharpening the surgeon's instruments, removing amputated limbs and burying the dead. Remember these were children who were not regular soldiers. Can you imagine your child doing this? I'm sure more than one parent would have been horrified at the thought of their sons performing such duties.

Many underage boys, who were large for their age, had no difficulty joining the regular infantry and cavalry units. Fifteen-year old Thomas Galwey went to the armory of the Hibernian Guard in Cleveland, Ohio and enlisted. "They seemed to like me, and I liked them".my name was the first on the company's roll to enlist. I didn't tell them that I was only fifteen. So I became a soldier." (Werner, 10)

In Mississippi, sixteen-year old George Gibbs enlisted in the Eighteenth Mississippi Infantry Regiment shortly after hearing that Fort Sumter had fallen. His parents tried too dissuade him from enlisting but he would have none of it. He was determined to join the army. He later wrote, "Nothing would do me but to enlist. Nothing could shake my resolution to be a soldier." (Werner, 11) But the fact remained that he was still a child and it became evident when it came time to leave his parents. He hid from the soldiers and had a big cry. "This seemed to help me and I felt better about leaving home." (Werner, 12)

Early on, there weren't uniforms for all the soldiers and even when they became available they didn't always fit, especially those for the smaller boys. A sixteen-year old Union soldier from the Midwest described his first uniform:

My trousers were too long by three or four inches; the shirt was coarse and unpleasant, too large at the neck and too short elsewhere. The cap was an ungainly bag with pasteboard top and leather visor; while the overcoat made me feel like a little nubbin of corn in a large husk. (Werner, 12)

At the beginning of the war enlisting, outfitting and training did not last very long because of the need to get men and boys to the front. At most it took two to three months but oftentimes only a few weeks. At the end of this time both sides left to the strains of patriotic songs, flags waving, lots of well-wishers showering them with cheers, and handshakes from crowds of adoring people.

The good feelings soon turned sour as they learned that they spent more time marching than fighting. Elisha Stockwell wrote while in Wisconsin, "We didn't know where we were going, as a soldier isn't supposed to know any more than a mule, but has to obey." (Werner, 14)

As noted by fifteen-year old Carlton McCarthy the Confederate soldiers in 1861 changed drastically once they began the marches. In the beginning they carried so much equipment the marches were unbearable. Quickly the soldier disposed of possessions until all he consisted of was "one man, one hat, one jacket, one shirt, one pair of pants, one pair of drawers, one pair of shoes, and one pair of socks. His baggage was one blanket, one rubber blanket, and one haversack".[It] contained smoking tobacco and a pipe , a small piece of soap, with temporary additions of apples, persimmons, blackberries and other commodities he could pick up on the march." (Werner, 14) I don't know about you but that seems like quite enough to carry on long marches.

Likewise, the accompanying wagon trains pared down to the basic needs. If they had remained as large as when they started they would have been extremely hard to guard in enemy territory. The company had two or three skillets and frying pans, which the infantrymen preferred to carry by putting the handle into the barrel of a musket.

After the fall of Fort Sumter, the Federal armory at Harper's Ferry was abandoned but Federal sharpshooters remained in the nearby heights. Less than twenty families stayed. Annie P. Marmion, daughter of a local doctor loyal to the Union, wrote, "The great objects in life were to procure something to eat and to keep yourself out of sight by day, and keep your candle light hidden by night; lights of every kind, being regarded as signals to the Rebels, were usually greeted by a volley of guns." (Werner, 15)

The family spent many a night in their clothes on the first floor of their house ready to flee to the basement when shells rained in on them at an increasing frequency and intensity. They often sheltered runaway slaves and wounded soldiers. Eight-year old Annie repeatedly asked, "When will it cease." But there was no answer to give her even though everyone now realized the war was going to last more than the ninety days term of enlistment.

Thirty-five thousand Confederate soldiers moved north to defend Virginia against the expected invasion. Fourteen-year old Benjamin Fleet, who lived at Green Mount Plantation in the Tidewater area of Virginia, kept a diary. A May 31, 1861 entry says, "Rode to the academy at Aberdeen but Council did not teach, he broke up, all the boarders have left. I have left maybe never to go to school again. I feel very disconsolowtory (sic) and meloncolly (sic). Came home & brought all my books and slate." (Werner, 15)

On July 4, 1861, he entered, "The most dreary '4thof July' I ever saw, we Southerners will not celebrate it any more but will celebrate the day forever afterward when we whip the Yankees." (Werner, 15)

Benjamin's family as well as many other Southern families helped the war effort by sewing uniforms and sending "eatables" to their kin in the army. Little military action took place in Virginia during the fall of 1861, but disease ran rampant and killed more soldiers, both Union and Confederate, than the battlefield.

During the war more soldiers died from sickness than from wounds. Dysentery and diarrhea were the most common diseases, but bronchitis, pneumonia, malaria, diphtheria, typhoid fever, and scurvy were also common. Measles was probably the most dangerous of the diseases and killed many boy soldiers. Since they were forced to live in such close quarters, farm boys, away from home for the first time in their lives, became extremely susceptible to childhood diseases.

Benjamin's family as well as other families in the area took in ill soldiers. He wrote, "Pa had four from the 5thRegiment, North Carolina Volunteers".There were 1150 men in their Regt. & only muster now 200!! All the others are sick." (Werner, 18)

Sixteen-year old Langdon Rumph, of the First Alabama Volunteers, didn't live through the summer of 1861. In his last letter to his father, dated July 25, 1861, he wrote, "Some two weeks ago I received your kind favor but being stretched out with the measles I could not answer it".There are over 100 with them at the hospital. In all my life I never saw such a sickly time." (Werner, 18)

Hardly three weeks later, on August 14, 1861, one of his friends wrote to Langdon's father:

My dear sir: It is with deep regret that I am compelled to inform you of the death of your son, Langdon " which occurred at the hospital yesterday morning".He died a brave boy, and although his life was not given up in the tempest of battle, yet, he & his other deceased comrades truly deserve as much glory as those brave Southerners who fell on the bloody field of Manassas. They died in the service of their Country".Langdon, as I presume you are aware, had been in feeble health for four or five weeks, and had just gotten over a spell of Measles when he was attacked, as his physician said, with Typhoid Fever, but I think it was a relapse from the Measles, and [he] died in five days".I have always thought that the prime causes were " the manner in which we are so crowded at this particular camp. (Werner, 18)

Camp life was usually unsanitary but it was home to the boys away from home. When they finally had some free time they did what they pleased. Some read books and magazines sent from home. Some kept diaries, wrote letters, played chess, checkers or cards and participated in horse or footraces.

But the boys spent most of their free time with a small group of friends, talking about the families they left behind, and wondering when or if there would meet again. Their big question was, when will the war be over and "peace again pervade their homes." (Werner, 19)

This brings us to those left behind. Maria Lewis of Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, was sixteen when her forty-nine year old father enlisted. He told the recruiter he was forty-four in order to sign up for three years. Maria idolized her father and in her first letter to him on August 13, 1861 she wrote:

As I think for my first beginning I cant (sic) find one more worthey (sic) than my one dear Papa I will attempt to scribble a few lins (sic) to you to let you know that we are all well at least as far as helth (sic) is conserned. (sic) But our minds are never easy on your account and never will be untill (sic) your safe return. Dear Papa it is so loansome (sic) here without you.

After an illness she wrote on September 19, 1861:

I hav (sic) nothing to write only that I hope this dreadful war will soon be over and you will get home safe for o papy (sic) should eny (sic) thing happen I know it would kill mammy and when I was sick I was so fraid (sic) I would die and not get to see you but I am spared and hope to see you again. (Werner, 20)

Maria's worst nightmare came true, her father never returned home. He was wounded, captured by the Confederates, and lost a leg. He died on July 2, 1862, near Richmond, Virginia.

Children in the South felt the same way about their fathers. Ten-year old Loulie Gilmer, was very proud of her father who was a major in the Confederate Army. In one of her letters, written from Savannah, Georgia, she wrote:

My Dear Dear Father:

I do want to see you so much. I do miss you so much in the evening when I come in and no one is in, and I am so lonesome by myself and if you were here you would tell me stories and so I would not be lonesome".Write to me what your horse is named".The Yankees have not got near the city yet. The other day some heavy firing was heard and it was them firing into one of our Boats".Mother and Auntee had the headache day before yesterday and they got up yesterday".

I have no more to say. I am your loving child.

LOULIE GILMER (Werner, 20)

Major Gilmer was taken prisoner by Union troops near Fort Henry, Tennessee in February 1862. After the "unconditional surrender" of Fort Donelson, he escaped and unlike Maria's father lived. He returned to service in the Confederate army.

The end of 1861 saw a fading of the initial enthusiasm for war, people sobered, fathers turned loving thoughts to their families at home and the boy soldiers must have been wishing they were back with their families. Sixteen-year old Charles Goddard from the First Minnesota Regiment sent a message to his younger brother in a Christmas letter to his widowed mother, "Tell him that he must be a good boy and not trouble his mother as much as I did." (Werner, 20)

The Christmas prayer of people in both the North and the South was for Peace on Earth.

It is obvious that the boy soldiers ached to be with their families but it is also evident that their families suffered greatly. Sometimes it is worse to be the ones left behind and not to know what is happening. Your mind can play all kinds of games with you.

A portion of the above was taken from


Werner, Emmy W. "Reluctant Witnesses Children's Voices from the Civil War" Westview Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group, 1998.

Take the time to let your children know you love them and give them lots of love and understanding.

(Part II)

© 2006 Winifred Ledoux