Why the Union Army had so many young soldiers (2023)

Frances M. ClarkeandRebecca Jo Plant

Monroe Township, Missouri, was a hotbed of secessionism, but Union sentiment was strong in John Gudgell's household. Just days after federal troops arrived in the area in mid-June 1861, the youngest child in the family enlisted with a Home Guard unit. By the fall, 14-year-old Julian Gudgell was determined to join a proper regiment. Although his father thwarted his first attempt, he ran away again a few weeks later and managed to enlist in the 18th Missouri Infantry. On paper, he claimed to be 17.

Julian was one of more than 200,000 youth under the age of 18 who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. They represent about 10 percent of the Union forces and most likely a similar proportion of the Confederate forces - although surviving records allow less certainty on the rebel side - theseyoung recruitsGreatly increased the size and capabilities of both armies. They also caused a great deal of drama and chaos, upended household economies by fleeing with vital labor, caused untold fear among loved ones, and sometimes sparked dramatic showdowns between military and civilian authorities.

Family members desperate to get their sons discharged confronted officers in military camps; petitions to elected officials and government officials; and appealed to judgesHabeas corpus, which oneforced military officersappearing in court alongside underage soldiers and defending their recruitment. When such efforts failed, many began costly—and often futile—searches, chasing regiments along the way, scouring city streets near recruiting offices, or even traveling to Washington to plead their case personally. These conflicts had far-reaching consequences for the individuals and families affected, and for the battered nation that emerged from the war. Not only were thousands of minors legally freed from parental control through conscription, but the federal government also centralized power by rewriting militia laws and preventing state and local courts from using habeas to review potential conscription abuse.

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Think of John Gudgell's attempts to save his son. He first sought the help of a general stationed in the area, who assured him that Julian would soon be sent home. However, six months later, the boy was still on duty. John then wrote to the Missouri representativeFrancis P. Blair jr.He called himself a staunch "unionist" and said he would not seek to intervene if Julian was "older and more experienced". No matter what arguments John put forward or whom he appealed to, he could not dismiss his underage son.

Given that the law was on John's side, this process shouldn't have been so difficult. When Julian enlisted, by law, minors under the age of 21 required the consent of a parent or legal guardian to enlist in the Union Army. In February 1862, Congress lowered the bar to 18, but at 14 Julian fell well below that threshold. John even managed the rare feat of enlisting the support of Julian's captain, who wrote to the United States Adjutant General's office that a discharge would comply with regulations. Besides, added the captain, "such boys are of little or no use to the army in the field." Despite this, Julian was not released.

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His service history shows why. He fought inBattle of Siloin southwest Tennessee in April 1862 and was promoted to corporal in early 1863, shortly after his 16th birthday. Not even an absence due to illness affected his balance sheet. While Julian may have been unusually capable for someone so young, manyunderage soldiersstood out in a similar way. A large majority of them did not serve as regular soldiersMusician, and around 80 percent were 16 or 17 years old. But the youngest and smallest boys, treated like pets of their regiments—were allowed to ride while others marched, stayed behind the lines while others fought—also played an important role. They helped carry the wounded from the fields, carried the news, filled canteens, tended horses, made campfires, cooked, mended clothes, and cheered up the men with their childish antics. They might not have been of legal age, but they were vitally important, which is why the military were reluctant to release them.

This was particularly true of the Union Armed Forces – a finding that may at first seem counterintuitive, even confusing. After all, the US boastedabout 3.5 timesas many white men of military age as the Confederacy. To address itdisadvantage of the populationthe Confederate Congress took far-reaching action and achieved a far higher service rate among eligible men than the United States could ever claim. The Confederacy adopted a policy ofconscriptionin April 1862; in February 1864 it lowered the draft age from 18 to 17. At the same time, some Confederate states enrolled boys as young as 16 for servicegovernment controlled entities. Meanwhile, the US maintained a minimum age of 18 for voluntary enlistment and only hired those who were 20 years of age or older. Given all of this, it makes sense that many Unionists accused the Confederates of: "robbery of the cradle and the grave' to fill their ranks.

Why the Union Army had so many young soldiers (2)
Why the Union Army had so many young soldiers (3)

But a closer look reveals a more complex story. Most leaders opposed the idea of ​​directly conscripting youth under the age of 18 into the Confederate Army, insisting that such a measure would amount to "grinding theSamenkorn— Destroying the future of the South. Instead, they enrolled 17-year-olds in government reserve units, which generally meant less hazardous work closer to where they lived. Even near the bitter end of the war when the Confederates actedlegislationwho allowrecruitment of enslaved people, they refused to conscript boys under the age of 18 into the regular army. Of course, many tens of thousands of underage youths - possibly over 100,000 - still served in the Confederate Army. But all in all, it is the Confederacy's efforts to protect youth from hard service, more than its attempts to mobilize them, that demand an explanation.

If inherited notions of Confederate Army dragoon boys enlisted into service are wrong, so is the belief that underage enlistment in the United States was primarily limited to thisdrummer. Based on official military records, historians have long held that children under the age of 18 made up a tiny fraction of all Union soldiers -- less than 2 percent. But when the soldiers' stated ages are compared to census records and other sources, it becomes clear that the true story of underage recruitment has been obscured by an epidemic of official lies. While most young recruits are between a few months and a few years from their actual age, the more extreme cases are - like that of 11-year-oldsGeorge S. Howard, who enlisted in the 36th Massachusetts Infantry by claiming to be a 19-year-old are nothing short of stunning. The lies told by underage boys, codified as facts by enlisted officers who often knew better than that, were later incorporated into historical accounts, distorting our view of the Union Army to this day.

Not only did boys and youth enlist on both sides in greater numbers than was generally supposed, but their service engaged contemporaries to a greater extent than historians have guessed. As soon as fighting began, petitions and affidavits calling for the release of underage soldiers began pouring into Washington—so many that by September 1861the War Department simply decreedthat there would be no more soldiers fired for being underage. But by the end of 1863, judges in state and local courts continued to hear and mostly dismissed habeas cases involving underage soldiers. August 1861,a heading in theNew York Times declared the "plea for childhood" in courtrooms to be "an epidemic". Endlessly tried in court, debates about underage soldiers also played out in the press, congress halls, government offices, and military and medical circles. Meanwhile, writers, artists and musicians showered the nation with idealized depictions of heroic drummer boys and young soldiers popping up in every corner of culture imaginable - frompaintingand lithographs to sentimental poems, songs and plays.

Why the Union Army had so many young soldiers (4)
Why the Union Army had so many young soldiers (5)

As a political and cultural symbol, the young soldier or drummer boy resonated in the United States in a way it just couldn't in the Confederacy. rooted in oneartistic loreDating back to the French Revolution, the character embodied the democratic republic the nation envisioned—youthful, incorruptible, and forward-thinking. These were not the values ​​most valued by mostConfederate States of America, a nation founded by self-proclaimed patriarchs who wish to maintain a hierarchical social order based on slavery. Like the Unionists, the Confederates particularly celebrated heroic youth as evidence of their people's invincible spirit, but it was only in the United States that the generic soldier or drummer boy became a symbol that embodied the nation.

Likewise, youth advertising became a bureaucratic nightmare and pressing legal issue only in the Union States. Because the debate about underage soldiers in the United States was also a debate about the limits of military power. It all boiled down to whether the government could legally break the relationship between a father and an underage son by keeping an underage soldier on duty regardless of the parents' wishes. In other words, disputes over the status of soldier boys and youth inevitably raise fundamental questions about how much authority heads of households, communities and states can expect while fighting a long and bloody war.

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The Confederacy was also rocked by disputes over how much authority should be ceded to the central government and military. But in the Confederate states, litigation over concentration of power rarely focused on underage soldiers. Because of the all-encompassing nature of Confederate conscription, civilians sought release from absentee husbands and fathers—adult male providers—rather than minor sons. In any case, families had an easier time rescuing youths who volunteered without parental consent. The suspension of habeas corpus was more episodic and less effective in blocking such cases than in the United States, and the Confederate government did not legislate or issue general military orders to prevent the release of minors.

Why the Union Army had so many young soldiers (6)
Why the Union Army had so many young soldiers (7)

So what happened to John and Julian Gudgell is very much a Union story. Still in the roles in late 1863, Julian re-enlisted as a veteran volunteer and was rewarded with a 30-day leave of absence. But when he returned home, his father decided to claim and keep what he saw as rightful. The young soldier, with a previously unblemished service record, did not return to his unit.

Julian found himself caught between two gentlemen who both relentlessly demanded his presence and service: his father and the US federal government. His decision to favor filial obedience cost him dearly: classified as a deserter in April 1864, he was arrested in December, just a week after his father's death and less than a month after he had turned 18. A court-martial committee heard his case in March 1865 and sentenced him to a dishonorable discharge and one year in prison. Two months later, some leading citizens of Julian's hometown managed to commute the sentence, aided by a brigadier general who testified that Julian had been a good soldier and "would not have stayed home if his father had not insisted."

Why the Union Army had so many young soldiers (8)

While Julian regained his freedom, he would never reap the financial rewards and public honors bestowed on other veterans. His dishonorable discharge prevented him from receiving a military pension and aregimental historyPublished in 1891, he is not listed as a surviving member, although he was alive at the time. The essence seems clear: regardless of a soldier's minority, regardless of the wishes of his parents, he would be held accountable if he violated his military contract. Throughout the war, thousands of Union soldiers and their families learned the same harsh lesson about the growing primacy of federal and military power.

Adapted fromAge: Young soldiers and military power in the Civil War era by Frances M. Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2023 by Frances M. Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant. All rights reserved.

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Frances M. Clarke | CONTINUE READING

Frances M. Clark is a historian at the University of Sydney. She is the author ofWar Stories: Suffering and Casualty in the Civil War in the North.

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Rebecca Jo Plantis is a historian at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author ofMom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America.

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Why did the Union army have so many boy soldiers? ›

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 or against it. By and large, the most popular reason boys joined the military was to escape farm work or an abusive family life.

What was the average age for a soldier in the Union army? ›

Q. What was the average soldier's age? The average Union soldier was 25.8 years old; there is no definite information on the average age of Confederate soldiers, but by the end of the war old men and young boys, who otherwise would have stayed home, were being pressed into service.

How young were boys fighting for the Union army by the end of the war? ›

Most of the Union Army was made up of young white men born in North America. Although soldiers generally ranged in age from 18 to 45, boys as young as 12 often served as cavalry buglers or drummer boys, and some men in their fifties and sixties enlisted as privates.

Did the Union army have more soldiers? ›

In July 1861, the two armies were nearly equal in strength with less than 200,000 soldiers on each side; however at the peak of troop strength in 1863, Union soldiers outnumbered Confederate soldiers by a ratio of 2 to 1. The size of Union forces in January 1863 totaled over 600,000.

Why were children used in the Civil War? ›

Child Soldiers

Other boys and girls served as scouts or nurses for the wounded. Yet even those who did not participate in the war itself saw their lives altered by the conflict. During wartime, young people had to grow up quickly, assuming the responsibilities of absent relatives.

Who was the youngest soldier in the Civil War? ›

The youngest soldier to fight in the Civil War was a boy named Edward Black. Edward was born on May 30 in 1853, making him just 8 years old when he joined the Union army on July 24, 1861, as a drummer boy for the 21st Indiana volunteers.

How tall was the average Union soldier? ›

The average height of a soldier in the Civil War was five feet, eight inches; when Thomas Marshal Jones enlisted, he was seven feet, six inches tall. He was born in Tuscarawas County on September 16, 1838.

What was the average height weight Civil War soldiers? ›

The Average Soldier

According to historian Bell I. Wiley, who pioneered the study of the Civil War common soldier, the average Yank or Reb was a 'white, native-born, farmer, protestant, single, between 18 and 29. ' He stood about 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed about 143 pounds.

Why did young men join the war? ›

Their motivations were often the same as those who joined up in England, Scotland and Wales: a sense of duty, the belief that the war was a just cause, a desire for adventure, the bonds of friendship and economic reasons.

Why did young men enlist in the war? ›

Early recruitment posters urged enlistment on the basis of patriotism and emotional connections to the war's major issues. Later, more desperate posters tried to shame men into enlisting by questioning their loyalty and their manhood. Wartime propaganda also urged women to pressure men to enlist.

How young were the youngest soldiers? ›

The youngest known soldier of World War I was Momčilo Gavrić, who joined the 6th Artillery Division of the Serbian Army at the age of 8, after Austro-Hungarian troops in August 1914 killed his parents, grandmother, and seven of his siblings.

Did the Union have better military? ›

The two sides did not use the same quality materials in their ammunition, weapons, clothes, and food. The Union army were in a better condition compared to their Southern enemy.

How many more soldiers did the Union have? ›

From the graph we can see that over the course of the war a total of 2.1 million men enlisted for the Union Army, and 1.1 million enlisted for the Confederate Army.
Number of soldiers who were enlisted during the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, by army.
CharacteristicTotal number of soldiers
Union States2,128,948
1 more row
Jun 21, 2022

How many soldiers did the Union army have? ›

Over the course of the war, 2,128,948 men enlisted in the Union Army, including 178,895 colored troops; 25% of the white men who served were immigrants, and further 25% were first-generation Americans. Of these soldiers, 596,670 were killed, wounded or went missing.

Why do people use children as soldiers? ›

Throughout history, children have been recruited, often by force, and used in military campaigns. Child soldiers may be considered cheaper to recruit and train, more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, or strategically useful – such as the girls used for the horrific suicide attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

What did Kids do for fun during Civil War? ›

While books were the primary forms of entertainment at home, children could venture outside of the home for public shows and events, many of which revolved around the subject of the war.

Did 14 year olds fight in the Civil War? ›

Although soldiers were officially supposed to be at least 18 years old, both sides needed soldiers and were willing to look the other way when it came to age. As a result thousands of young boys between the ages of 13 and 17 fought in the Civil War. Many of these boys were killed or wounded in battle.

How old was the youngest soldier killed in the 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.
William Black (soldier)
Edward Black
DiedJune 30, 1872 (aged 19)
Occupation(s)drummer, soldier
EmployerU.S. Government
Known forThe youngest wounded soldier of the American Civil War
11 more rows

What is the oldest age to be a soldier? ›

The oldest you can be to enlist for active duty in each branch is:
  • Coast Guard: 31.
  • Marines: 28.
  • Navy: 39.
  • Army: 35.
  • Air Force: 39.
  • Space Force: 39.
Nov 10, 2022

What was the oldest age to fight in the Civil War? ›

Known as the Civil War Greybeard, Curtis King is widely believed by most historians to be the oldest soldier in the war at the age of his enlistment. When he mustered into Company H of the 37th Iowa Infantry on November 9, 1862, Curtis was an astonishing 80 years old.

Who was the tallest Civil War soldier? ›

Henry Clay Thruston was a Confederate soldier who fought at the Battle of Pea Ridge and in the Camden Expedition, as well as in General Sterling Price's Missouri Raid of 1864. Thruston is perhaps best known for reportedly being the tallest Confederate soldier of the Civil War at over seven and a half feet tall.

Who was the tallest Union soldier? ›

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Dubbed as the “biggest Yankee in the world, “ David Van Buskirk held the distinction of being the tallest Union soldier to serve in the Civil War. From Gosport, Indian, David was the oldest of ten children and was said to measure 6'10-10-1/2” tall in his stocking feet. He weighed 380 pounds.

What was the average weight of a man in the Civil War? ›

During the Civil War, the average soldier stood around 5'7” or 5'8” and weighed 143 pounds.

What is the best height for a soldier? ›

The ideal height requirement for men in the military is between 60-80 inches / 152-203 cm. Anyone above or below this requirement is likely to get rejected. The height limits are standard, and anyone within this height range can get accepted as long as their weight corresponds to the correct weight limit.

How many miles did a Civil War soldier walk in a day? ›

Marching. The average for a march was between 8 and 13 miles per day, with 20 or more miles being more exhausting and less frequent. Also, the armies usually walked less after a battle, unless in retreat or in pursuit.

What is the minimum height for a soldier? ›

There should be no history or evidence of mental disease. a) Height-Minimum acceptable height is 157.5 cm relaxable to 1.52 cm in case of Gorkhas, Assamese, Garhwalis etc. b) Weight - Weight should be proportionate to the height for 157.5 on height, minimum weight should be 49.5 Kg.

What do Marines call Army soldiers? ›

What do Marines call soldiers? Three such words are “gyrenes,” “jarheads,” and “grunts.” Their times of origin and usage differ somewhat, but each has the same role in the Marine Corps culture.

What military branch goes in first in a War? ›

The Marine Corps is often first on the ground in combat situations.

What does the military do when there is no War? ›

Peacekeeping, medical assistance, logistical support.

Why are more boys born during war? ›

In 2007, Satoshi Kanazawa published a paper theorizing that the effect was due to "the fact that taller soldiers are more likely to survive battle and that taller parents are more likely to have sons".

Why does the military recruit young people? ›

The military markets to teenagers, particularly those in poorer school districts, because the armed services need a large population, and the sooner young people join, the more likely they are to stay and build a career.

Can you be drafted at age 40? ›

Present - The U.S. currently operates under an all-volunteer armed forces policy. All male citizens between the ages of 18 and 26 are required to register for the draft and are liable for training and service until the age of 35.

Why is the US military struggling to recruit young Americans? ›

Part of the reason for this struggle now, according to lawmakers and defense officials, is low unemployment, a strong job market, and increasingly competitive benefits in the private sector. We checked in with area ROTC programs to see if they too are feeling new challenges to recruitment efforts.

Why are so many young people not able to join the military? ›

Here's Why. A new study from the Pentagon shows that 77% of young Americans would not qualify for military service without a waiver due to being overweight, using drugs or having mental and physical health problems.

How did young men avoid the draft? ›

Millions of young men tried to evade the draft: some fled to Canada; many feigned physical or mental illness, others used family connections to gain safe positions in the National Guard.

Who is the youngest soldier in the US army? ›

He gained fame for his bravery on the battlefield, becoming the youngest noncommissioned officer in the history of the United States Army.
John Clem
AllegianceUnited States
BranchUnion Army United States Army
Service years1863–1864; 1871–1915
RankMajor general
7 more rows

What is the youngest veteran? ›

September 27, 2022: Calvin Leon Graham. Navy Veteran Calvin Leon Graham became the youngest World War II soldier at the age of 12, and the youngest recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. During World War II, it was not unusual for American boys to lie about their age in order to enlist.

What are young soldiers called? ›

Junior soldier Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster.

What was the Union's biggest advantage? ›

The Union had many advantages over the Confederacy. The North had a larg- er population than the South. The Union also had an industrial economy, where- as the Confederacy had an economy based on agriculture. The Union had most of the natural resources, like coal, iron, and gold, and also a well-developed rail system.

What did most Union soldiers fight for? ›

The North was fighting for reunification, and the South for independence. But as the war progressed, the Civil War gradually turned into a social, economic and political revolution with unforeseen consequences. The Union war effort expanded to include not only reunification, but also the abolition of slavery.

Who was stronger Union or Confederate? ›

On paper, the Union outweighed the Confederacy in almost every way. Nearly 21 million people lived in 23 Northern states. The South claimed just 9 million people — including 3.5 million slaves — in 11 confederate states.

Why did the Union have more troops? ›

When the South seceeded, Lincoln was faced with the prospect of fighting an offensive war in order to force the Confederacy back into the Union. This meant that he had to recruit more troops than the South in order to have superior numbers for invasion.

How old was the average Civil War soldier? ›

What was the average soldier's age? The average Union soldier was 25.8 years old; there is no definite information on the average age of Confederate soldiers, but by the end of the war old men and young boys, who otherwise would have stayed home, were being pressed into service.

How many Union soldiers lost their lives? ›

For more than a century, the most-accepted estimate was about 620,000 dead. A specific figure of 618,222 is often cited, with 360,222 Union deaths and 258,000 Confederate deaths.

Which army has the most soldiers? ›

In 2022, China had the largest armed forces in the world by active duty military personnel, with about 2 million active soldiers. India, the United States, North Korea, and Russia rounded out the top five largest armies.

How much of the Union army was black? ›

By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy.

Why did so many men join the army in 1914? ›

After the outbreak of the First World War, men flocked to recruiting stations in Ireland. Their motivations were often the same as those who joined up in England, Scotland and Wales: a sense of duty, the belief that the war was a just cause, a desire for adventure, the bonds of friendship and economic reasons.

Why did so many men join the army in ww1? ›

Men felt proud at the prospect of fighting for their country and queued outside recruitment offices all over Britain to join the army. Posters and newspaper reports tried to encourage other men who could go to volunteer. The Government wanted as many men as possible to join the forces willingly.

What was it called when men over 18 had to join the army? ›

Full conscription of men

The National Service (Armed Forces) Act imposed conscription on all males aged between 18 and 41 who had to register for service.

Why do most men join the army? ›

Overwhelmingly though, when enlistees were asked why do people join the Army, they answered for pay and job opportunities. In other words, most people who are enlisting now are in it for the money and less because it is a call to serve.

Why did fewer men join the army by 1917? ›

It was mainly caused by disagreement on whether men should be conscripted to fight in the war, but also brought out many issues regarding relations between French Canadians and English Canadians. Almost all French Canadians opposed conscription; they felt that they had no particular loyalty to either Britain or France.

Who had more soldiers in ww1? ›

Nearly half of the troop strength for the Central Power came from Germany. Austria-Hungary and Germany together provided more than 80% of the troops.
World War I Troop Stats (Allied Powers)
Military KIA1,700,000
Military WIA4,950,000
Civilian Dead2,000,000
12 more columns
Jan 4, 2007

What was the minimum age to join the army in ww1? ›

In January 1916 the Military Service Act was passed. This imposed conscription on all single men aged between 18 and 41, but exempted the medically unfit, clergymen, teachers and certain classes of industrial worker.

What did Union soldiers fight for? ›

Union soldiers fought to preserve the Union; the common Confederate fought to defend his home. Later in the war, increasing numbers of Federal soldiers fought to abolish slavery, if for no other reason than to end the war quickly.

How tall was the average Civil War soldier? ›

The average height of a soldier in the Civil War was five feet, eight inches; when Thomas Marshal Jones enlisted, he was seven feet, six inches tall. He was born in Tuscarawas County on September 16, 1838.

What state lost the most soldiers in the Civil War? ›

Out of all of the states that sent men to fight in the Civil War, New York suffered the most fatalities, losing nearly 40,000 men. The states with the next highest losses in the Civil War are a toss-up between Ohio in the Union and Virginia and North Carolina in the Confederacy, each losing just over 30,000 men.


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