Although each child throughout the Civil War had a unique experience, there are certain sections in which the children can be grouped under. While some effects may be common throughout, the different categories of children experienced events particular to their group. Therefore, I have broken the types of children down into four categories: Boy soldiers, Northern children, Southern children, and African American children.
When Abraham Lincoln announced the legal age to enlist in the Civil War was sixteen, thousands of young boys across the country scrambled to become a part of the army. However, boys from the ages of nine to seventeen were present in the war efforts. Young boys, such as nine-year-old Johnny Clem and Charles Bardeen, served as drummer boys or fifers and rarely or never participated in battle (Bennett). For some young boys lying about their age in order to fight seemed like a better option. Fifteen-year-old Elisha Stockwell of Wisconsin was badgered by his father for signing up for the Union Army; his family claimed that he was nothing but a boy and battle was not an option. An outraged, determined Elisha then told his sister he was going into town, where he met up with an army captain. This captain helped Elisha lie about his age in order to get him into the military, where he would be a part of battle. In his diary, Elisha writes of this deceit towards his family by commenting about a conversation with his sister:
“I told her I had to go down town. She said “Hurry back, for dinner will soon be ready.” But I didn’t get back for two years.”
-Elisha Stockwell, Child Soldiers
Other boys did not have a fate of coming home such as Elisha’s. Seventeen-year-old Thomas Garland Jefferson of the Confederacy was killed in battle at the end of the war; Edwin Francis Jemison of the Confederacy was killed by a cannonball at the end of his enlistment (Bennett). Coming home did not necessarily mean that each boy was physically, or even mentally, sound. Although he was not killed, twelve-year-old William Black lost his left arm to a detrimental explosion (Bennett). Suffering no physical wounds, young Charles Bardeen did not necessarily come back home in one piece. The war had mentally harmed this young boy, as he says within his diary memoir:
“This is not a history of the war; it is a history of what the war did to poor little me…[and] what it did to other little me’s, thousands of them.”
-Bardeen, A Little Fifer’s War Diary
Children of the North
Regardless of location, race, or gender, children of the nation were deeply affected by the war. With fathers and brothers off fighting, more responsibilities were placed within children; this meant working long hours, caring for their siblings, and helping out more around the house. Watching close-knit families split over loyalties caused distress within the home and communities everywhere. Orphaned children losing their childhood to working because of war could be found anywhere. However, there were different hardships faced by the two different sides of the conflict. In the Northern regions, seldom battles were being fought; therefore, coming into direct contact with soldiers and skirmishes was not as common. Young Gerald Norcross, a boy living in Massachusetts, kept a diary during the entire length of the Civil War, writing about this time period as if it was another ordinary day of his previous-war life. While he does mention a quite “boring and ineffective” battle he witnessed at the Boston Commons, he generally is untouched by the war (Marten). Although to be this unaffected by the war was uncommon, this serves as an example to show that Union children generally had less experiences with bloody battles or sieges. This, however, does not mean that the children were not learning about or experiencing the war. Through letters from family involved in battles and lessons in the classroom, these children gained knowledge about the war tearing through their country. Rachel Young King Anderson of Minnesota set up a school for the neighborhood children and her son “too young” to be involved in the war efforts, hoping to teach them “something profitable” (A Civil War Diary). These schools created a huge wave of patriotism; however, this was not always a good thing. Conflicts within the Northern states would break out between strong followers of the Union and those who did not necessarily share the same views. Anderson writes in her diary about two men killed by very patriotic local boys and a family with a young daughter sent off because they were “rebels” (A Civil War Diary). This affected the function within the schools, as teachers and students alike become distraught over the conflicts at home.
Unlike the children of the North, Southern children faced much more detrimental effects. By living on the home front, these children witnessed more battles, therefore coming in contact with more soldiers. Carrie Berry, a ten-year-old girl living in Atlanta during the Union capture, kept a diary of her experiences during the war. She is constantly hearing battles within her city, seldomly going outside for the fear of getting hit by the flying shells. Soldiers ransacked houses, including her own home, and burned buildings throughout the city (War Through the Eyes of a Child: The Diary of Carrie Berry). This close contact with battle was not the only detriment faced within the South; with inflation skyrocketing, poverty became a huge issue. Within her diary, Berry writes about how the “times are too hard” to celebrate her birthday, as her father is out looking for work. She also mentions how her parents see themselves as very poor (War Through the Eyes of a Child: The Diary of Carrie Berry). The constant violence and poverty would not only be harmful to Southern children mentally, but physically as well. Surviving these terrifying conditions was the ultimate challenge for these young children.
African American Children
Being an African American child during a war commonly coined as “the war on slavery” provided a truly unique experience. Before and during the war, some adult slaves were known to murder their children in order to prevent them from living the painful life slavery had destined for them. Within his diary, Lewis Clarke, a former slave, writes about this issue:
There was a slave mother near where I lived, who took her child into the cellar and killed it. She did it to prevent being separated from her child. Another slave mother took her three children and threw them into a well, and then jumped in with them, and they were all drowned. Other instances I have frequently heard of. At the death of many and many a slave child, I have seen the two feelings struggling in the bosom of a mother — joy, that it was beyond the reach of the slave monsters, and the natural grief of a mother over her child.
-Lewis Clarke, Primary Sources: Civil War Effects
However, the death of a child was not always the choice made. Thomas James, a black minister sent to care for African American soldiers, wrote about orphaned children of slaves, or children with living slave parents, taken from their families and sold for a price or a chance at a better life. Having a father serve in the Union army, however, was the best chance for a better life for these children. This price gave the ultimate payment: freedom. All family members of African American soldiers gained freedom within society; therefore, camps became packed with those trying their hardest to gain that one basic American right. Although the camps were segregated, large schools and hospitals were constructed for the families of soldiers, providing an education and medical care (James, Primary Sources: Civil War Effects).
Were children affected?
Although location, race, and family life played a huge role in determining the effects faced, children all across America were affected by the American Civil War. Whether by becoming orphaned, poverty-stricken, a soldier, or free, children watched with wondrous eyes as the country they once new changed before them.
“A Civil War Diary.” RootsWeb. Sally Conrad, n.d. Web.
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Bardeen, Charles. A Little Fifer’s War Diary. Syracuse: C.W. Bardeen, Syracuse, NY, 1910. Web.
Bennett, Santi. “A War They Didn’t Understand.” Prezi. Prezi Inc., 22 May 2011. Web. 14 Feb 2014.
“Child Soldiers .” Digital History. N.p., n.d. Web.
14 Feb 2014.
Marten, James. Children in the Civil War. Diss. Marquette University, 2012. 2012. Web.
“Primary Sources: Civil War Effects.” KET. Kentucky Educational Television, n.d. Web. 14 Feb 2014.
“War Through the Eyes of a Child: The Diary of Carrie Berry.”The Civil War in Georgia. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb 2014.
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